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03.20.11

The Tiger Mom's SAT Surprise

Amy Chua, known for her super-strict parenting and ban on sleepovers, comes out in favor of a new SAT question about reality TV—and not because she's a secret fan of Snooki.

Amy Chua, known for her super-strict parenting and ban on sleepovers, comes out in favor of a new SAT question about reality TV—and not because she's a secret fan of Snooki. Plus, the college board chief defends the SAT question and why TV may not be so bad for kids after all.

I don't watch reality-television shows, and in fact I rail against them constantly. I'm pretty sure there's a video out there of purple-faced me, sputtering to some interviewer: "So we're perfectly fine in America having our kids sit in a front of a TV for hours every night watching random people hooking up and passing out drunk, but two hours of violin practice—that's abusive?"

And yet how do I come out on the latest controversy involving the SAT question about reality television? Completely on the side of the SAT people. I have five Tiger Mom reasons.

1) Stop whining and take responsibility. It wasn't reality television, but I remember once my daughter Sophia came home from school complaining, "Mommy, it was so unfair! The teacher put a question about photosynthesis on the test when she promised us it wouldn't be on it." I replied, "Why did you only study what she said was going to be on the test? You should have studied everything." If we encourage our kids to blame the test-makers, we're not going to produce young adults prepared for life's challenges—not to mention citizens of good moral character.

2) Give the test-makers a break, and be a little grateful. I'll bet the kids doing the complaining are not too poor to have a TV but instead relatively privileged. (One of the students who "freaked out" wrote, "My tutor had told me to use Martin Luther King as an example no matter what the question.") Any SAT essay question—whether about music, sports, or politics—will favor students with certain interests. If anything, a question about reality television is more fair than a question about, say, postmodernism or classical music, which probably would have a class or race bias. The truth is that the whole structure of the SAT wildly favors the demographic from which the complaining students most likely hail: kids, like mine, whose parents want them to read books and drill vocabulary words instead of watching television. Privileged kids claiming disadvantage will not make an inspiring new generation of leaders.

3) Practice, practice, practice makes if not perfect, then at least good odds. When I first took the PSAT in the late 1970s, I'd never heard of the test, and my verbal score was so low that I was categorized as "non-college-bound." But I was lucky enough to have Tiger Parents, and I spent the next year looking up words and memorizing exact definitions. Any high school student who prepares diligently for the SAT would know that she could easily get an essay question on a topic she knows nothing about. There are hundreds of sample essay questions freely available. Anyone who actually sat down and practiced answering just 20 of them would have been prepared to structure a strong argument on just about anything. It's not as if students were asked, "What is The Situation's real name?" or "Whom did The Bachelor propose to?" (Yes, I got some coaching.) Rather, the essay prompt clearly explained what was meant by "reality television."

True Tiger Cubs are thirsty for knowledge of the world they live in. So even if their parents won't let them watch reality television, they should still know about its iconic place in popular culture.

4) You can do it—power through. Being able to scramble under pressure and think when caught off guard is part of what the SAT is testing for—and that's a good thing. One of my objections to over-coddling Helicopter Parenting is that it may not produce self-reliant, resourceful, and resilient young adults who have the inner confidence to overcome adversity on their own. At some point, today's teenagers will have to go out into the real world, and their parents won't be there to sugarcoat, write their essays for them, and bail them out.

5) I don't really have a fifth point, but I can't only have four, because four is an unlucky number for the Chinese. So let me just add that true Tiger Cubs aren't satisfied with rote learning. They are curious and thirsty for knowledge of the world they live in. So even if their parents won't let them watch reality television, they should still know about its iconic place in popular culture; it made the newspapers when President Obama (re)discovered Snooki. Plus Tiger Cubs know that they can't always listen to their overbearing mothers, who may be a little behind the times.

Amy Chua is the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale University and the bestselling author of World on Fire and Day of Empire . For more on her latest book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother , visit amychua.com.