Why the ‘Tiger Mom’ claims Mormons are more successful

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Due in stores on February 4.

(Penguin Press)

Due in stores on February 4.

Due in stores on February 4.

Due in stores on February 4.

The backlash is already beginning, and the book isn’t even out yet.

The Triple Package, the latest incendiary bomb from Tiger Mother Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, doesn’t arrive in bookstores until February 4. But that hasn’t stopped the media from forming opinions about it—mostly negative ones.

Two weeks ago, the Huffington Post sparked an explosive discussion about the book, with the interviewer calling it—sight unseen—“a little crazy.” And yesterday, columnist Kelly Yang of the South China Morning Post said the book was “disturbing” and “frightening.”

However, I found it to be an engaging, if controversial, discussion of the tendency of eight religious and ethnic groups (Jews and Mormons; and immigrants from Cuba, Lebanon, Iran, Nigeria, China, and India) to be more socioeconomically successful than other groups in America. The authors say that this super-sized success is due to three factors, all of which must be present in a delicate tension:

1)   A superiority complex.

While it flies in the face of contemporary rhetoric about equality, Chua and Rubenfeld argue—right or wrong—that groups that succeed best in America are those that feel special, set apart, and chosen for greatness.

2)   A corresponding insecurity.

Counterintuitively, successful groups are also insecure, with individual members of those groups feeling a keen need to prove themselves. That insecurity may be because the group as a whole is devalued in American society, or it may arise from an individual feeling inadequate within the group (110). Often, both forms of insecurity are at work.

3)   Impulse control.

In the book’s least surprising argument, the authors contend that successful groups are ones that routinely emphasize hard work, thrift, and delayed gratification. What successful people have is grit, not high IQ or exceptional self-esteem.

In The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld have identified three animating factors behind the well-publicized success of Mormons in business, and if anything they don’t press their points hard enough.

For example, the chapter on insecurity has almost nothing to say about anti-Mormon prejudice and how it might spur Mormons to prove themselves. Whereas Jews have a long history of violent persecution so well-known it hardly needs to be recounted, and more recent immigrant groups such as Cubans have encountered vicious prejudice in the United States (one Cuban exile arrived in Miami to find a sign that said “no Cubans or dogs”), Mormons, by contrast, get one four-word sentence about their own insecurity: “Mormons were long persecuted.”

That’s it. Later in the book the authors do mention in passing a bit of the prejudice that some Mormons have experienced, but this coverage is superficial and incomplete.

On the authors’ first and second points, I agree that Mormons match the authors’ description of a careful balance between feeling superior (“this is the one true church,” “only LDS temple marriages can be eternal,” etc.) and mistreated (“your holy underwear is weird”).

What’s more, we have the third qualification—impulse control—in spades.

Again, the authors could have developed this more fully. They refer admiringly to the LDS practices of asking teenagers to get up before dawn to attend early-morning seminary and sending college-age Mormons on long, unpaid missions where they are facing rejection and working fourteen-hour days (134-135).

But they don’t discuss the fact that LDS impulse control starts in early childhood. The moment Mormon kids receive a three-slotted “tithing bank” or begin their first fast, they learn that gratification of impulses can wait . . . and that the reward will be all the sweeter later.

Overall, the authors do a good job of demonstrating statistically that Mormons are more socioeconomically successful (with the exception of overall household income, which they attribute to the likelihood in Mormon families that one parent will not be working full-time). They also offer intriguing, if underdeveloped, reasons why Mormons succeed.

But before Mormons start patting ourselves on the back, we should read the important chapter on the shadow side of the Triple Package, both for society (terrible atrocities have been perpetrated throughout history in the name of one group’s self-perceived superiority) and for individuals (Asian American teens have significantly higher rates of depression due to high pressure and low feelings of self-worth).

What’s more, Triple Package success is too narrowly defined as material success—who has the most power, the most Ivy League degrees, or the $2 billion City Creek shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City.

  • Larry

    The unstated #4.

    Clannish exclusionary activities of the given group:
    Creating exclusive networks of people in your own group for creating business and education opportunities not available to the general public. “Old Boys Networks” based on the given group which pool resources within a community. Many times this activity is based on getting around existing prejudices of the majority.

    Chinese, Jews, Mormons… all have group infrastructures set up to support their fellows that only exist with distinct coherent communities.

  • Jana,
    regarding the gap closing between Cubans and other Latins: Chua has acknowledged that the advantages dissipate after the third generation. So that is to be expected.

  • Dean Bender


    Your blog is a well written analysis. Nice work.
    Jews have been able to maintain their advantage for two plus millennium because of near continuous persecutions. One wise person pointed out that the U.S. has done more to cause marriage outside the Jewish faith (i.e. integration into general society) than any other country because so many Americans do not care if you are Jewish. Thus when you are not persecuted you don’t have to “huddle” and keep to your own society so much.
    The LDS have the wonderful distinction that for men, the more education they have, all the way through doctoral degrees, the greater the religious activity. The opposite is true for Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. For sisters, it is true through a bachelor’s degree and then begins to reverse with advanced degrees. This fact highlights another layer of ignorance in the Provost you mentioned.
    Did I hear a Prophet say, “You must get all the education that you possible can…”? (President Gordon B. Hinckley, New Era, September 2007)

  • Dorothy

    This is great, thanks for the summary. It’s pretty motivating, actually.

    I have heard a bit about what was said about Blacks, and if that was accurate it is really disturbing. Basically blacks can’t get ahead because they don’t have a superiority complex? So it’s Martin Luther King and not racism? Is that accurate?

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  • Dorothy, what I’ve heard the media saying about racism as a component of this book did not bear out in my actual reading of the book, so listen with a grain of salt. The authors work very hard to explore the multifaceted question of race in America, and while they do say that the United States did just about everything it could over several centuries to “grind out” the Triple Package in the African American community, they also explore how individuals often rise above that.

    Also, they point out that the majority of white Americans today also don’t have the “triple package” or the drive to prove themselves in quite the same way as these tight-knit minority groups. I found that interesting.

  • In an effort to shorten the original post I cut the part of it that you are referring to, so let me re-post it here in the comments. Thanks for the note about the third generation issue. — JKR

    “There are very legitimate reasons for challenging the conclusions of The Triple Package, but those challenges need to arise from counter-weighing evidence, not knee-jerk accusations that the book is racist. This week, for example, NPR is running a fascinating series on Latinos/Hispanics in America, and at least two of those stories have called into question some assumptions that the authors make here. First, Chua and Rubenfeld’s claim that Cuban Americans’ feelings of superiority are expressed in a desire not to be lumped in with Latinos of other nationalities turns out not to be a unique trait at all. According to these polls, no one wants to be Latino first, and Puerto Rican or Salvadoran or Mexican second. Moreover, the gap between Cuban Americans’ economic success and the income and household worth of other Latino groups appears to be narrowing.”

  • Mark Edwards

    I’d like to hear more discussion on the underlying assumption of the authors of how “success” is defined and judged. For me, the beauty of America is that you can be who you really are and still earn enough to be “comfortable,” which may not be the level of success the authors aspire to.

  • I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily aspiring to the type of success they describe; in fact they can be pretty critical of its limitations. One of those limitations is an inability to see that other kinds of success (like becoming a kindergarten teacher or an artist) are not only possible but desirable. When I read that section I was thinking of a young Mormon guy I knew who wanted very much to be a social worker but was steered toward a career that would be more lucrative. Sad.

  • Julie

    You also have to take into account the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants Cubans automatic citizenship, immediate access to SSI, federal aid, SBA loans and government contracts.

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  • Noel

    Interesting. I knew a chinese guy who was a social worker. I asked him what his parents thought. They were not that happy. They like their children to make money. Perhaps the face that many chinese come from countries that have no pension system so the more educated their children are the better they would be able to support them in old age.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The unseemly and unjustified attacks on the LDS Church for investing large amounts of money to keep the economy of Utah workable and the area around temple square viable just make no sense.

    The LDS Church does many, many things that help the poor. It organizes lots of outreach to the poor. It sends missionaries into areas where even the police fear to tread.

    The complex issues involved in maintaining a viable center of the city are many. If it had been any other organization doing the mall Reiss and her fellow yuppies would praise such embrace of urban renewal to no end. However, since it is the Mormon Church that seeks to stem the rise of suburbs and the flight from the central city, they feel a need to attack and mock.

    Beyond this, Reiss fails to recognize the LDS Church does lots and lots of things to develop networks of connection of its members.

    Lastly, to use the fact that atrocities have been committed to attack the very groups who have suffered atrocities is a very unseemly and unwise attack.

    If there is one major issue with this work, it is actually that Chua and Rubernfeld are comparing unlike things. Mormonsism is fluid in a way none of these other groups are. There are large numbers of converts to Mormonsism. The Nigerian immigrants are a set group, which might get more come in, but there is no way I could become a Nigerian immigrant. Judaism while not closed, thinks of itself as closed much more than Mormonsim does.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The lower rates for sisters are a result of a lot of factors. I would say part of it though is because too many have embraced the false, man-made teachings of feminism over the actual teachings of the gospel.

  • John Pack Lambert

    That may have been your experience, but my experience has been that many career paths are valued. Having grown up surrounded by Indian immigrants, I can say I never knew Latter-day Saints to have such narrow expectations of their children.

    My parents were always open to us seeking whatever career we wanted. I have known counselors in stake presidencies who were assembly line workers.

    The only place I have ever seen true devaluation of things outside math and science was in my middle school, where I was the only Mormon student.

  • Noel