A few weeks ago, I mentioned Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about raising her children the way she was raised — with no time “wasted” on play dates or school plays:
Arming them with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence all sounds good, but socially crippling them by never allowing them to have a play date does not seem the least bit productive. There are seriously diminishing returns to two or three more hours of piano practice per week.
Her scorn for drama takes on a sinister cast when we find out that her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, studied theater in the Drama Division of the Juilliard School from 1980 through 1982.
Her recent Wall Street Journal piece, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, has clearly succeeded in stirring up controversy. Some parts seem reasonable:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something — whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet — he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
Some parts seem… less reasonable — like “motivating” your children by calling them stupid, worthless, a disgrace, or garbage.
Shannon Love points out that Chua’s children’s activities are notably lacking in team activities:
The secret of American’s collective success as a people is our ability to self-organize ourselves on both the small and large scale into highly effective teams The relative inability to self-organize into teams is why China and some other cultures have lagged behind in the modern world. Americans have long relied on activities like sports, theater, marching band etc to teach that one critical American cultural skill. By excluding such activities from her children’s life, Chua is depriving them of one of the most crucial skills an American must have.
Dennis Mangan makes a smaller point — followed by a bigger one:
Even as an aficionado of classical music, I found Chua’s focus on music lessons in violin and piano absurd. The object lesson from this article is supposedly the Chinese mother’s relentless efforts to make her children excel and be successful in the world; yet the fraction of classical instrumentalists (or vocalists, for that matter) who have spent their entire lives studying and practicing, and then successfully enter the real world of classical music, is tiny. I once read somewhere that American conservatories graduate over 300 pianists a year, and I would guess that the fraction of them who go on to careers in classical music, other than giving lessons to the next generation who in turn won’t enter the field, must be very low. Chua is setting her kids up for failure; and if it’s argued that music lessons are a good in themselves, which they may be, why does Chua treat them like a matter of life or death, making her kids and herself miserable over them?
Chua’s treatment of her kids is an exercise in narcissism, focusing on them all her own ambitions and insisting that they turn out exactly like herself. In some instances, she treats them practically like her slaves. I’m all for parental discipline and a decent, even difficult education for children, but this is too much. She never lets the kids go on “play dates”; does she ever even let them outside to play?
I’m also wondering when the Wall Street Journal will be publishing the rebuttal, “Why White Mothers Are Superior”. Right. Only the celebration of the other is permitted.
I personally am unwilling to teach obedience as a character trait, even if it buys the habit of persistence that will buy, more than anything else, success throughout life. I think persistence is an important trait, perhaps the most important trait, but obedience is a mortal sin.
I have to agree with Buckethead (Perfidy) that Aretae goes too far there:
Aretae, are you saying that as an adult, you never obey anyone? Do you go through some sort of analysis to determine whether or not any instruction you receive is acceptable before following it?
The ability to follow instructions is as important as the ability to give them.
For my kids, I must have obedience. But my kids range from seven to negative one week. The boy is the oldest — and he’s started questioning my instructions. Which is all good. I’ve told him that he can ask why I told him to do anything — after he’s done it. I’ve explained, and he understands, that I am managing a five (soon six) person household and things need to be done, and he has a role in the house. He can question any decision, afterwards, when I have time to discuss it with him. But in the meantime, just do it.
He has a seven year old’s perspective and breadth of knowledge. He’s bright, but he’s still seven. Still, he’s several times offered constructive suggestions on how things might be done better, which I’ve usually adopted, unless there was a larger reason not to. And he sees that.
Actually, the boy just came by my desk and I asked him what he thought. Interesting — I asked him why he obeys. His first answer was in “Because if I don’t, I get in trouble.” Fair enough. I probed deeper. I asked him why else he obeys. He said, “because you’re usually right.” That’s good. I asked him what happens if I’m wrong, and he points it out. He said, “you say, ‘thank you.’”
I asked him if I explain why I tell him to do things. He said yes, I do, but sometimes the explanations don’t make sense. But when they do make sense, he says they’re good explanations. I asked him if my good explanations for things are a reason for him to listen to me, and he said yes, and that’s why mostly he obeys. Except, he added, “Sometimes, I just feel crazy and I can’t listen.”
A seven year old needs to obey first, question later. But the questions are important. And that habit, I think, will be the needed counterpoint to blind obedience, which I do think is bad. And maybe we can get the persistence without breaking him.
I recently picked up a cheap used copy of James Marcus Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. I forgot who recommended it, but after I finished it — and before Amy Chua’s article and its various rebuttals came out — I decided the book read like a caricature of Aretae’s position — that obedience is a sin. Now I’m not so sure.
In his book, James Bach — son of Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull — explains how he hated school, did none of the homework assignments, intentionally failed the tests, and then — despite his (well hidden) mastery of the material — failed his classes. Oh, the injustice!
He happened to come of age during the rise of the personal computer. So, by pursuing his passion — and aptitude — for technology, he managed, with no diploma, to find a lucrative place for himself.
When invited to talk to kids on the verge of dropping out of high school, he told them that of course they should drop out, and — shock! — he was told that he wouldn’t be invited back to give that talk again.
I suppose I’ve drifted off into a bit of a rant, but I’d advise savants not to generalize from their own peculiar life experiences. Most people won’t succeed beyond their wildest dreams by following their own internal compass; they’ll play lots of video games and go out drinking with friends.