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January 18, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers Will Rule The World

Late to this party. Seems to have the chattering classes in a tizzy.

Interesting stuff, I think, particularly to parents, for whom the question of Tough Love or Sympathetic Support is a tangible one, answered (ad hoc) on a daily basis.

There's no dilemma for Amy Chua. She swears by Tough Love, no ice, no water, no chaser.


Don't get me wrong: It's not that Chinese parents don't care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It's just an entirely different parenting model.


Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.

"You can't make me."

"Oh yes, I can."

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?

"You just don't believe in her," I accused.

"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."

"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."

"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.

"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."

...

Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.

David Brooks answers her by doing what he does best -- deliberately missing the point in a self-amused half-clever way, fixating on Chua's forbiddances of play-dates and sleepovers as if that's all she's talking about here, and in so doing, flattering his target audience of Yuppie parents and assuring them that they're doing everything right.

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups....

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.

So I’m not against the way Chua pushes her daughters. And I loved her book as a courageous and thought-provoking read. It’s also more supple than her critics let on. I just wish she wasn’t so soft and indulgent.

This is pretty much the same rote criticism people make of home-schoolers. Well, sure, they do well in spelling bees, the kneejerk response goes, but they aren't learning the most important stuff-- social interaction.

There is probably some truth that by focusing so much on A you unavoidably don't focus so much on B -- that is true of everything, from politics to car engineering -- but probably not as much as David Brooks claims believe. It sort of turns out that people who are good at a bunch of things are also pretty good at all things, really. Parts of the brain are not "used up" for A and therefore unavailable for B. What's learned about A is often sort of applicable to B, too.

But the bigger problem I have with David Brooks' answer is that he is clearly addressing one tiny segment of the population -- the well-off, well-connected urban rich. It is true that for this class (and this class only) social skills are of paramount importance; the real skill of this class (as it was with the artistocrats of Europe, whom they emulate) are networking and glib affability and ready affirmation of class mores, beliefs, and tastes. This is the higher managerial class, or, as it is frequently derided, the Ruling Class.

But what about all other classes? Is social dexterity really more important to a working-class kid than, say, a strong education in math or science or a vocational skill?

No, I'd say. Not to claim that social skills are unimportant (unless you work almost completely alone, and live completely alone, they're important), but actual substantive excellence in one's field is more important than such skills for 90% of the population.

Brooks' piece, while cutesy, is really just a way of informing his cohort of Bourgeois Bohemians (as he terms them) that they're doing everything just right and they needn't fret that maybe this Chinese upstart has something to tell them. That's what he's paid to do, and why the New York Times exists in the first place, after all -- to reassure and flatter and cocoon its Ruling Class readership.

And, I suppose, for that cohort only, his point is well-taken.

But what about the 90% of the population whose kids won't be going to an exclusive east-coast prep school?

Chua's tactics strike me as a little extreme but I'd guess that Western parents can usefully move quite a bit towards her way of thinking.

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posted by Ace at 12:03 PM

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