Sunday, January 9, 2011
This piece, by Chinese-American Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, is kicking up quite a controversy over at the WSJ. It has well over 1,000 comments, more than I have ever seen. I'm not sure what I think. I found the description of heavy handed bullying of a seven year old child pretty revolting. I don't doubt that it works if the goal is to make a seven year old learn a piano piece that is beyond the abilities of all but a few seven year olds. I just finished a book by a man whose entire childhood was an extended bullying episode -- Andre Agsasi's pretty remarkable auto-biography Open. In that case, his father, a failed Olympic level boxer from Iran, ruthlessly trained his son to be the best tennis player in the world. Son Andre achieved that goal, but at a very substantial psychological cost. He's a millionaire many times over now and married to the beautiful Steffi Graf, but he has still lived a life few people would choose from behind the veil of ignorance, as it were. He has spent most of his life playing a sport he hates and if you read the book, you can see why. Another prodigy who had a dreadful, performing monkey sort of childhood was none other than the divine Mozart. I had to stop reading this highly regarded biography because it was just too depressing. Great music though.
On the other hand, I think a lot of contemporary American parents are overly indulgent and don't get that a lot of parenting is an exercise in coercion. A great deal of the talk about self-esteem is completely misguided, but I wonder how many teachers and parents even think that much about self-esteem any more; it is something I see mostly in children's television programming rather than in any school our kids have attended, but then we send them to Catholic schools.
Sadly I don't think there are any easy answers. There is something profoundly wrong about using a child for the glorification of something, be it the family honor or one's own ego. Nor do I think it's any accident that the Albert Einstein's and Niels Bohrs's of the world were not little molded success robots as children. Bullying a child into playing Mozart or mastering difficult mathematics is not the same thing as inspiring genuine curiosity about the natural world or a love of the beauty to be found in music. Someone has to create the intellectual property that others may so diligently master and that requires a creativity that would not seem to come from programming your child to be number one no matter what. The Western model of parenting, even when it is misguided, is trying to foster the genius of individuality, in the hope that one's own daemon, as Socrates called it, will inspire one to greater heights from above than all the harpies can, hectoring from below. On the other hand, nobody accomplished anything without hard work and parents need to make sure children understand that.