Sunday, January 9, 2011

Secrets of a Chinese mother
Tom Smith

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.

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Tom Smith


Yes, there are easy answers, but if you don't know them, the Chinese turn at this method is better by far than nothing.

In the fifties that was the Jewish mother method, and what was funny was that the mother's didn't know squat, but they figured their kids damn well were going to.

Posted by: james wilson | Jan 9, 2011 9:04:43 PM

The prime example of bully a child to no good end was once William Sidis.(Wikipedia has some info; he's pre-civilization, i.e., before the 'net.)

Posted by: tehag | Jan 10, 2011 4:52:27 AM

Both Chua's "my child will be the next Mozart" approach and the "my child will be the next Einstein" approach suffer from the same basic flaw: failing to recognize that the vast majority of children are fated to have nothing remotely close to the world-changing success of a Mozart or an Einstein. A good parenting strategy is aimed at helping a child become a good, healthy, happy, productive member of the middle 80 percent of society, because there's an 80 percent chance that that's where he or she will end up. Those strategies are unlikely to be the same as the strategy that creates either a Mozart or an Einstein, both of whom followed paths that would likely have led to disaster for less talented children.

The same error is quite common with respect to adult life choices: many people energetically seek out and follow the examples of spectacularly successful people, without considering that spectacularly successful people are often, in effect, life's lottery winners--people who adopted extremely high-risk strategies that happened to have paid off for them, but failed for the vast majority of those who try them. Advice such as, "you can be anything you want to be", and "don't let anyone stop you from following your dream", obviously worked well for the tiny few who have made it to the top--after all, you don't get to the top without believing you can get there. But it has also led countless people to throw away their lives on fruitless quests for all-or-nothing success that they had virtually no hope of ever achieving.

As with adults, so with children: they should be raised with the tools to be happy and comfortable in the event that they end up somewhere in the middle, with a roughly average share of talent, opportunity and good fortune.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jan 10, 2011 6:49:18 AM

That's a very good point. I also am a dissenter from the "follow your dream no matter what" Disney school of life choices. "Don't sell yourself short" makes sense, but doesn't mean your whole life should be a bet on Red 22.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Jan 10, 2011 9:13:15 AM

As an American-Born Chinese, I believe that most American-born parents are focusing more on sports than academics. They spend all sorts of time pushing their kids to do well in sports but don't push their kids to do well in academia.

We need more engineers and scientists than sports figures, and your brain will still perform long after your body passes its prime.

I think the "full-on" Chinese method is a little too harsh, but as a parent, you need to push them to help them realize that hard work pays off.

My kids know I love them and respect them because of how hard I push them. They also know they can work hard enough to overcome a "lack of natural ability". Invention is only 2% inspiration. The other 98% is hard work.

Teach them to understand this and you won't have to worry about their success later in life.

Posted by: NotSelling KidsShort | Jan 10, 2011 1:09:45 PM

I agree, NSKS, and have long argued (most recently, on a comment thread at the Volokh Conspiracy) that if Americans simply treated academics the way they treat sports, their kids would do as wonderfully in school as they currently do on the football field.

And you're quite right, Tom--especially since 22 is black...

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jan 10, 2011 2:46:46 PM

Chua's always been something of a loose cannon. Read "World on Fire" if you don't believe me. The oddity is that anyone takes her seriously.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jan 10, 2011 3:42:14 PM

Well you can tell I don't spend much time in the casino I guess.

Why does Chua have a job at YLS if she's a loose cannon? Naive question possibly.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Jan 11, 2011 10:34:12 AM

"They also know they can work hard enough to overcome a "lack of natural ability"." No: everyone reaches his pons asinorum.

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