Monday, January 24, 2011

Amy Chua vs David Brooks, hilarity ensues

As my due date gets closer, I find myself increasingly obsessed with parenting – What style will I use? What kind of balance of structure, discipline and exploration to implement? This has led me to Amy Chua and the controversy of her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". Excerpted in the WSJ, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. If you haven't heard, the book details her over-the-top "Chinese" parenting style: No wussy activities like sleep-overs and play dates, only math and musical prodigies are allowed. Epithets and marathon practice/cram sessions are the cure for any inferiority in placement or performance. Her opinion: pushing children to the extremes of their abilities and beyond gives them success, self-esteem, and confidence, and shows your faith in their abilities. (And guarantees kick-ass musical skills!)

Her other opinion? The one causing even more ruckus than the above parenting style? That Westerners are sorry bags of crap who don't have the wherewithal to push their kids. We are too lazy to put the work in, so our kids aren't as successful and awesome as products of "Chinese"* mothers. This has caused imprecations to be heaped on her head, apparently to her surprise. In articles like Retreat of the Tiger Mother and in her interviews, she thinks says everyone is missing the point: she learned from her experiment! And so what if one of the kids didn't go for it, Chua loosened up! Kind of. Eventually. After her kids were far more successful than the Joneses next door. She's being ironical about herself!

(*I use quotes 'cause she distinguishes between a "Chinese" parenting style vs. the simple ethnicity of being of Chinese descent, but not adhering to the rigid style she outlines.)

Then along comes David Brooks and his NYT article, Amy Chua is a Wimp where he says, "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." Further,

"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."

And he goes on to explicate from a MIT study why working in groups is necessary and thus the above skills are essential and Chua doesn't have the skills to see it. This assertion/counter assertions have been quite fun to watch. I've found both points-of-view to be enlightening and far more hilarious than either probably intended. On my first reading about some of Chua's actions (restraining one of daughter at the piano and forcing her to practice for hours while the child physically and verbally fought back) I thought to myself: "Sucker!" Please, she wants accolades for forcing her kids to do math and play instruments? Ha! My mother trained me up without doing any of that bs and not only did I go to Stanford, but the thought of attacking my mother never once crossed my mind as a child. The disrespect! My mind boggles at the concept of laying hands on her even now, and Mother Magoo is well into the I'm-old-and-will-do-crazy-shit phase of life.

The difference between Chua and Magoo is that my mom thoughtfully planned out how she wanted to raise me based on my personal strengths. She didn't follow some generic cultural ideal for childraising, but tailored her methods with precision and skill. She made her expectations clear, and I followed them in exchange for trust and freedoms that far outstripped those of my contemporaries. And she did all this without investing millions of hours or physically restraining me!

Chua reminds of my high-school friends who put more effort into cheating than I put into getting good grades. To me it always seemed simpler to just learn the material. Same for Chua -- why waste time forcing your kids to study when you could give them incentives to do it on their own?

As for the musical prodigy stuff, bah! I met tons of students at Stanford with incredible musical skills, bespeaking thousands of dollars invested and countless hours practicing. You know what they were doing with those skills? Nothing, nada, zippo. I met multiple musical child-prodigies that gave fuck-all about playing professionally, and were never going to pursue it further. They had been obedient to their parents' wishes and had moved on. I remember wondering if their parents thought the investment was worth it. I hope so because otherwise it was a big waste of work on both sides.

I agree with Brooks (never thought I'd type those words!) that overworking your kids is hardly the exclusive domain of Asian/foreign/immigrant mothers. Nope, forcing your kids to succeed is a distinctly bourgeois notion right here in America. And let's be real about the fear of China as a land of a billion prodigies Brooks mentions. They still have peasants! Those peasants ain't puttin' down cash for damn violin lessons when they work in friggin' factories. Hell, China has child labor issues. Kids who work to eat don't have the luxury of studying 18 hours a day.

I recently chatted with a woman who brought up that billion-math-geniuses foolishness. I looked her dead in the eye and told her heartbreaking truth: People who barely make a living wage -- and are underfed 'cause protein ain't that easy to come by -- aren't going to be busting out integral calculus on a damn abacus. Mostly, they are doing what poor people do the world over: trying to survive as best they can and maybe get to a better place. Oddly enough, the woman I was speaking to had a degree in math, she just couldn't work out the real world application of logic. It was obscured by stereotype and ideological nonsense. Good to see that isn't a trend…oh wait.


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  2. Ish, I applaud your perspective. Also the observations about "Mother Magoo." Having been there at the beginning, I know what she put into raising you to become the woman you are today. Actually, I can identify with I'm old and will do crazy shit label as well. I'm so glad to be able to follow this part of your journey. Bree


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