Monday, May 30, 2011

Don’t Believe the Hype (Amy Chua Revisited)

"Never, never disgrace me like that again."
-- Mr Chua to his daughter Amy, when she didn't win first prize in the eighth grade. 
Amy Chua's adopting this line with a vengeance, and then sharing her experience with the world, reminded me of Franklin’s observation that family honor should not descend from parent to child as among the nobility of Europe, but ascend as it does in China, where he success of the child is a credit to the parent. On this basis, Dr Chua sounds like a true narcissist. That still doesn't make her wrong.

Like many I hadn't read the book, only the reviews: lots about leaving kids out in the cold, calling them “garbage,” burning their stuffed animals. Chua insists that by pushing the kids she imbued them with the self-worth and confidence that led to their success. As a parent with two little girls, this book was required reading. [Thank you, reader #6, for lending your copy to Mrs Eliot.]

So what’s the bottom line? Chua has exactly the right idea, just a lousy sense of proportion. Her purpose is dead-on but her method is questionable, at least what she describes of it here.

Firstly and in response to the critics: in context, the threats and name-calling episodes were admissions of Chua’s mistakes; by the end of the book the author has begun to doubt herself. Surely the publisher cherrypicked the shockers for interviews and such. They say even bad publicity is good.

Interestingly, Chua's daughters respond to her relentlessness with strength and resilience, but Chua’s narrative doesn't bring this into the full relief it might have done. The dramatic pretension of the book revolves around her second daughter, Lulu. Bullied into violin virtuosity, she finally rebels and refuses to continue. At length, Chua relents. “I know you hate it,” she tells her daughter—but she is wrong. Lulu loves the violin; she hates the hectoring. This is not a “how-to” parent’s guide, it’s a cautionary tale. It's not about the girls, it's about Chua.

Yet we who have ambitions for our children are left with questions: how does one get a kid to want to be a virtuoso? Surely it depends on the kid. When, against her mother's wishes, Lulu begins tennis in earnest, she improves so rapidly that Chua’s tiger instincts are stirred: she begins judging, correcting, browbeating. How does an ambitious parent differentiate encouragement from pressure, and pressure from abuse? Lulu’s response was telling: “Don't ruin tennis for me like you ruined the violin!” Should we, in Chua's place, back down merely to avoid a conflict? In Lulu's case, probably yestiger grandmother said as muchif only because Lulu doesn't need us anymore.

Tiger pressure eventually becomes redundant. Lulu quickly improved her tennis quite on her own. Her sister Sophia’s writing is already more eloquent than their mother’s. Tiger kids begin to make choices and pursue them independently, confidently, successfully. Suppose these two choose to abandon the violin, piano, and tennis forever...what will they have left? Drive, tenacity, and self-reliance.

Not bad skills for a kid to have, I think.

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