sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 14, 2011

Non-Sentimental Education

A cousin of mine has her kids in a local public school.  She tutors them every night, not because they are behind, but to keep up with the Asians.  Russian Jewish families generally look at Asian families with admiration, and there is certainly a lot of commonalities between the cultures.  Multiple generations often live under the same roof — check.  Kids play classical music and get into good schools — check.  Women are always put together well — check.  Al in all, a hard-working successful professional community, like ours.

That Asian parents are demanding is well known.  Last weekend mommy wars went ethnic when Amy Chua, an Asian American mother, published a Tiger Mother polemic in lieu of her forthcoming book.  I more or less agree with her general outlook on a parent’s role in her child’s education:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

[…]I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Growing up I had multiple conversations with my mom about finding fun in difficult things and blah-blah.  I intend on imparting the same wisdom into my children’s heads, and I don’t think it will be easy, at least not initially.  Since many Soviet teachers were on the sadistic side, I initially found the gentle American pedagogy a relief.  It didn’t take long, though, to realize that self-esteem movement is a dead end.

I realize that Chua’s own Tiger mother persona is to an average Chinese mom what Woody Allen is to a Jewish son: improbable.  Yet I have no doubt that the events she described happened.  The centerpiece of Chua’s article is her campaign to get her 7 year-old daughter to play a piano piece correctly.  Here is how she sets the scene:

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.

Chua’s husband is white, which makes her daughters part Caucasian.  So, little white donkey and its master, huh?  I know, I have an excessive amount of lit crit behind my back (and by “excessive” I mean “any”).  Still, I can’t help wondering if she imagined her daughter as that cute little donkey and herself as her master.  We mothers certainly wield a lot of power over our kids.  Chua seems to rejoice in it.  Did you know that Chua once ruined a family vacation?  And that she thinks of herself as “maybe a little dominant”, and would like to have a beer with Barak Obama?  Well, the way she throws around military metaphors, she’d better get ready to meet Sarah Palin.

Steely eyes, no?

Now that I got that observation out of the way, go ahead and read Chua’s description of the day-long donkey struggle during which meals were revoked, future celebrations canceled and bathroom breaks forbidden until her daughter polishes the piece.  For goodness’ sake, it’s like nobody had successful children before!  And what do we mean by success in this case?  Chua’s daughter Lulu no longer plays piano, she plays violin.  So, I suppose, the point of the whole exercise was to play some recital.  Still, Chua is quite proud of her achievement.

Chua does get spectacular results long term: Both of her daughters are musical proteges, and, I imagine, they do great in school.  Their education is not yet complete, but I have little doubt that they will turn out well.  Since both of her progenies are easy on the eye, and considering that Asian women are in high demand these days, Sophia and Lulu should have little problem finding suitable mates and having children, perhaps becoming Tiger mommies themselves.  Perhaps Chua has figured out the way to raise young women in the early 21st Century US of A.  But what if she had boys?

I live in a Bay Area neighborhood where new middle class families settle.  Some of them are Asian, many mixed Asian and white.  You know, of course, what I mean by mixed Asian and white: Asian women and their mild-mannered husbands.  An Asian man married to a white woman is an anomaly.  Considering that a boy’s relationship with his mother foreshadows his relationship with his wife, white women may find it challenging to fill Tiger mothers’ shoes.  Perhaps Western women are not interested in dating and marrying men who became successful on their parents’ orders.

Feminism or no feminism, the allure of a Western man is his independent spirit.  “Mama’s boy” and “trust fund baby” are terms of derision.  (Asian American men can not in all fairness be described as either one of those.)  In Western cultures children claim a lion’s share of credit for their success.  And so American parents feel compelled to step aside at some point, and let their children develop on their own.

Chua singles out the self-esteem movement as a reason for the failure of Western education.  Self-esteem is a fairly new educational philosophy. The education establishment only embraced it in the late 1970s, and large segments of American parents still don’t buy it.  Before self-esteem there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who preached “natural education”.  In his enormously influential Émile Rousseau painted a romantic portrait of a child naturally developing his inner goodness.

First edition of Emile, 1762.

I don’t particularly like Rousseau.  He is the original proponent of child-centered education, and his prescriptions are often ridiculous: No swaddling!  No books until age 12!  And yet a Western parent is a romantic at heart.  What I mean by “Western” is any parent who raises his child within the framework of  Western thought.  In Western tradition rout memorization in and of itself is seen as insufficient.  We want to raise explorers and inventors.  Our view of scientific discovery is Romantic in its essence.  I want my kids to be instructed by teachers who are demanding, yes, but also inspiring, and in that I’m indebted to Rousseau.

In Rousseau’s vein we want our children to develop character and moral sense, although our ideas of morality might differ from his.  Moral education includes socialization of children.  Of course, none of it should preclude  a parent from giving a good structure within which to explore.  We cringe at Chua’s description of her power struggles, even though she does seem to get results.  She tells us nothing about the essential goodness in her daughters, only “crucial [need] to override their preferences”.  It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about the sense of discovery, the independent mind and the autonomy of the pupil. 

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1 Comment »

  1. […] liked Amy Chua better as a polemicist.  Her Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother is an easy read, but not very rewarding.  Miss Chua, who says […]

    Pingback by Somebody Please Explain Chinese Motherhood to Me « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — January 17, 2011 @ 10:36 pm


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