Sunday, January 09, 2011

"They said they were sending over an Asian woman"

Amy Chua's article about "Chinese" parenting - aka immigrant parenting, aka Jewish parenting, aka none of that wishy-washy multiple-intelligences, I-just-want-you-to-be-happy nonsense - is the buzz of the day. (Miss Self-Important, among others, beat me to it. But I had to go out for a sugar brioche before finishing this post. I'm a fourth-generation American, I have my priorities.) 

Mostly, the novelty of the piece is that we're accustomed to this cliché being torn apart - as MSI notes, we can anticipate a not-all-Chinese-are-the-same reaction. And here's a real Asian-American perpetuating the stereotype! To Chua's credit, she explains that by "Chinese" she means a certain parenting style by no means exclusive to Chinese or even Asian parents.

But even if we accept that there are different parenting styles in different cultures, there are a few confusing elements in the piece. One is that Chua speaks as though she raised her children the Chinese way, yet mentions a "Western" husband. Is part of Chinese parenting treating the non-Chinese parent like a child, thus ignoring his wishes in terms of how to raise the kids? Another, which Isabel Archer points out, is that "Chinese parents," according to Chua, do not permit their children to act in school plays. Why would this, of all endeavors, be deemed a waste of time? Jewish parents - or, really, "Jewish parents," - classically tell their kids not to be on sports teams. While this is counterproductive in a world of "holistic" college admissions, it's at least consistent with the notion of academic success before all else, whereas further exposure to literature and memorization couldn't hurt. I suspect, however, that the theater thing is particular to the author. Finally, there's this: "Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty—lose some weight.'" One might react to this in the Jezebel manner, in horror, but Chua's point is that Chinese parents don't care about self-esteem. Fair enough, but it's legitimate to ask why it matters if the A student - male or female - is overweight. The girl's not allowed to date anyway, and is not on her way to becoming an actress. Is it that heft is a sign of Westernness, of assimilation, of having cut class to go to McDonalds?  

My authoritah here comes from a) my own upbringing, which had elements of "Western" and "Chinese" traditions, and b) my having gone to a high school - the high school - where the successful children of "Chinese parents" end up. On the one hand, the fact that there were (and are, but I was class of 2001 and speak anecdotally) so many Asian and Asian-American students at Stuyvesant in the first place meant the parents were doing something right. On the other, at a school so heavily Asian and Jewish, the B-and-below students were Asian and Jewish. The potheads, or the kids whose smoking may not have extended beyond tobacco but who at any rate cut class to hang around outside: also the offspring of "Chinese parents." The slackers, as well as the just mediocre, were the product of families that would, if Chua is to be believed, accept nothing less than an A. It could be that even the "worst" of these kids ended up better off than the average NYC students. But the article left the impression that your child, too, can be permanently obedient, permanently valedictorian. As MSI puts it, "The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?"

Point being, the "Chinese" method makes for a lot of good little 10-year-olds, but guarantees little once mainstream culture becomes readily accessible. Where Portnoy went nuts with the "shiksas," consider a "Chinese-parented" classmate of mine who apparently arrived at math camp only to discover that the dorm had a TV and to park herself in front of that long-forbidden fruit. This is, in other words, a parenting style that only works in a very particular situation. If everyone's "Chinese," someone has to be the B- student. Meanwhile, even if the obedient behavior sticks and the kid gets into a good college, a given family can only stay "Chinese" for so many generations. 

Meanwhile, in the towns and villages of America and beyond, just as some kids randomly turn out to be gay, others randomly turn out to be incredible students. Not children of neglect, but not children raised to excel at all costs, whose success isn't tied to obedience. In cities and suburbs, well-connected parents manage to pass their careers down to the next generation, keeping out the "Chinese." Parents can only do so much. 

This isn't to say they shouldn't try, and I do think that in America, too much emphasis is placed on the 'A' as the result of innate intelligence and thus not worth working for. Chua has a point here: "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." Some children do want to work - remember Saffy and Edina? - but this strikes me as true as a rule.

My question, then, is about what results Chua promises, and to what end. Non-bratty children? That much seems doable. Children capable of supporting themselves as adults? B-students, too, manage just fine. Superstar geniuses? Unlikely. But is the point social mobility? Probably not, because unless they're actually struggling immigrants (less likely to read articles like this one), or single mothers prior to women entering the professions (not likely to exist in the US in 2011), the parents who'd parent in this way would have already reached professional heights themselves. So is it just about not letting one's own children regress to the mean? If so, I see how there'd be an audience, but it hardly seems a cause we as a society should support - why not let the mediocre children of the high-achieving fall behind and leave spots for the high-achieving children of the mediocre? The only way it kind of makes sense is from an international-competition angle. American parents, man up! Because "Western" is really "American" - Western Europeans are not, to my knowledge, exposed to the culture of holistic self-esteem.


Britta said...

As someone who studies Chinese parenting, this article made me roll my eyes (I'm sure that was mostly her point--write something inflammatory and then get tons of comments). First of all, to the extent she is describing any sort of larger cultural parenting style at all, she is describing Chinese-AMERICAN parenting (which is really all she knows, given that she and her children were both raised in America).

Elite parents in China are actually raising their children much more like elite Americans--tennis, golf, music lessons, summer camps, self-esteem etc. It's not all cramming and beatings. The Chinese middle classes--those who want their children to be successful but know that the odds of their child getting a prestigious job are extremely minimal unless their child, is, say, the highest scorer in their province and can get into Peking University--are much more likely to push their children to try and excel in a narrower academic sort of way, but this is widely acknowledged in China to be a problem--the competition and the pressure to be at the top engendered by living in an overpopulated developing country are well known to be psychologically, mentally, and even physically harmful to children and their parents.

The whole "fat" thing one of the few things that does seem really Chinese about her parenting. It is true that Chinese people are a lot more blunt about commenting on someone's appearance in general. If you are too fat, or tired, or tan, or freckled, or whatever, people will definitely point it out to you. Also, in China, the pressure for young women to be thin is about 40 million times greater than it is in the US, and basically anything above what in the US almost-emaciated is considered "too fat."

Personally, these types of articles (and basically the whole upper middle class competitive parenting wars in general) really irritate me, because they imply there is only one way to produce a successful, intelligent kid, which is invariably the parenting style of the person writing the article. Maybe if they weren't dripping with smugness and "my child will go to Harvard and yours will be lucky to work at McDonald's" and acknowledged that more than one road leads to Harvard (or much more importantly, a successful life), they would be more interesting.

I think your final point is also a good one--to what end are children being raised? What does a "successful" child look like? Is it one who earns a lot of money? Has a "prestigious" career? Is happy and self-sufficient? If the first two are more important than the third, then what ultimately is the point of having children, except to further your own glory? Another thing, if, horror of all horror, your child wants to go to a state school and become an elementary school teacher, what about that is the end of the world? Is it worry that your child will end up in a cardboard box, or worry that your child will end up buying a house in a more downscale zip code and drive a Toyota, not a BMW?

Chua seems to be missing is that in China, what parents want for their children is happiness (and grandchildren), and that is the whole reason to push kids hard to succeed. In China, being a good student might be the difference between being a subsistence farmer earning $500 a year and dying of cancer at age 50 and being able to get a white collar job in a city. In a developing country, there are material benefits to success that are more directly correlated with happiness--comfortable living conditions, having enough nutritious food, not having to constantly worry about money, that Chinese parents want their children to have. Harvard is a goal for many Chinese parents because they see it as a fast track to happiness, not so that they have something to brag about at the next cocktail party they are attending.

Britta said...

Oh, yeah, the theater thing is weird. I have no idea why she hates on theater out of all the possible extra curriculars.

Miss Self-Important said...

Forget Stuyvesant; imagine the number of Chinese mediocrities in China! But I suspect that Chua has completely calculated her deranged tone for her audience. She was brought up here and is an academic--she knows what will delight yuppies like us.

As the question of ends, you're right that it's a problem in her argument, but I think it might matter less than it seems. Everyone knows the goal of raising children is happiness (for them and you, I guess), no one knows for certain how to get there, and the last stages of it rarely get to be defined by parents themselves. I imagine most parents have some idea of what their children should become to be happy--lawyers, actors, mothers, whatever--but if their children are successful in some other reputable way, they still pat themselves on the back for a parenting job well done.

I was more struck by the point about process that you also quoted--that nothing is fun until you're good at it, and getting good at things is always tedious. This is a useful antidote to the popular view in education that learning has to be fun or children will never do it, and that any knowledge based on memorization is an obstacle to education. The people overhauling the AP exams to make studying high school biology or history more like being a scientist or an historian assume that you can just jump into doing things at the highest level without any foundational knowledge or practice because the highest level is where the fun is at. But what kind of "historical investigation" are high school juniors going to undertake without knowing--through memorization--any history first? They can read the Gettysburg Address and inform us that whoever wrote it appears to be arguing about justice in a way that relies on some kind of religion and something that his fathers did a number of years ago. Learning an instrument, whatever its other purposes, makes the absurdity of this leap clear--there is no way to eliminate the tedium of practice and just jump right into being Itzhak Perlman. Music is of course not the only way to get to this point; it's true of cultural pursuits generally.

I think if Chua's system does nothing more than demonstrate this point for children, it's still pretty successful. I'd bet that neither of her daughters will become professional musicians, and she probably won't be that disappointed when that happens.

Also, on the question of why no school plays, I want to know, why no sleepovers?

Britta said...

On the sleepover thing, I have a Chinese-American friend who wasn't allowed to go on sleepovers either, though it seemed more in her case her parents who were recent immigrants were just very over protective and couldn't comprehend what a sleepover was. Since Amy Chua is her self an American, I'm not sure why her daughters aren't, except on the "life shouldn't be fun" angle, or "I wasn't allowed to so you can't either."

I agree that it's a good point that getting good at something requires work, and often that work is tedious. I also agree that US we lean too far on the side of focussing on "critical thinking" and instant gratification, and there is something for being honestly critical of your children, and not giving everyone a medal for participation, or an A for effort, or a "my child is a genius, he just doesn't have any outward signs of it." But, I do think you can go too far on the rote memorization thing. (I have no idea what AP exams are like, so you may be right that they are being dumbed down).
There is also the problem that if you drain all the fun or joy out of learning, you instill a dislike for that thing. In that case, it's not useful to make your children very good at something if they end up hating it. I know some Asian-American children who will not go near a piano, say, because of all the painful and unpleasant memories it brings up, or out of spite for being forced to do something they hated.

I think a bigger problem though, is that of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. I know the idea is that by forcing children to work hard, you train them to be hard workers. I think there is truth to that, but there is also a risk that if children have their entire life motivated towards extrinsic rewards/punishments, once those punishments/rewards disappear, the reason to work hard does too. If it's a choice between "play the piano or you can't eat" vs. "if you want to be able to play the music you love, you will have to get a lot better at playing the piano," to me the second seems like in the long run a much more powerful way of motivating a child.
Maybe the end result is the same--hard working adults who have a sense of accomplishment, so maybe it's more that I disagree that Chua's way is the best or only way to do that.

Phoebe said...


I don't think China itself enters into it. Or, Chua may think it does, but it doesn't. What's being celebrated here - Asians or, earlier, Jews, as a model minority - is inherently ephemeral. If everyone's Chinese, Chinese parents can't all be raising children who are special on account of being Chinese. Once the first assimilated generation grows up, story's over. This is about a brief moment in this history of certain minority groups, and there's no reason to think it could be sustainable. Bits of it could be preserved, such as the notion that an A comes from hard work and not just IQ. But the jarring disparity between strivers and their offspring on the one hand and everyone else cannot be maintained.


I don't mention Stuyvesant to keep the conversation yuppie-centric, but because, as I mention in my response to Britta above, I don't think China itself is relevant here. It's about what happens to X minority when contrasted with mainstream America. When a Chinese-American 13-year-old is being compared with his black or white middle-class equivalent. I'd been fed the same stereotypes as everyone else, and so was surprised to see the same teenage debauchery coming from all-Asian cliques as you'd get at any high school.

I'm not quite following why you don't think the ends are important. If everyone wants happy children, why are white meritocratic successes upset by their children's mediocrity, assuming their children are supporting themselves, starting families, etc., but just not with Ivy credentials?

As for memorization... this is a tough one, because personally, I hated history class in elementary/middle school, when it was all about memorizing dates, which is how it took me so long to return to the topic later on. Meanwhile I really liked the grad school class I took that was most of this nature. Which is why I think a mix of the two would be ideal, some 'why this matters' so the facts don't seem arbitrarily thrown at students, then a whole lot to memorize. With languages, sciences, etc., things as simple as a French teacher in a beret, or a science teacher with Einstein hair, could probably liven things up, but there, too, a mix of a greater-significance intro and lists to memorize would strike me as ideal.

As for sleepovers? Maybe because it means a night away from home, seeing how other kids live? That they're not chained to the violin? I don't see how sleepovers further academic success, except insofar as having friends makes school not miserable, whereas theater is basically an English class and a rhetoric class combined.

Matt said...

Minor points: "I do think that in America, too much emphasis is placed on the 'A' as the result of innate intelligence and thus not worth working for." I was surprised to learn that not all people view intelligence as distinct from effort, but some see it as primarily a matter of effort. Such people turn out to be far more resilient to failure, as it indicates a failure of effort rather than a failure of an innate and immutable quality. But that means it's not true that, "nothing is fun until you're good at it." Plenty of people actually do enjoy, perhaps in a complex? way, working to become good at things. Of course, perhaps they don't think they're bad at it so long as they're trying really hard.

Phoebe said...


There's fun in all kinds of activities, not just having mastered the violin or whatever. I think the statement holds true in the way MSI was getting at - that you can't enjoy certain types of activities until you've gotten good at them. I mean, take languages. I've certainly had fun in intro classes, but the fun of knowing a language - which is really the point, not dancing to music or watching the teacher clown around, as we language teachers do - must follow a whole lot of studying with index cards. There are the occasional students who find it fun to write out the vocab lists and conjugations just for the sake of doing so, but these students are either interested in linguistics or enjoying a less "complex" pleasure, akin to the joy of having finally folded all the laundry, of having finished a task.

Matt said...

Some people can't enjoy certain types of activities until they've gotten good at them. But "the fun of knowing a language - which is really the point," is not the only fun to be had. The fun of knowing a language and the fun of learning a language aren't necessarily the same thing, and I think "the point" is really something less clear. A lot of people would say the fun of guitar is in being able to play (or in having groupies, or whatever), but still plenty of people find great pleasure in the learning before they're competent. Personally, I'd say from experience that the fun of guitar is in losing myself in the activity, which is a matter of attention not proficiency.

Phoebe said...


There's non-proficiency and non-proficiency - randomly plucking at strings versus knowing the basics and not worrying to much about technique beyond that. It's not that you need to be fluent in a language for it to be fun, but that you need to be able to clumsily converse, to figure out what an article is about.

Also: adults aren't children. As an adult, it's fun to learn-for-learning's-sake, because it's not something we get to do every day. The more clever children figure out that they're supposed to pretend to "love learning," but school for children is work, and not work that they ended up doing on account of their strengths and inclinations, but a standard-issue set of requirements.

Miss Self-Important said...

If everyone wants happy children, why are white meritocratic successes upset by their children's mediocrity, assuming their children are supporting themselves, starting families, etc., but just not with Ivy credentials?
Because these people are status-worshiping blowhards who don't realize how good they have it? My point about the ends not mattering so much is mainly that we don't really know how Chua's kids will turn out (they're still in high school) and neither does she. She says she wants her kids to be #1 in everything, but as they will soon realize, in most spheres of adult life, there are a lot of #1's (who's more #1, Yale Law grad heading the government's antitrust division or UVA law grad partner at BigLaw firm?), and comparisons across #1's become increasingly hard to make. It would be hard even for someone as hard-headed as Chua to come up with the ideal concrete end for her kids.

But--and this gets at Britta's issue with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation--here's something that her kids are quite likely to have no matter where they end up: the ability to deeply appreciate music. And that's something both fun and extremely hard to pick up later. Same goes for your example of language learning, which fits Chua's model. It's much harder to become fluent in French if you start at 45 than if you start at 12, but the pleasure of French is much greater with the level of fluency you can attain if you start at 12. (My experience of language learning is much closer to yours--I don't think the fun of learning languages is even close to the pleasure of knowing them.)

It often happens that by the time you develop an intrinsic motivation to engage in certain activities, it's already too late to start them or to get good at them. It's not like there's nothing worth living for if you don't pick up French or violin at age three obviously, but there are certain potential goods that you will miss if you don't start learning them at an age when the vast majority of children would never elect to be taught them (and how many children love classical music before they learn to play it?).

Obviously, we don't need to go all to the memorization of everything extreme to correct the problems of modern pedagogy. I would be content to rehabilitate the image of memorization in the eyes of contemporary pedagogues. I also think memorization as a technique is good in its own right, not just as a means to the end of passing exams.

Phoebe said...


I'm with you re: memorization, and with the need to learn certain subjects at a young age. If Chua had left it at that, maybe thrown in a few 'and don't be such self-esteem-obsessed wusses,' that would have been fine.

But I think even a generous reading of Chua's article needs to acknowledge the fact that the emphasis on being #1 is central to her argument, and is a real problem with it. In part because, as you say, there is no #1 in real life, and in part because, as I've said earlier and as Alpheus said in your comments, if more than one family takes the #1 approach, at least one family will be disappointed. It's an unreachable, illogical goal, one that sets up children to fail. The 'A' is a bit more realistic, because the teachers who really don't give any, or who grade on whim, are few and far between. Hard work (as I learned the one semester of high school I engaged in it) can get those results. (Of course, if there's a curve, and if everyone works hard all at once...) Hard work cannot, however, make more than one person 'the best.'

Phoebe said...

And, and!

"comparisons across #1's become increasingly hard to make. It would be hard even for someone as hard-headed as Chua to come up with the ideal concrete end for her kids."

Another issue with the #1 approach, which also gets at Alpheus's critique about how one must raise children to be able to make their own decisions, is that I don't see how the Chua model prepares children for situations in which success isn't so clearly defined.

Miss Self-Important said...

True, I guess I just assumed the stuff about being #1 in everything was intended as eye-catching hyperbole, and since I am less interested in that, focused more on the argument in favor parental authority over children's choices. I also assume that, as I said in response to Alpheus, the girls are growing up in an environment (elite private school, the Yale-connected social world of New Haven) that provides most of the experiences outside of home that Chua de-emphasizes at home. Perhaps I would be more concerned if they were being raised this way in some isolated hollow in Appalachia with no exposure to lives and philosophies other than their own family's (although we should not underestimate the ubiquity and reach of popular culture). They're likely to realize that their mother was a little nuts soon, if they haven't already, and that there are many options in the world other than violin playing. Also, by attending high school, they already see that the field of #1-ness is spreading, it will spread more in college, and even more afterwards. I also assume that Chua and her husband will adjust their own expectations and demands as the girls get older and that spreading occurs (after all, they are themselves lawyers and academics, not violinists). The usefulness of this approach is that it sets up an alternative to popular culture mush at home, and hopefully inculcates some virtues and habits of thought early that are hard for most people to attain voluntarily later.

I think a lot of people--including those raised in the most mainstream or progressive or laissez-faire ways--struggle with the difficulty of making important adult decisions and commitments when the guidance of school and childhood are gone and they're faced with uncertainty. I'm not sure why Chua's kids would fare worse than the average. I'm not aware of any sure-fire parenting method that will teach children how to select the right spouse and vocation as adults, or how to have a fulfilling family life, although these arguably the most important things they will have to do.

Phoebe said...


"I think a lot of people--including those raised in the most mainstream or progressive or laissez-faire ways--struggle with the difficulty of making important adult decisions and commitments when the guidance of school and childhood are gone and they're faced with uncertainty."

True, but there are better and worse parenting styles for making this less difficult. If you teach your children that there's always an absolute best answer, an absolute winner and loser, the all-or-nothingness of their attitudes may leave them incapable of dealing with spouses and jobs that are 90% ideal, rather than 100, and uh oh, an A- isn't an A!

Phoebe said...

Sigivald wrote:

But--and this gets at Britta's issue with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation--here's something that her kids are quite likely to have no matter where they end up: the ability to deeply appreciate music. And that's something both fun and extremely hard to pick up later.

Could be (on the former).

Note, however, if one looks at other comments on this article (such as at Althouse) you'll find a number of people saying that being forced to study music against their own inclinations and desires did not lead to a magical Chuaish "this is awesome I'm so glad you forced me to do this thing I hated" moment.

Instead, for some of them, it leads to a lasting hatred of the piano. Or a dislike of music.

[And as an aside, the appreciation of a musician for music might be "deeper", but, from hanging around them, I notice they also lose something in musical appreciation compared to non-musicians; the ability to just listen to it without trying to analyze it musically.

This might be a worthy trade-off, but it should be recognized as one.]

The nuggets of truth ("you have to do things you don't really like sometimes" and "to get good at something and really, really enjoy it the most you need hard work and practice") there seemed overwhelmed by a feeling that Chua's making her kid learn the piano "because it should be done" - either to fill a check-box on her future resume, or because Chua herself wishes she had learned the piano.

The specifics of forcing her daughter to learn the piano seem unwise at best, even if some of the principles at the broadest level aren't.

Isn't there some sensible middle ground between "you will get straight As always no matter what period or else" and "whatever you do you're a special butterfly"?

(I've known very intelligent people who were never, ever, no matter what going to get an A in, say, Calculus. Or French. No amount of threats or cramming is going to change that, nor would the effort be sensible or worthwhile.

The demand that Every Precious Child Be A Polymath is at least as bad as, and possibly worse than, the idea that one shouldn't have standards at all.)

(And, really, "no birthday parties for years" for not learning a piece by tomorrow?

Either she's a horrible mother for being serious about that, or her threats are known to be meaningless and are thus worthless.

Either way, "ewww".)

Dave said...

I can't believe I'm coming so late to this discussion. Are you all aware of the incredible flap that occurred with this Maclean's magazine article up in Canada?

I posted about it at PhD Octopus.

Ponder Stibbons said...

I've made this point already on MSI's post on the same topic, but I cannot emphasize more my disagreement with the claim that Chua's method is a good way to get children to deeply appreciate music. I am one counterexample among many on this thread.

Britta said...

I guess where I differ is fundamentally the idea that the only way to get a child to be intellectually curious or to want to succeed is through extrinsic motivation that is often painful or negative.

When I was a child, I begged my parents for violin lessons in second grade because I loved classical music. I loved classical music because it was the primary genre of music my parents exposed me to as a young child, not consciously, but rather because it is the main genre of music they listen to. I also agree with Sigivald and want to reiterate that this method is as likely to make the child rebel and hate everything their parents force on them as it is a way to instill discipline and good values. Almost every single outside activity I ever did was one I chose myself and joined of my own initiative (i.e., begging my parents when younger, signing myself up for and taking public transit to when older). I was a classic A+ overworked "organization kid," however the desire to push myself came solely from within.

My parents never provided extrinsic punishments or rewards, but basically told us it was an ethical duty to try and do our best. They were very honest about our pluses and shortcomings, but were supportive of us whether or not we succeeded, as long as we tried. This wasn't a "we're proud of you whatever you do," but more a "if you are an ethical human being who strives to do your best we are proud of you regardless of the tangible results." If your best is an A+, then an A is ok but not your best. If your best is a B-, then that is fine.

(I hope this doesn't come off as smug or snotty...I realize that this sort of articles brings out the snottiness in me, and there is something inherently smug and snotty about bragging about yourself. I guess my point is that you can be an overachiever without helicopter parents pushing you to work)

Another problem I have, like Phoebe, is with the stress on #1. It's one thing to push a kid to work hard, or to push them to their limits, but it's another to create a cutthroat negative environment where success is solely defined in opposition to others. While there is a reason for this in China (e.g.. being #1 might be the difference between a comfortable middle class life and being a subsistence farmer), but not so much in an elite US environment. By demanding #1, you actually create a person whose sense of worth and life purpose are solely based on external validation. While maybe you can be #1 in all your classes, by the time you graduate to life, being hyper competitive is actually a stressful way to live, and doesn't necessarily have more of a payoff.

Another problem I have with it is getting back to the idea of a "good life." To a certain extent, being able to focus, work hard, and deal with a certain tedium can allow for a better life. At the same time, if nothing in your life is enjoyable, then really what is the point of living life? Maybe being a technically better musician but hating the violin and living in a state of stress that your parents will punish you for getting demoted from first chair and feeling like you have to do it because it will look good on your college apps really IMO isn't as worth it as compared to being a less talented musician who enjoys playing and does it for its own sake and a love of music. Maybe saying you are concert master of X orchestra will give you a slight leg up in college apps, but I'm not sure even if it does is if it is worth it. Also, the point is then when you do get to Harvard what X prestigious school, do you keep up your activities, or do you stop because you're burnt out? These life skills seem like they are guaranteed to get you into college, but not to live life after getting in.

Phoebe said...

Ponder Stibbons,

Personally, I'm not losing sleep over whether children are learning to appreciate high culture. I tend to agree with Bourdieu that having an appreciating for high culture is indicative of being somebody raised to appreciate high culture.

As for a childhood of being forced to do something turning a kid off to it, so much depends on how things are presented (as fun, as normal, or as punishment), how aware a kid is of what's expected in other families, how contrarian or rebellious a kid is, etc. I mean, there is the fact that certain fields are by definition made up of kids whose parents forced them into it, because you have to start that young. But most children won't be professional gymnasts or violinists, and yes, probably a lot of kids are turned off by activities forced upon them.


From what you describe, it sounds more like you flourished academically because that's how you are than because your parents' approach was carefully calibrated to make that happen. It sounds - again, from what you describe, so correct me if I'm wrong - like they did things right, but like they could have just as easily have had a happy kid who wasn't an A student. Your case is instructive in that it reminds us that forcing academics and high culture down children's throats isn't the only way to have successful children. But it's not helpful for parents who want the formula for getting the baby into Harvard. The fact that some are brilliant without parental strategizing doesn't show that parental strategizing is ineffective. However, I tend to think it can be, especially in the way Ponder Stibbons suggests - treating academics like a bitter pill is a way to get kids running in the other direction.

Britta said...

Phoebe--I think that's true. Since my siblings and I were pretty much from birth intellectual overachievers, it's hard to know how my parents would have parented if, say, they had a child who wanted to play video games or have a social life rather than read or do math problems. In terms of innate traits versus hard work, my parents are neurotic perfectionist intellectual-types, as were their children. My siblings and I inherited whatever sort of aptitude is involved in doing well in school and performing well on standardized tests (I don't want to call it intelligence, because being intelligent involves a lot more than being good at thinking in a certain way that happens to be useful in artificial settings), but it was true that things I am naturally pretty good at are things other people have to work hard at, and denigrating people who have to work hard to do well on the SATs or get As rather than have it come naturally is a form snobbery and elitist itself, even if it's supposedly aimed against yuppie privilege.

I think that as someone raised on the left though, there is a certain tendency to particularly despise the mediocre children of the privileged, while at the same time being a lot more sympathetic to the mediocre children of the disadvantaged. It's true in terms of life circumstances the mediocre offspring of the upper middle class are in general going to be fine,but the psychological scars of constantly feeling like you've disappointed your parents or are not good enough are real and deserve more sympathy than I am naturally inclined to give them.

There's also something fundamentally more egalitarian about contributing success to hard work than to natural aptitude, so the "my parents left me on my own to learn quantum mechanics as a 5 year old" isn't particularly helpful advice to most people.

But getting back to being leftist, I also think that my parents were fundamentally not oriented towards the same status goals as people like Amy Chua though. For my parents, having children who, say devoted their life to helping the poor or curing cancer would be much admirable than one who earned lots of money or worked in a traditionally high prestige career. In fact, if I were to go into corporate law or business rather than get a PhD in a somewhat obscure subject, my mother would probably consider it a failure on some level. Also, instead of the "Ivy-League or bust" mentality, my family was actively Ivy-League when I was applying to college (In fact, when I was mad at my mother, I would threaten to apply to Harvard). This didn't correspond to being anti-elite schools, so I think it was more about the symbolism of the Ivies. And even with a decidedly anti-Ivy viewpoint, my sister still ended up at an Ivy-League school, so again, a legitimate claim could be made that it's easy for a woman who is actively wrestling with her kids NOT to go to Ivies to be all "do whatever" but if any of us actually decided to drop out of high school and surf, or whatever, my mother might not have been so sanguine, even if she claims she would.

But, I guess this is a long way of saying that I pretty much agree with you.

Allana said...

Love this entry, and the discussion that followed.

I think the most disturbing aspect of Ms Chua's article is that she describes, unnoticed, the cycle of violence that she perpetuates against her daughter. She screamed, insulted, used physical force and unwavering physical control (I mean, no bathroom breaks?) - and then, afterwards, that tender reconciliation of cuddling and reading in bed.

Never mind music, or professional success. I'm concerned about what this parenting style is teaching her children about relationships, and healthy choices.

Phoebe said...


"I think that as someone raised on the left though, there is a certain tendency to particularly despise the mediocre children of the privileged, while at the same time being a lot more sympathetic to the mediocre children of the disadvantaged."

This, this is why the mediocre children of the privileged are invisible. It's not just the left despising them, but pretty much everyone. The bootstraps right-wing set isn't sympathetic to them, either. This is why children of the privileged are never mediocre, but always gifted in a different way. Sure, junior gets Bs and Cs, but he's so social, so coordinated.

I wouldn't say, exactly, that these children, or the adults they become, should be pitied, but I don't think they should be chastised, either. There are kids who'd be really happy in blue-collar jobs, but whose "privilege" forces them down an often expensive (relevant if the parents have cultural capital only) path unrelated to anything other than their parents' ambitions for them, social snobbery, however you choose to look at it. Short of a USSR-style system, or what I understand of it, of children being evaluated and steered independently of their parents' own trajectories, I don't know how this could be remedied. It's not like telling rich parents to let their kids be average will work.


I don't think Chua would have these concerns. An expression like "healthy choices" suggests such a radically different way of looking at childrearing. She doesn't care about her children knowing how to smooth over situations, she doesn't want them valuing kindness and relationships over success.

X. Trapnel said...

Yeah, the obsession with classical music really baffled me; this is clearly more practical than theatre how?

I also want to push back, with Britta, on your 'learning isn't fut' thing. Maybe this is me being all anarchist, but I really do believe that *most* children are naturally curious, and can be even obsessive in following their inclinations, and that our standard education=schooling=warehousing model tends to beat this curiosity out of them. Computer nerds are a good example of a population of people the vast majority of whom engage in uncountable hours of self-directed learning years before they encounter formal instruction.

X. Trapnel said...

Gah - "learning isn't fun," rather.

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

The question is, do the self-directed learners end up somewhere mainstream society admires (wealth, glory, maybe even a thick envelope from Harvard, but just via a different path), and is that even the standard by which we're measuring them? Some children's curiosity pushes them to books or computer nerdery - activities school might not leave them enough time for, but that are still, for lack of a better word, productive. School, though helpful for social development, may be holding such kids back intellectually. I don't think all kids, if left to their own devices, would end up picking an obsession of any particular value to society. Some really do need to be pushed through a series of memorization tables or whatever before gaining skills that will allow them to do something that really interests them.

I guess what I'm wondering is, is the point that self-direction is the better path to conventional success, or that we'd have to completely change our idea of success to appreciate what a self-directed generation would come up with?