Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Orchestra is What's Hard, Tiger Mother

Intrigued by the responses to “Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother”, I finally tracked down the Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua, drawn from her recently published memoir of motherhood, that sparked the discussion. When I read Chua’s writing, I was at first, predictably, appalled. Then I got to her comment that a Chinese child getting a B “would never happen” and realized that I’d encountered the icy humor that other commentators advised readers to watch for carefully. Aha, I thought, she’s trying to be funny. Then I read on and was appalled all over again.

Not by her draconian measures. After all, she was kidding about some of that, right? And even if she wasn’t, one should pause and think carefully before scorning other people’s child-raising, right?

I was appalled, rather, by the two, highly problematic axioms that Chua’s logic implies: 1. What every parent truly hopes for is a mathematical or musical prodigy, who gets all As (except in drama and gym), and 2. Tiger Motherhood is what it takes to raise such a child.

The problem with the first is that it straitjackets not only individual children but all of human culture. Violin and piano music is lovely, but how dull the world would be if all our children played nothing else! Not to mention that with no orchestra, all those violin virtuosos would have a limited repertoire.

As for the second, ironically, Amy Chua falls headlong into the great conceit of contemporary American parenting: that by looking inwards, and focusing all our efforts on our own children, we can thwart the socio-economic forces that threaten them. Judith Warner’s commentary hits the nail on the head:

The terror of losing ground is the ultimate driving force in the middle- and upper-middle-class American family today, and however unique Chua’s elaboration of it (simply by marrying a Jew, and not a Chinese man, she worries that she is “letting down 4,000 years of civilization”), however obnoxious and over the top her attempts to cope, she is hardly alone in believing that, in her carefully considered ministrations, she will find the perfect alchemy that will allow her to inoculate her kids against personal and professional misfortune.

Just think what mothers like Amy Chua could accomplish if they turned outwards, towards all our children -- a task more demanding yet more effective than Tiger motherhood -- instead of back to the piano bench over and over again.

My favorite comment, though, comes from David Brooks, who calls Amy Chua a “wimp”. “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention,” Brooks points out, “but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

The orchestra is what’s hard, not the violin.


Jessy Randall said...

Thank you for helping me talk about Chua with the other mothers at the playground, and my husband, in an intelligent way instead of what I've so far mustered, which is: splutter splutter splutter.

Anonymous said...

I agree--does seem unimaginative. Take the structure laid out by someone else and dominate it. I admire Chua's general idea of hard work, but the musicians we know by name got good by noodling around in their garage with their parents screaming at them to be quiet.

Anonymous said...

I agree that David Brooks (as he occasionally does) hit this one out of the park -- it is working in teams and working through social situations that's the rub.