Friday, January 21, 2011

Final thoughts in support of Amy Chua, who will disappear from the internet any minute now

As I predicted, the controversy immediately turned into a heated racial conflict in which white people applauded themselves for loving their children more than Asians and Asians complained that Chua rekindled memories of their own childhood traumas and was reinforcing pernicious model minority myths just when it seemed like Asians drug dealers and hip hop dancers might finally get their place in the limelight. Since I still don't care about these things enough to worry that China will eat us or think that Asian children are merely deformed versions of our infinitely well-adjusted non-Asian American children (back pats all around), I only want to answer some final comments on the previous post and clarify my original endorsement of the argument for making your children do things they don't want to do on completely Western grounds (which are Chua's grounds too), since I have no idea what the Chinese grounds would be.

Last week, I played tennis a couple of times for the first time in probably six years. At first, I couldn't quite master the size of the court and the height of the net, but a few minutes in, the old rhythm returned, and I was able to keep up (though not beat) my much more recently-practiced companions. And it felt quite satisfying and, in Chua's words, fun. And this could not happen unless I had started playing tennis when I was eight and kept at it for 10 years, and I wouldn't have done that had my mother not pressured me to.

That pressure was not always or even mostly well-received--I liked tennis well enough and was objectively better suited to it than many other activities (I tried basketball about the same time, but was alas doomed to be 5'2), but I did not like having to practice it in any sustained way. Thus my childhood tennis career featured many tantrums on my part, much parental resentment, waking up at 7 am on Saturday mornings to get to lessons, and then four years of varsity team regimens, the last year of which was combined with my last-ditch effort to get into a selective college that involved taking so many courses that I didn't have a lunch period but still had to stay to play tennis until 6 pm every weekday and all day Saturday and never sleep. And all this was to maintain a very low level of competitiveness--my high school team sucked and my parents realized that my future was not going to hinge on tennis and never sent me to tennis camps or farmed me out to private instructors so that I could compete at a higher level.

The result of all this is that now I can play tennis tolerably well. And what is the value of that for a political theory grad student, you ask? Because it is fun to be good at things, and most things are only fun when you're good at them. People who take up tennis as adults are extremely unlikely to become even as tolerably good as me, in large part because it is very difficult to master the correct stroke form as an adult, and improvement in tennis is based almost entirely on good form. When adults try to improve their game and their form is wrong (you may have seen old dudes trying to hit really hard while basically punching the ball at your local community courts), they develop sports injuries. And when you're not good, tennis is an extremely frustrating waste of time--all your shots fly into the sky or fall into the net, and you can't keep a satisfying rally alive. The same principle applies to many satisfying kinds of knowledge and activity--music, languages, sports--they can only be mastered if one gets an early start, and one can only get an early start if parents pressure. (Sure, there are some children who will practice diligently out of pure love for the activity and will not need any external pressure, but they are rare and more likely to make a vocation of the activity rather than a hobby.)

Parental pressure can backfire--hence the stories of all the resentful forced pianists who now avoid piano on pain of death as a result of being pressured as children. But, given that they would also not play as adults if they hadn't been pressured at all, that outcome seems to be a wash. Not playing piano because you hate it and not playing because you don't know how put you in the same non-playing place. If we account for the haters and the ignorant, we are left with a sizable middle portion of pressured children who will come out of the experience with a tolerable competence in the activity, and that seems to be the goal of most parents who override their children's indolent wills and demand that they practice or rehearse.

The other arguments against parental pressure--that it breeds resentment and diminishes the time left to the child to imagine and play and find himself or whatever--seems equally biased towards the extremes. This might be true if a child is being forced to practice violin or whatever 20 hours a day, but most parents, including all the Asian parents I've ever known, are not that demanding. They know their children and realize quite quickly, like my parents did, that, unless their child shows remarkable early talent, violin or tennis or French is not going to be the whole of that child's future and so doesn't warrant the kind of full-time dedication that a vocation would. Those who oppose parental pressure because it monopolizes childhood time seriously underestimate how much time there is in childhood. I spent 10 years playing tennis regularly, and yet I could basically forget about the entire experience until last week's tennis playing reminded me. There were so many other things that happened in those 10 years that tennis is not even among my primary memories of that time.

As with time, so with parental resentment. The fights I had with my mother over tennis had also faded from mind until I thought about this Amy Chua thing. I still don't understand quite how she got her daughters to go along with her regimen since I was not so amenable to much milder versions of that kind of pressure and could be moved to tantrums by much slighter provocation. But even by high school, I had pretty much forgotten any resentments I harbored against my mother for making me play tennis in the years prior. Again, one might point to extreme cases of festering child-parent resentments born of parental pressure, but I don't see how they demonstrate the intrinsic evil of pressure, since never overriding your children's preferences can result in an equal degree of resentment that you never gave them opportunities or developed their potential and left them with no long-practiced and developed skills in adulthood.

A final argument against this kind of pressure is that its objects are chosen arbitrarily. Why violin and not ice hockey or French or bassoon or Japanese or carpentry? How can you know that the activities you choose for your children now will serve them as adults if you can't know their future occupations in advance, or even that they will be able to enjoy these activities later? (If they don't have access to a piano, for example, they can't play it.) Rousseau acknowledges this same problem in Emile as a fundamental difficulty of all modern education:
In the social order where all positions are determined, each man ought to be raised for his. If an individual formed for his position leaves it, he is no longer fit for anything. Education is useful only insofar as fortune is in agreement with the parents' vocation. In any other case it is harmful to the student, if only by virtue of the prejudices it gives him. In Egypt where the son was obliged to embrace the station of his father, education at least had a sure goal. But among us where only the ranks remain and the men who compose them change constantly, no one knows whether in raising his son for his rank he is not working against him.
For the most part, the problem of the unsuitability of the education one gives to children for their future needs is insurmountable. We simply can't know any longer (if we ever could) what our children will be and what they will need to know in advance. Nonetheless, we can't not educate them for this reason. So, unless you take this as a reason to follow Emile's curriculum, which is expressly designed to educate the universal human being who is prepared for anything that comes his way, you have to make arbitrary choices for your children. You can justify them with some kind of argument about how piano or basketball or Japanese will teach them fundamental "life skills" of some sort, and it's true in some cases. Diligence and persistence are good "life skills" that might be learned from almost any childhood activity diligently and persistently pursued, but that's just the problem--any activity. So which one to impose on your children?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn't much matter, so pick whichever activities are 1) the most conducive to your children's individual natures and temperaments (says Locke) and 2) the most demanding and satisfying, and 3) most worth preserving for the future of our civilization. There is no great shame--contra many Chua detractors--in selecting something that will also look good on a college application, since in large part, college admissions does value those skills that are actually difficult to master and valuable for the world, even if it does for superficial and instrumental reasons. Which leads us to the final point--pressure to do well in school.

Look people, it is important to do well in school, both for short term ends like getting a job and for long-term goods like happiness, understanding, and self-knowledge. Pushing your children to master the middle school math curriculum when they would rather get C's is not a form of cruelty or an impossibility--middle school math is not that hard and far more children can master it than currently do. I know you all know of dozens of people (including yourselves) who are geniuses despite their indifferent academic records, but you and those people would not be less brilliant if they'd also done well in 10-grade geometry. It is easy enough for kids like me, who quite liked school, to decide at age eight that they're good enough at reading and writing, so don't really need to also be good at math and to promptly stop trying for the next 10 years. This was a mistake. Yes, things have so far turned out fine despite this mistake, but it was no less a mistake. It is as important to understand mathematics as it is to understand any of the other constitutive structures of our society (language, literature, history, etc). It's too bad that I constitutionally suck at math, yes, but I could've sucked somewhat less if I hadn't simply given up in grade school. Whether the suckage differential would've been significant in any way, I don't know, but at the very least, it would not have hurt to try. Childhood is long and its petty injustices are easily forgotten, so a few more math problems would hardly have made a dent.

On the other hand, of course, spilt milk. Childrearing as a political question has historically been a matter of on average (for Locke and Rousseau), and is now a matter of in aggregate. It never offers much assistance when one is faced with an actual screaming child. So good luck with that, peeps. Consider Greek and Latin instruction at an early age.


Ponder Stibbons said...

I disagree that children "would also not play [the piano] as adults if they hadn't been pressured at all". I know plenty of people who learned instruments in adulthood. I myself resumed playing it briefly after taking a music class in college. It's not obvious to me at all that forcing children to do things like piano and sports increases the probability that they will continue to do those things in adulthood. On the other hand, as I said, there is good evidence that the level of authoritarianism Chua advocates has negative psychological effects.

I'm more sympathetic towards the case for being forced to learn math since it's more likely to be a skill that is retained, and it's also particularly important for survival, understanding the world, being an informed voter, etc. In addition, I find it not too difficult to resume math techniques I'd learned a long time ago. One gets rusty but does not entirely lose it. On the other hand, for musical performance you really do need to practice in the intervening time to retain the skill.

Ari N. Schulman said...

I plan to let my kids name themselves.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ponder Stibbons: Are they people who had never learned any instruments in childhood? I don't know anyone who took up music from scratch in adulthood, at least as distinct from re-taking it up, as you seem to have done.

I think the level of authoritarianism required to effectively push children varies depending on the child's temperament and talent. There remains a question of when to relent if the activity you've imposed on your children turns out to be wrong for them, and I don't know if Chua has an answer to that. However, I don't think that parenting without any negative psychological effects exists if there is fundamentally no basis for parental authority, which I'm not sure there is in our politics.

Ari: You could also plan to expose them to only four or five words during the period when they can select their names so that they are certain to select a name for themselves that you've already secretly selected for them. That would be the true Rousseauian approach.

Phoebe said...

I'm with you on the value of learning things like math, tennis, French (of course!) while young. But if "the controversy immediately turned into a heated racial conflict," it's because Chua set it up that way, calling herself "Chinese" and comparing herself with white or assimilated-Asian-American parents. Well, with upper-middle-class black or Latino parents also, but she was clearly speaking to the yuppie demographic - the parents who coddle and who might be persuaded not to coddle if they think it means Ivy for their kids - which has the racial makeup it does. She was setting up a response from the people she was challenging, people who are by definition not Chinese.

That is, except if they are Chinese - how is it making things about race if Chinese people or Chinese-Americans respond that she doesn't represent them, given that, caveat about how "Chinese" just means "strict" aside, she is making that claim?

The reason I'm commenting more on the part that isn't, I realize, your main point is, first, that I pretty much agree with your main point (and sympathize re: basketball and 5'2"ness), but also that I wanted to point out that Chua herself directs readers away from the substance of her argument by packaging it in, if not racial, than ethnic or national, terms.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, Chua says she is Chinese and this is how Chinese mothers roll, so the response is quite predictable. I just don't think "the Chinese way" is a very apt way of categorizing what she describes. Whether it's apt in China or not, I don't know, but it certainly has deep roots in Western soil.

Psyche said...

Chua's article bugged me because in my childhood I experienced an activity that my mother actively browbeat me into continuing three or four years after I really wanted to quit (piano lessons) and an activity that I pursued as a deeply felt passion (ballet). And insofar as there are only so many hours in a child's day, I do worry that if parents push their children too aggressively into activities they don't love, they can foreclose the possibility of finding a true passion. And based on my experience growing up, the difference between doing something long enough to take pleasure in competence, and doing something from a deep-seated passion is really night and day.

Ponder Stibbons said...

I'm curious as to how you would decide when the activity is 'wrong' for the child. If extreme displeasure and lack of interest from the child over several years is not considered to be a sign of wrongness, that what is?

Ponder Stibbons said...

Whoops, that should be *then* what is.

Also, I didn't claim it was possible to have parenting without negative psychological effects. But there are plenty of studies on the negative effects of authoritarian parenting. Now it's quite possible that there's also plenty of studies showing other positive effects coming form authoritarian parenting. Or that the studies showing negative effects are somehow flawed or biased by some kind of 'Western' outlook so that people find exactly what they expect. But it seems that the important question is the empirical one of which approach inflicts more, or is more likely to inflict, psychological damage. This can't be answered by anecdotes (yes, I'm guilty as charged).

Do you think it's possible to have anti-authoritarianism in society in general without it also infecting the parent-child relationship? A major part of why Asian immigrants tend to be more authoritarian is that they came from authoritarian cultures. If you don't think an authoritarian society is something to avoid, then this is not an issue, I suppose.

Miss Self-Important said...

Psyche: I'm not sure that such a thing as a "true passion" exists for most people, and I'm even less convinced that it's a love at first sight kind of thing, as opposed to a love after years of training one.

Ponder Stibbons: It's hard to say, but this is part of the Locke/Rousseau point about spending a lot of time observing the child and learning his nature. In part, of course, your decisions will be colored by your own priorities and the world's--a kid who quite clearly hates school can't be permitted to just stop going as easily as a kid who hates karate. It also depends on how the child's hatred manifests itself--some children can make your own life miserable, others will seethe quietly. I don't know if I could make any blanket rule about when to stop pressuring. Or, you could hire me as your child-rearing consultant.

The problem with parental and pedagogical runs very deep, and is the proposed topic of my dissertation, so perhaps I can provide a better answer in, say, three years. But for now, I would say, you're right--the difficulty of justifying other kinds of authority over individuals (divine, political, expert, etc) HAS seriously undermined our ability to justify parent and teacher authority. This is clear even in Locke's Second Treatise, where he conditions paternal authority over children on an obligation to provide for the children's best interests, which is of course a highly contingent grounding. Some might view this erosion as a good thing, as the contemporary children's rights movement tends to do, but at its extreme, it also undermines the entire category of childhood. I think preserving authority over children is important and difficult, and that "authoritarianism" in the true meaning (as opposed to the way it's become synonymous with "fascism" or simple "tyranny") is generally necessary unless we want to start civilization from scratch with every generation, and it's particularly necessary to bring up children in a world that they did not make but must continue. But the right kind of authority is difficult to establish and maintain, whereas arbitrary tyranny is easier, and so the one tends to become an excuse for the other.

Miss Self-Important said...

*parental and pedagogical authority, that is.

Anonymous said...

I am late to this discussion, but I am a musician, and I know dozens of people who have taken up musical instruments in adulthood, with no prior musical training in childhood. I don't know that any of them will ever play at the very top levels (by which I mean achieving global fame in the field), but I know several who are quite accomplished and skillful.

In discussing music with other instructors, I have noticed a strong memory bias in discussing students. Many teachers remember the young students who progress prodigiously fast, and forget all of their young students who don't practice and/or show no aptitude at all. The same teachers tend to dismiss the potential of older students, often directly and repeatedly telling them that they will never get very far. You can imagine the predictable effects. When adult students, despite this drumbeat of negativity, do succeed, they are regarded as extremely unusual. After all, we all "know" that adult learners just can't do it.

It is a pet peeve of mine. I adore some of my older students, and have had more than my fair share of resentful ten-year-olds.