Themes from this book have been bumping around in my head for a week. I read Amy Chua’s book in one day, getting caught up in her family’s story. I actually stopped to bookmark certain pages and passages thinking I would reference them in my blog post. However, when I finished reading and mulled over my thoughts, I was left with some strong feelings that have nothing to do with specific dogearred pages or highlighted words and comments.
When I was in China on a two week student exchange to study karate, I had the rare opportunity to go inside the Shaolin Temple beyond where the tourists are allowed. Before performing for the Sholin Monks (a humbling experience), we visited the training areas where the young monks learn. On the mats were scores of what I considered “babies”.....young boys ages five and up. Their training was intense. They were handed to the temple by their parents to be raised there both in the practice of becoming a monk and in the tradition of the fighting monks of Shaolin. As the elder trainers worked with them, they would cry out in pain. Limbs were not meant to bend that way on their own. Despite their cry, the elder monks continued applying pressure to force the child’s body to submit.
This is what Amy Chua did with her daughters. She forced them to submit to her wishes. In order to produce a child capable of playing Carnegie Hall barely into her teen years, the body; hands and mind, must be trained well. She is right in saying that an hour a day will not suffice.
I was left wondering why she went through this effort to produce musically gifted children. She did not convey an end goal to me of why she would sacrifice family for music. Did she want her children to eventually teach music? Play in a symphony? Record their music for profit? Or was it just to say on their resume for college acceptance that they accomplished great things? I believe it is the latter.
These girls sacrificed for their mother’s demands. They sacrificed friends, family, and their childhood. Unlike “Western” Parents, Amy feels that the Chinese have higher dreams for their children and unlike Western Parents, the Chinese feel that childhood is not a time for leisure and play but rather a time to train and prepare for adulthood. Unlike Western Parents, the Chinese parents assume strength in their children whereas Western Parents assume fragility.
Let’s assume all this is true. Let’s assume that Western Parents idealize childhood as a time for play and discovery, make few demands of their children and do not require them to be as proficient in a talent as a grown adult. This admittedly was the childhood her husband had. Despite this, he grew to be equally as successful as his wife Amy, if not more so. He was accepted into Juliard’s theater program, then dismissed when he butted heads with a director. From there he went to Harvard Law and then was hired to teach at Yale. Hmmm......all this success from Western Parents........permissive ones to boot.
The older I get the more I abhor labels. Western/Eastern parents, Suzuki trained/traditionally trained.... we throw labels around to make a point, usually that one person is superior to the other. There is no denying that Amy Chua emphatically feels that her way is superior to every other way of parenting. There is no denying that her way produces results, exceptional results in fact. But at what price?
On a personal note, I think of myself as having high expectations for my children. I expect they will do well in their education. I expected all As on report cards and my expectations are no less now that we learn at home. I expected my children to have outside interests and to give them their all. The difference is what I consider their all to be. I want my children to live a balanced life, like the life I live. I want them to learn, and grow, and mature, and have an enjoyable time doing it. I don’t want them to look back and say “yeah, I was accepted to Harvard and I have a degree in sociology but I can’t remember one family dinner or one enjoyable family vacation or one great sleepover, because I was too busy practicing the piano.”
Essentially this is what happened for Amy Chua. One of her children, her oldest, her most “Chinese-like” daughter stuck with piano. Her other daughter completely rebelled, chopping off her own hair, isolating herself from family and openly disobeying her mother. She walked away from her violin choosing instead to focus her time on tennis.
I was reminded of when my daughter Grace was skating at the International Skating Center in Simsbury because her goal was to be in the Olympics. She loved skating. I would comment that Grace was the happiest when she was on the ice. She shared ice time with Ekaterina Gordieva and her daughters. We watched Victor Petrenko’s son warm up and practice his programs. We dreamed big even though our wallet would not allow us to really practice big. In order for Grace to really train seriously, I would have had to go back to work full time to afford her lessons, ice time and skates. She was already spending several days a week at the rink (a three hour round trip commute) and her weekends were gone. Saturdays were spent skating and Sunday was church, Sunday School and family dinner at my mother’s house. It got to a point where she looked at me and said she missed her Dad. Grace choose her family over her dream. I ask her now and then about it and she never regrets her choice.
There was one family who shared much time with me on the bench waiting and watching. I would frequently chat with the mother. Her daughter was in high school and looking at colleges. She was a very talented skater who was desperate to gain acceptance into NYU for --- wait for it ---- musical theater! I must have looked at the mom incredulously because she went on to explain that they probably should have been putting the $20K they were spending A YEAR for skating into a college account since NYU would cost more than that per year. So for years this family sacrificed time, money and family time for a sport that their child had no desire to pursue! I still shake my head when I think of this.
So for those who Tiger Parent, whether they are Eastern, Western, Northern or Southern in their geography, I hope it is worth it.