Well, Colin has already gone there this week, but I’m following his lead, since for the past two weeks everyone has been all atwitter about the essay in the Wall Street Journal by “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua outlining her hardcore methods for raising super high-achieving children. She started quite the firestorm, which has included numerous rants from my own mother, who was utterly appalled by Chua’s essay, as mothers who knocked their socks off to instill a love of music in their children are wont to be, at the militaristic approach Chua has taken towards the musical education of her two daughters. If you haven’t read it, the rebuttal essay written by a “Western Mom” is totally brilliant, as are the points made in David Brooks’s op-ed column last weekend. I particularly appreciate his point that for a young person, navigating social activities like a sleepover party or a school play are some of the most cognitively challenging tasks she will undertake in terms of developing social skills and learning to effectively maneuver within group situations, so for goodness sakes let her deal with them!
I can say with complete confidence that as a kid I would have crumbled if either of my parents had treated me the way Chua does her daughters. Forcing someone to give up, um, life in favor of practicing an instrument, or solving math problems, or playing tennis for that matter seems like a really effective way to create a little robot devoted exclusively to that one activity, or to make a person who will soon come to officially despise that activity and turn to who-knows-what for comfort. Although my mother was definitely known to crack the whip when it was time to get down to practicing the piano (admittedly, I was a horrible piano student), she also had the good sense to see that when I discovered I could play music that I thought was really cool and fun, like Prince, or Fats Waller, or The Police, she should just let it happen. I spent hours practicing all sorts of music that was not at all what I was supposed to be playing, and my technique improved drastically, which meant that playing Chopin and Bach and Shostakovich was also a lot more fun. Similarly, when I would shut myself in my room and stay up till all hours messing with my early Korg synthesizer (gosh I miss that thing!), she again just stepped back and let me go for it. My piano teacher also entered into the deal—she would spend a little time in each lesson working on whatever music I chose, and then we would do the music that she demanded. Compromise can work wonders. Eventually she and I met in the middle with Gershwin, and I spent a good chunk of my senior year in high school obsessing over “Rhapsody in Blue” without any whip-cracking whatsoever. One day she turned to me and said, “You’re going to be a musician. I have no idea what kind (clearly I was not going to be a pianist, and composition was not at all part of her world view), but you’re definitely going to be a musician.” At the time I thought she was crazy! Oops.
Although Chua’s statement rings true that many activities are more fun when one is good at them, a person has to have a little bit of control over how they arrive at that point. All I can say now is, “Thanks, Mom!”