by liberal japonicus
Like a military history buff who spends an inordinate amount of time looking at some skirmish down the road from Waterloo or Gettysburg, I'm pretty fascinated by not so much the main event, but the little wins and losses on the periphery. At for this post, Amy Chua. Background below the fold.
Amy Chua is references as the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and she started off, as folks do nowadays, with the book excerpt, her's going in the Wall Street Journal. (I'm now curious how excerpts get chosen in general and how her's was chosen in particular. If she chose it, it says a lot more than if someone at WSJ did)
The section that interested me was this (I've put the parts that interested me in the writing of this in bold)
Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.
"You can't make me."
"Oh yes, I can."
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?
"You just don't believe in her," I accused.
"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."
"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."
"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.
"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
"Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, "What a perfect piece for Lulu—it's so spunky and so her."
Even Jed gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
So, to analyze this, Chua understands that she is coercing her daughter. What amazes me is that her coercion gets her daughter to the point that the daughter is ripping up her music, and 'punching, thrashing and kicking' (though I don't know if that is actual physical movements, or metaphorical). Perhaps I'm just being the weak-willed Westerner, but if my daughters pushed back that hard, I would have thought that it told me something. The next thing that catches my attention is that Chua makes threats that she has no intention of keeping. When her daughter calls her out, she adds more threats. It's not surprise that it reaches a point where Chua believes that she is deliberately playing the piece wrong as payback.
The final thing is to show how unmoored Chua is from what are the actual things she is doing. "I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic." followed by "He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing," I'm not sure how well Yale law profs should know how they use the language, but this seems to be pretty oblivious.
I didn't get the book, though I did read reviews of the book (The wikipedia page gives a good summary of the various view points and you can follow the links) and went thru the google books excerpt. In many of the reviews, the birthday card incident is key. This is when Chua received a handmade birthday card from the daughter with the piano issues, Lulu, and she refused it and said “I deserve better than this. So I reject this.” which because rather infamous. However, in the book, it is a much longer story, where Chua explains that she keeps all the cards and that this card is not good enough to go with them and says (emph Chua's)
"I get magicians and giant slides that cost me hundreds of dollars. I get you huge cakes shaped like penguins, and I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors that everyone just throws away. I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this."
Some have said that in that context, the thought is better, but my feeling is that it reveals a lot more about Chua. The framing is in terms of money. (I didn't glom on to the fact that Chua is a tenured faculty at Yale, so the claim of spending half her salary on stickers and erasers is interesting hyperbole) But more deeply, it is 'here's what I've done for you, you _owe_ me more'. And maybe she does in some way, but at 4 years of age, that seems a bit heavy.
Chua's oldest daughter, Sophie, addressed the reaction to the book and specifically the card incident:
Everybody’s talking about the birthday cards we once made for you, which you rejected because they weren’t good enough. Funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: The card was feeble, and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.
This is something that I only noted in going back over this. The person whose card was rejected is not Sophie, but Louisa.
Now, I recognize the pressures and contradictory demands of different cultures and Chua's book was filed away. However, she has come up again, apparently advising her female students how to 'dress for success'.
However, her students aren't having any of this.
I really hope that Chua hasn't treated any of her students the way she treated her kids, cause she is going to have hell to pay.
Also, in going back to find links, I see that Chua and her husband also co-authored a book entitled The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Now, I think that cultural traits do influence how groups deal with society, but reviewing (and again, I have not read the book, just gone thru the reviews) that, I think the premise is pretty flawed. However, belief is destiny and it would be no surprise to me if Chua advised female students in a way that not only reinforces sexism, but also fails to acknowledge that structural sexism is an organizing principle in the US.
Anyway, if you want to talk about this little skirmish, or talk more about the big battle down the road, go for it.