Ms. Chua is inciting parents on all sides about the value of pushing children to excel, and at what cost. Her practices, presented in their extreme in the WSJ piece, involve invoking a high level of parental control on what her children will and will not do. They will take violin or piano lessons and practice every day for hours, they will not watch television or have playdates or sleepovers, they will get As on every test, etc. And as a result of her unceasing efforts to bludgeon her children into compliance, she initially thinks she'll be able to turn out young citizens who are excellent musicians, students, and workers in high-prestige fields. She berates typical American parenting as wimpy, catering to the changing whims of children so that they do not learn the value of sticking through the tough times and coming out on top.
While there is much to be wary of in Ms. Chua's parenting recommendations (see here and here and here for some excellent criticism and here and here for a description of Ms. Chua explaining that the WSJ piece was misleading about her message), there is one nugget of pure gold here. A nugget that matches up extraordinarily well with equally shared parenting. It is the principle that if we are able to master the details of any endeavor, we are then free to enjoy the essence of the pursuit.
Two other simple examples: For the longest time knitting was a chore for me. My sister owned a knitting shop and I was determined to find out what she was raving about. Repeating those little hand movements and hoping I didn't drop a stitch just made me tense. It took many months to get "good enough" at knitting before I could settle into a relaxing evening with my yarn. Second, I remember the early days of pursuing the dream of ESP with Marc. I disagreed with "his way" of doing many things, from my worries about his lack of commitment to the schedule, his cavalier attitude toward safety, or his seemingly inability to recognize that laundry needed tending. Choosing to "let go" of the belief that my way was superior has been one of the more important lessons of my life.
The driving force to persist in these examples was something bigger than the details of the task at hand. Whether it was a connection with my sister or indeed a more meaningful connection with Marc through ESP, dedication and persistence to accomplishing anything proved worth the effort. I suspect that Ms. Chua would agree.
This is the same principle behind what we call the artisanal worker in the Career chapter of our book. Applying excellence to paid work, we maintain that if you get good at something, and love what you do, you are a valuable worker - one who can command more pay per hour and perhaps work less to balance your life with other things - and your enjoyment builds. This principle also gets play as a directive toward fathers to get competent at caring for their children - their own way.
Ms. Chua pushes her children with this goal in mind, and while I don't believe in the lengths she takes or the mental whip she wields or the pure control she exerts over exactly what activities they will do, I believe the principle of practice and effort is sound. If we can teach our kids that they can persevere and excel at something (or a few somethings), they will hopefully take this wisdom into the rest of their lives - not giving up on their dreams or their abilities when the going gets rough. And if we do so ourselves as adults, we can love the job we have and our time with our children (most of the time) because we're comfortably competent there.
One of the many things I specifically disliked about Ms. Chua's approach, however, was the one-sidedness of it. I must confess the obvious sin of not having read her book, so I cannot completely rest assured that I'm interpreting the media exposure for it correctly. But, all comments that mention her husband indicate that he does not seem to share in the work of this intense parenting, and it seems to me as if she must have extreme control over how the children are raised even as she notes how he objects to its seeming coldness. In an ESP family, this would not happen; both parents would need to be on board for how much to push their children's academic or musical or athletic education and when to back down or change the rules.
In our house, for example, we've spent much time talking about how to approach M and T's violin training. At 8 and 5, both are budding violinists, both practice every day and are working their way along the Suzuki Method (yes, practicing even on the weekends and on vacation, with the same reasoning that we ask them to brush their teeth every day as well - but for a paltry amount of time per day compared to Ms. Chua's kids), and both have had their share of objections to such. But both have had their triumphs too - techniques or pieces conquered, fear of performance tackled, new things learned, the joy of making and sharing their music with friends and family, an insider's appreciation for watching music played by others. They love playing (although maybe not every moment of actual practicing), and I feel as if we've given them a gift by shepherding them this far.
And as an aside, I'll put in a good word for the Suzuki Method of teaching music - contrary to some of the comments stirred up by Amy Chua's description of teaching by negativity and grueling attacks, it is not based on fear or meanness; it is based on love and nurturing and community, and is one of the best programs I've seen for teaching children anything.
But back on topic, all of this has had to be negotiated between Marc and myself - a complete nonmusician and a lifelong violin enthusiast. We both take ownership for our family's approach to music teaching - not my way or else. Although I take a bit of a lead as the kids' 'practice parent' because I enjoy it so much and my violin knowledge counts for a little bit of extra help, Marc and I alternate who sits with each of the kids for their daily practice.
As part of the deep importance we place on working together as a team to direct M and T's early musical training, we've talked about the value in getting through the tough practice sessions. Should we let them quit? Should we stick it through? We have chosen to stick it through, learning a huge amount along the way about when to follow their enthusiasm, when to hang back and let them choose, when to firmly make the decisions. It has, so far, been a journey that has brought us closer and one I will never forget.
So while I could echo all the shock surrounding Amy Chua's book, I'll just take what I like and leave the rest. I believe in effort, in sticking with something until it is yours or until you are in a position to truly judge that it isn't for you. I believe that putting in this type of work is what builds esteem (and talent) and ownership, and holds you up when you hit life's next rough patch. I hope to give this tool to my children, whether they choose like me to play the violin (or another instrument) as adults or just know that they could.