These days everyone and her sister is reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Guys are reading it too. It’s an in-your-face description of the draconian methods Chinese women who live in Western cultures use to help their young children to excel. Here, for example, are some of the things Amy’s daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
— attend a sleepover
— have a playdate
— be in a school play
— complain about not being in a school play
— watch TV or play computer games
— *choose their own extracurricular activities
— get any grade less than an A
— not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
— play any instrument other than the piano or violin
— not play the piano or violin.
Amy puts in unbelievable hours helping her kids get straight As. She shoves them out onto the concert stage before bra-time. In Amy’s words, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, which is why it is crucial to override the children’s preferences.”
While all the other parents are asleep at the switch — letting their kids play and have fun and get yanked around here and there — Chinese kids are quietly taking their place as tomorrow’s excellent people. Question: Does all work and no play make Wong a dull boy?
The argument might be that Chinese kids become technically efficient automatons who have stunted feelings and only a vestigial sense of joy. Funnily, the Chinese and mixed-Chinese kids I know seem pretty normal and full of fun, but that may be just an illusion. Amy’s kids seem to be mostly in rebellion until the penny drops that they are truly superior, in full entitlement mode and upholding the family reputation.
The Chinese mother sees value in music because there are standards to aim for. The demands of Mozart, Bach and Chopin must be met. But what about the visual arts? The Chinese mother sees little value in painting classes because the results cannot be measured. So much of art as taught in the Western world seems to be arbitrary. “Fooling around” is not often in the Chinese curriculum. It’s a different cup of noodles in Asia, of course, where millions attempt to learn academic painting and a few thousand succeed. In the painting studios and classes of China, hard work, hard apprenticeship, long hours and focus prevail.
By the way, according to Amy, you don’t have to be Chinese to be a Chinese mother.
PS: “At the Winner’s concert where Sophia performed, as I watched her deft fingers fluttering and tumbling up and down the piano like real butterfly wings, I was overcome with pride, exhilaration, and hope. I couldn’t wait for the next day, to work more with Sophia, and to learn more music together.” (Amy Chua)
Esoterica: Has the Western world gone too far into permissiveness? Are our demands for freedom, self-reliance and individual expression taking us into a Neverland of mediocrity? More important, are we convincing ourselves that what we do is okay when it’s not?
The legacy of demanding parents
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada
There is another side to the Tiger Mom story — Tiger Mother Son of a Bitch by Derrick Lin tells about his own miserable experiences. He even tried to commit suicide when he got a “D” in college chemistry. He states, “Tiger parenting was supposed to make me a success. Instead, it destroyed my personal life and any chance for a meaningful career.” We need to think very carefully before imposing unrealistic standards on children. When there are 33 (or more) in a class, how can everyone be #1? Years ago, when I was teaching, I had a very nice little girl in my class. She worked hard, was a good friend, very pleasant and cooperative. But, while doing her best, she was usually at the C or Cplus level. The father of this adopted child said, “I will not have an average child!” I often wonder what happened to her as she grew up realizing that, even at her best, she just wasn’t good enough for his standards.
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Art rejected not only by the Chinese
by Kelley MacDonald, Tiverton, RI, USA
I caught an interview with Amy and she laughingly said most Americans were missing her point in her book. It was all about how SHE did it, and she felt she took it too far! There’s got to be a happy medium. With my own children, looking back, I wished I’d insisted they stayed in things till they were proficient enough to have pride in those skills before they rejected them. How many people have I heard say they played the piano as children, but gave it up as soon as their Mom let them — and are sorry they did? A lot.
And the Chinese are certainly not the only group who reject Art as a profession for their children. My own family did all they could to discourage me! I see now that they did it out of love, out of a sense that we all must be able to provide a living for ourselves. They never met a successful artist — never went to a museum, or even entered a gallery. I think they actually never saw a piece of original art till they were in their 40’s! Mill worker family in a depressed area. I thank God for Higher Education, and the ‘requirements’ college placed on receiving a Liberal Arts degree! I never would have stumbled into an Art History class, which became my major, and which required Studio classes for graduation!
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by Maritza Bermudez, Wheaton, IL, USA
I have enclosed an impressive video. But look at the kids’ faces — they must be 4 or 5 years old. I wonder if their parents let them play??? Give paint and brush to a 2-5 year old and they will create incredible works. Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” (meaning painting art) — or like I say, until they take up something else. My grandkids have all been painters since the age of two. In school they are exposed to music, gymnastics, art, singing, etc. Then they go on to develop what they want. But forcing kids as per the list this author published is cruel punishment!
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When the robots take over
by Judith Desveaux, Kingston, ON Canada
I heard an interview with Amy Chua. I believe in balance in life. Forcing children into thinking boxes defined by “me” limits their ability to grow into rounded individuals. Yes, our society is too permissive which also limits their ability to reach potential.
Based on news from China it seems that technical accomplishment may be held in greater esteem than respect for humanity. Although we are too permissive here, I haven’t heard of children being rounded up for sale to the highest bidder, people being imprisoned for their views, or food being poisoned for profit. This speaks to me of a philosophy toward life that is too clinical to be creative.
My daughter was encouraged to try whatever she was interested in but always reminded that we can’t excel in everything we try to do. As a result she did try and found her centre of excellence. Today she is well educated, culturally aware, flexible to change and new ideas and comfortable with herself. She learned to use her brain for more than rote. Although she didn’t always get A’s, she did well at school. I’m proud that she sees the grey in life, not just the black and white. Her eyes are open to the world around her, not just to the package.
While I’m sure Ms. Chua thinks she did a good job raising her girls, I think her methods are only up to laboratory standards and abusive. Play and investigation are part of what makes us human. If the robots take over, it’s time to leave.
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The culture of control
by Melinda Collins, Redwood City, CA, USA
It is true that many American parents are too busy building their children’s self esteem falsely by over praise of small achievements. However, one might ask whether the other extreme, as portrayed in the description of Tiger Mom parenting, leads to a society like that of China, where cruelty and oppression are commonly used instruments of governmental control. The beautiful artifacts of China’s past are more appreciated in the West, while modernization at the cost of ancient beauty and the environment is the current model of Chinese urban development.
Certainly, Amy’s children will be outstanding and successful, something all of us want for our children. But I do wonder about their emotional development, empathy with others and true self-worth that could survive a failure in some aspect of personal achievement. Perhaps all will be well with them, but I would not want to live in a world full of little Amy Chuas.
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Soothing mother’s ego
by Claudio Ghirardo, Mississauga, ON, Canada
While I do appreciate what you are writing, I am for one in total disagreement with this method. I once taught an art class of kids, ages 6-9; there was one girl who was Chinese who never smiled in class. One day I managed, through a painting, to get her to smile and take pride in her painting of a dog. The girl was 6. The mother looked at the painting and said, “This doesn’t look like a dog to me,” and the girl’s smile vanished quickly and I could see insecurity set in. The problem with this method is two-fold:
— The pride the mother takes in is not that her child is doing so well but that she, the mother, takes pride that she was able to accomplish this feat. That she managed to get her child to be the best. It soothes the mother’s ego, not the child’s.
— When this approach is taken to art, all that happens is that they learn a set formula, the way something should be done. There is no room for experimentation or imagination, just the proper way to do something. I know one Chinese artist who moved to Canada recently and, while I think he is extremely technically sound, his work lacks creativity and spark, and it just looks good.
Keep in mind that Picasso was taught by his father to be an academically sound artist with all the basic understanding of colour, light, drawing, perspective, and so on. But he only became Picasso when he rebelled and turned his back on everything his father taught him.
PS: In China and Japan, the rate for teen suicide is high due to the pressure put on them to succeed.
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Craziness to follow
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
Like a lot of others who read this, I’m sure, I was horrified to read this letter and the newspaper article. I guess it depends on what you think is “the most important thing in life.” Is it to be skillful and succeed at all costs? Or, is it to find your joy, your bliss. I think there can be a happy medium in this. Sure it is important to have skill in what you do, but it can be emphasized without making childhood a form of slavery. No sleepovers? No choice on extracurricular activities? Or TV or other “time wasters?” Wow. Really sounds pretty grim to me. Surely there is a middle ground. I think kids respond to being made to work hard sometimes, and then give them some play as a reward for working hard. And we all need down time, adults, too. I cannot help thinking that those kids who are dominated into performing for the parents’ satisfaction are going to wind up some day resentful and frustrated that they had so little say in the way their lives turned out! It has been shown before–parents who didn’t want Johnny to be an artist, for example, but a doctor or lawyer, end up with a mid-life crisis, and a lot of craziness can follow.
Stick to practice and build character
by Laurie Sain, Lander, WY, USA
My German mother sounds pretty Chinese. I remember specifically at nine years of age, I enrolled in a YWCA ballet and tap dancing class. I didn’t practice the first few weeks, and finally my mom said, “Look, we paid money for this, you wanted to do it, but if you’re not going to practice, there’s no point in continuing. What’s it going to be?
I practiced, and at the final public performance I ended up all alone in front of the line of other little girls because none of them practiced, and they needed someone to lead them. Did I end up a ballerina? Naw. Didn’t like it that much once I learned a little how to do it. But I am an accomplished horsewoman because I learned to practice, and as a playwright I set myself assignments on my own to learn how to write characters, scenes, comedy and drama. Then I put it all together and ended up with some pretty good plays, which, yes, were produced. Now I’m painting, and I seem to have forgotten all that work stuff. So this letter is inspiring: time to put in more of my 10,000 hours at practice stuff before I attempt to do “art.”
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Waldorf school teaches trust
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
If kids are taught properly, as in an alternative school like Waldorf, learning is fun; they want to go to school and love the richness of the curriculum. At least that has been my daughters’ experience. They are incredibly self-motivated and do not have enough hours in a day to do all the creative projects they now drum up for themselves. Of course Waldorf does not permit media for the younger kids — no TV, movies or computer until perhaps the teen years. It’s the ideal and each parent does their best to uphold it. Also, healthy food with very little sugar is advised. Limiting media and sugar help to keep children healthy, calm and creative.
One of my daughter’s best friends has a Chinese mother, not unlike Amy Chua. She has had her daughter in and out of Waldorf over the years, with a mix of home schooling. She had her in public high school for Freshman year, but next year will home school again. Her daughter has excelled in violin for sure and many other areas. She is bright and energetic and eats healthy food. Our experience of her is that being oppressed is causing her to suppress as a coping device, and to do things on the sly that her mother does not allow her to do. So although she will be ahead of the game in many areas of academics and music, she is learning to survive by stuffing her feelings to a degree and by rebelling quietly. What else can she do? I am afraid what I see is a lack of respect and trust when a child is controlled this way. Although I wish my daughter would practice more, I am only willing to give her gentle nudges and support when I see the opportunity. It’s not my place to herd my kids. That doesn’t mean I am allowing no rules or discipline. My rules come from guidance towards respect, health and joy, as well as leading with an eye for their natural talents and inclinations. Trust seems to me to be an important factor that allows kids to self-regulate, and when a child has no room for choice, there is little room for developing trust and honesty. Which would you choose? Extreme achievement or trusting human beings who know themselves?
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Submission not needed
by Decker Walker, Stanford, CA, USA
It may seem that the key issue is between disciplined development of skill and creative free expression, but maybe a more fundamental issue is between accepting given rules and inventing new ones. Disciplined mastery of skills is probably necessary for expression of the highest order in any art. Mastery of skills makes fluency, but it only makes expression possible. Expression does not come automatically. Furthermore, master performers may or may not create and invent within the rules of the game. Mozart had a hard task master in childhood, mastered the skills of classical music, stuck pretty much to the rules of the classical music game as he found them, and managed to play wondrous music within those limitations. In this accomplishment he excelled at skills many young musicians of his day also achieved to a considerable degree. But Mozart, unlike most other hard-working, disciplined students who mastered the performance of classical music, also composed fantastic new music within the forms and rules he learned so well. Many of our greatest artists–Bach, Beethoven, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt–wrote new rules and expanded the forms they inherited. For me, the test of the Tiger mom’s approach to child rearing will come when we see whether those she rears give us new forms of beauty in addition to replicating established modes.
Finally, I doubt that the achievement of mastery requires submission to the will of a parent or teacher. Surely many people, young and old, achieve mastery from efforts they freely give and feel are amply rewarded by the intense pleasures and satisfactions they get from learning and performing. In this case freedom and discipline unite. Surely we should prefer this to the arbitrary imposition of discipline by an authority figure. Or are we put on Earth to carry out others’ dreams?
A spiritual connection to the universe
by Carol Lemieux, Salem, MA, USA
Think about how different the world would be if children were taught to meditate, to learn about who they really are and to identify their talents and gifts and develop those to the fullest. If children could be taught to live from their spiritual connection to the universe — very different from religious ideology — and from who they truly are, fully responsible for their choices and how those choices impact others, the human race would not be on a collision course with its own demise.
I agree with the Tiger Mom that it’s important to teach children through rigorous training and to insist on the best from them, but we would have a much saner, productive, safer world if people were genuinely taught to understand and develop who they are, rather than who and what their parents would like them to be.
With this kind of start, future generations would be living in a much saner, balanced, productive world. We would not be controlled by the need to maintain a huge military force or go to war to resolve conflicts, or by the threat of rape, incest or murder.
The driving force in people’s lives would not be about accumulating and hoarding great wealth and power that would then allow them to influence or dominate others. And we would not be ruled by those who would allow the destruction of our planet — our home — for their own profit.
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Fried Green Tomatoes
oil painting 8 x 10 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jim Kissel of Canton, MI, USA, who wrote, “Has the Western world gone too far into permissiveness? Perhaps. I do observe greater and greater demands for ‘rights’ while ignoring responsibilities.”
And also Adolfo McQue of Cape Town, South Africa, who wrote, “The photo in Time magazine of Amy Chua with two tame tiger cubs says it all — a smug egotist using her children for her own fulfillment.”
And also Jane Walker of UK, who wrote, “At my daughter’s very musical school, the Hong Kong Chinese often win music scholarships and do well. Compared with their less pressured English colleagues they tend to play rather mechanically, however perfectly in terms of technique and accuracy. Interpretation is something the tiger mum cannot so easily give.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Art and the tiger mom…