East Asian child rearing is notorious for the heavy pressure put on children, but also famous for the great feats of technical brilliance and hard work many people who grow up under these conditions perform. Kids are sent to evening classes, weekend lessons, hardly have any free time. And then many graduate at the top of their years.
Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has recently published a book promoting this kind of strict and achievement-orientated parenting. I read an extract on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, and I find Chua’s child-rearing practices counterproductive and draconian. This is largely because I don’t share her highly conservative ideas of what constitutes success in this world.
To begin with, Chua forced her children to play the piano and violin for hours upon end. The value of this is apparently beyond questioning. I’m baffled by this. Few people can name any classical musicians, and extremely few can support themselves playing classical music. Why should I make my kids do that? Both took violin lessons until they tired of the instrument, and then they moved on to sax and piano, which they enjoy playing but don’t work particularly hard at. It’s just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t want either of them to try a professional career in music unless they were really motivated in themselves.
Furthermore, Chua demanded that her kids be No 1 academically in their years, and she forbade them to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV and play computer games. This is just crazy from my point of view. Since childhood, I have always felt that having a lot of unplanned free time to play and laze about with a book or a computer is an important part of basic quality-of-life. Taking free time and play away from kids and teaching them to avoid those things as adults constitutes tragic misuse of a person’s life, from my point of view.
The qualities I try to cultivate in my kids are
- Independent critical thinking
- A sense of humour
- Verbal skills (speaking and writing)
- Solid general knowledge and insight into how everything connects up in the world
- Social fearlessness
As those who have met them can confirm, my kids have all of this in rich measure. I don’t think Amy Chua’s methods would have helped much here, on the contrary. And still, academically speaking, my kids are near the top of their years too.
At the root of my disagreement with Amy Chua lies my cynicism about the value of conventional achievement. I would never go to such lengths to get where Chua is in life, or to get my kids to where her daughters are going, because I don’t find that place attractive. I prefer to work 30-35 hours a week for a modest income and spend a lot of my time achieving nothing, just having fun with friends and family. And that’s what I teach my kids to value too. My goal as a parent isn’t to teach them to excel. It’s to teach them to be happy and have fun.
Update 11 January: Thinking about this, I realised that when I force my children to do things, it’s the opposite of what Chua did (apart from household chores). Ever since my kids learned to use a phone, I’ve made them call a playmate at 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, to keep them from hanging around alone at home and being bored or watching daytime TV. This has ensured that they are experienced phone conversationalists and that they have always been invited to a lot of parties. Amy Chua prohibited play dates.