Tiger Mother Amy Chua Sets the Record Straight

So, for those of you who still haven't read the whole book, and may even find yourself getting sick and tired of all the "Tiger Mom" and "Tiger Cub" stuff being thrown around the web, here's something that might ease your suffering. Amy Chua wrote a column in USA TODAY entitled, "Here's how to reshape U.S. education." First of all, it's short and very readable in a few minutes, honoring our short American attention spans, a la USA Today. Second of all, Amy "follows the rules" and wears her academic hat here, citing historical geopolitical examples, statistics, and all those other techniques that make our rational brains feel taken care of. She sounds smart, succinct, and very put-together. To draw a wardrobe analogy, she would be wearing a navy blue suit and high heels in this article, while in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother we saw her with no makeup, maybe some running shoes, and her "fat jeans". In other words, she wasn't so pretty and polished. Here, she only briefly hints at her own vulnerability, her own flawed human condition, by stating that she "learned her lesson the hard way" when her younger daughter (NB: the daughter who does not yet have a blog, and has not yet gotten into Harvard...she's only a freshman in high school) rebelled. She also hints at the vulnerabilities of her attackers - you know, the parenting bloggers and other self-righteous jumpers-on-the-bandwagon who feel the need to polarize every story into a right-versus-wrong debate - by saying this about parenting in particular, and why it's such a hot-button issue:
"We all desperately want to get it right and never know for sure whether we are. Perhaps it's because the stakes are so high, and it's terrifying to admit a mistake."
Ultimately, in the final paragraphs, she boils down her point of view into a very tidy philosophical statement of "East Meets West", imagining an ideal borrowing from the "best of both worlds" - the structure and discipline required in early childhood to establish a foundation of learning, and a gradual opening in the later teenage years to allow ample exploration of individuality and creative self-expression:
The great virtue of America's system is that our kids learn to be leaders, to question authority, to think creatively. But there's one critical skill where our kids lag behind: learning how to learn. East meets West If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults. This is a way to combine East and West: more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years.
When I read these words, they sound familiar. I agree with them. They were the ingredients I intended to bring into fruition when I started a violin school for toddlers in Silicon Valley back in 2004. With starry eyes and the willingness to put everything on the line (including a partner-level job in venture capital) for the creation of this dream, I set out to provide the ultimate combination of Eastern and Western philosophies. This was to be "more than violin lessons". It was to be "lifelong learning", using the vehicle of violin to teach discipline, teamwork, leadership, collaboration, listening, sensitivity, confidence, and mastery. Everything I could think of could be taught through the journey of learning to play violin and performing around the world. I actually used the term "learning how to learn" in my parent seminars and recruiting presentations. And I did attempt to teach people - parents mostly - how to practice. I designed "practice charts", created videos, held evening seminars complete with PowerPoint presentations, hosted summer camps with guest teachers, invited high school seniors as "examples of success" other than myself, traveled with entire families (our peak was 76 travelers and two full-size motorcoaches) from California to Chicago each year to perform at Orchestra Hall. By trying to put Amy Chua's eloquent words into real-life practice with real-life people, I realized that no one person, no one system, can "make" anyone learn. People learn exactly what they learn, when they learn it. When they are ready to receive a particular lesson, they do. No sooner and no later. Amy Chua's lessons came to her when her younger daughter was a pre-teenager, when everything fell apart in her tightly controlled, perfectly planned world. My lessons came when I realized that I could not create THE perfect learning environment for every child, no matter how carefully I honed my interviewing, recruiting and selection process (designed to screen for parents who knew how to learn), or how much energy I poured into the individual dynamics of each child-parent-family system. I could not teach anyone "how to practice" if they were unwilling or unable to go through the messy learning process on their own, make mistakes and admit to them, ask for help, try things and fail, and be willing to let go of attachment to outcomes. Including myself. In the end, the greatest lesson I learned was exactly how unwilling I was to be open to the outcome that my school would be imperfect, that it might not match up to the expectations and image I had created in my mind for what I would be able to achieve. And so I gave up. I let it go. I quit. I had given all I could give, based on who I was at the time. And now, more than a year after letting go, I am saying my first words about it in public, with some level of honesty and self-compassion. Amy Chua talks about the "perfect" education system as combining lots of structure and discipline in the early years - when the children still listen to their parents - followed by opening and letting go in the teenage years. The challenge I found, when trying to put this into practice with real people, is that the "Eastern" parents couldn't trust the process enough to let go and watch their children learn from harmless mistakes, and the "Western" parents wanted to allow teenage-like behavior to blossom at age seven or eight. I was at a loss for words, or programs, or activities, to address the diversity and complexity of issues that were playing out in front of me. Everyone seemed to need a different message, a different balance, and yet when the kids were put in front of the parents as a group, no one could stop themselves from comparing and despairing. The insecurities kicked in. The measurement of progress relative to other kids. The need for recognition in terms of trophies and plaques. In other words, all the things that kill learning and stop creativity in its tracks. Since I had taken it upon myself to try to create one learning environment - one culture - that would meet the needs of every single student, parent, and family, I failed. I failed at an impossible task. Worst of all, I was alone. I had created no community of support in terms of other practitioners who were "on the same page" as educators, facing the same challenges. I found a non-profit organization, called "Positive Coaching Alliance", that was doing parent and coach education in the arena of sports as personal development. I sponsored a workshop by their organization for the parents in my school, hoping to draw out the many comparisons between sports and music in their children's education. But it was too late. I was stretched thin in terms of my energy, I was entangled very deeply in some toxic and manipulative relationships with a few very vocal parents in my school, and I had no one to confide in, except my own journals and blogs. I had no outlet for discussion of the harsh truths, the difficult emotions, the tenderness of the situations I was dealing with, the courage I was being asked to call upon - which I could not find. The advice I got from my own teacher amounted to this: "Well, you just deal with it. That's the way it is. You've got no choice. This is what you've gotten yourself into. And your parents are ten times better than the ones I've dealt with my entire forty-year career, so be thankful." It didn't feel helpful, and I couldn't find the feeling of "thankfulness", no matter how much I believed I "should" be thankful. I didn't want to look forward to another x number of decades in this state of unrest, grappling for control, and feeling so responsible for the outcomes of so many lives (yes, I really did think I could make that big of an impact through violin). I knew firsthand - from my own childhood experience - the many toxic emotions that could be cultivated in a violin school, how comparisons, competitions, and insecurities could bring out the ugliness in even the most well-intentioned people. And I did not want to repeat that experiment. I wanted to part of a solution, not part of a problem. So I stopped. My solution was to get to know myself better, to dive into my own vulnerabilities, to explore what was possible for myself when I allowed my own creativity to flow, and to really learn for myself what peace, joy, and freedom felt like. My solution also involved learning to see my own responsibility for creating the situation I found myself in, facing the painful truth that my thoughts and beliefs drove me to act in ways that caused my own suffering. Reading Amy Chua's seemingly definitive answer for "how to" reform education in U.S., and seeing the many readers who, only now, are willing to acknowledge her wisdom, I'm reminded of our collective discomfort with the unknown, and our voracious appetite for certainty. Now that I am at some distance from my career as a violin teacher, I feel less certain of what I would say to a parent about "how to" do that formidable job - the one where the stakes seem to be so high, where we seem to be so afraid of "doing it wrong". I feel less attached to sounding put-together and having pat answers to complex questions. But I also feel more trusting of the process of life. I feel less afraid of other people's (and my own) reactions in the face of uncertainty. I feel more compassionate toward the pain and fear of looking our own vulnerabilities in the face. Why? Not because I went to Harvard. Not because I made partner in a VC firm. Not because I "followed my dream", and built a business. Not because I now call myself a "life coach". But because I'm committed to learning. To the complex, sometimes messy, sometimes difficult, sometimes ugly, and ultimately rewarding process of learning. I'm now discovering, in small steps each day, what it's like to live life for the joy in each moment. I'm walking the talk. For me. I'm making my own mistakes, learning my own lessons, and loving myself more every day. And that's the perfect education for me.

2 thoughts on “Tiger Mother Amy Chua Sets the Record Straight

  1. acleansurface

    The part about "increasing self direction in the teenage years" gets my attention, because as I heard someone say on the radio this week: the teen years seem to start at about 8 now! I can vouch for the fact that my 10 year old is in full teen mode. Very frustrating. I want to encourage independence, but 10 is too young to have the knowledge and experience needed for that independence — too young to be shutting out adult guidance…and yet, the shutting-out is happening.

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  2. Jasoneducator

    This kind of stuff feels similar to what an acquaintance of mine, Paul Brunson, realized about himself after several frustrated educational ventures. He shifted into his own version of life coaching a website/life coaching/matchmaker service called onedegreefrom.me and from the external metrics I can observe (event size, twitter followers, facebook activity) he seems to be doing much better in a field that focuses on his people skills.

    I hope that you don't give up on education as a result of this experience. Personally, my feeling is that you chose the willful upper class that is pretty much doomed to treat you as an inferior if they are paying you market value for your services. They may feel that they've "bought" you. When I used to tutor for this population, my frequent feeling was that the majority of these parents "treat you like the maid". Hopefully, that means they have deep regard for those in the service industries, but often it seems to me that a maid or au pair relationship defines a great deal of their attitudes toward service occupations.

    Anyways, I'm a rambler and a gambler in this comment so I shall cease.
    Blessings,
    jrc

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