The Nature of Youth
Amy Chua’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” ignited a heated debate about how parents should raise their children.
Many were shocked by Chua’s description of the strict rules she enforced with her daughters: no play dates, no sleepovers, no school plays, and no grades lower than an A.
“I am in disbelief after reading this article,” proclaimed James Post on the The Wall Street Journal’s website.
Others have commended Chua for espousing a style of parenting that has gone to the wayside in an era of video games, cable TV, and American mediocrity.
A key tenant of Chua’s parenting was her insistence that both of her daughters play the piano or the violin, both instruments that require practice and endless repetition.
Whether one agrees with Chua’s success-driven model or not, Stanford’s best pianists and violinists admit that no one masters those instruments without some form of parental pressure.
Kevin Khoa Le ’13, a Californian of Vietnamese descent, remembers his daily practice routine.
“I hated practice,” he said. “I’d run to the microwave every couple minutes to see how much time I had killed.”
Juliann Ma ‘11, whom many regard as the best pianist at Stanford, is a senior majoring in Piano Performance.
“There are sacrifices to be made,” she says. “I remember sitting at our piano and looking out this big window and seeing our neighbors playing around on their scooters. I’d ask my mom if I could go outside and play and she’d remind me, ‘You have to practice, you have a purpose.’”
Plenty of American children of all ethnicities study music, but very few reach the level that Ma has achieved. Perhaps Chua is right when she argues that Western parents are too conciliatory and therefore prevent their children from true achievement.
Bennett Siegel ‘13, a Jewish History major, dabbled with the piano when he was ten years old.
“I played for a about a week and a half and I decided that I hated it. My parents told me I could quit if I didn’t like it, so I did.”
Chua’s parenting method relies on the notion that children are naturally lazy and that constant prodding is needed to enable growth.
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it,” said Chua. “To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
Eli Katz ’13, who plays violin in Stanford funk band Hot Prowl and is of Jewish descent*, *said that it was his parents who kept him going.
“I had to practice with a bean bag balanced on my violin to keep my posture and it was really frustrating,” he said.
The most incendiary portion of Chua’s article involved an anecdote about her daughter, Lulu. When Lulu, then 7, was struggling to learn “The Little White Donkey” on the piano, she declared that she was giving up and tore the music score to shreds. Chua’s response was harsh.
“I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu,” she said. “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.”
Undergoing the Uncomfortable
Critics have derided Chua for her abusive style, but it seems that Chua believes good parenting is often uncomfortable.
Ma said that her mother was concerned people would get the wrong impression of Chinese mothers from Chua’s article. However, when asked how she would approach being a parent she stated: “Discipline is harsh, but it is necessary.”
Ma remembers a time in middle school when she was stressed and dealt with a period of depression.
“I got kind of sick of piano,” she said. “I was competing a lot and I didn’t feel like I was personally fulfilled.”
She thought about quitting, but the amount of time and money her parents had invested in her career made her hesitant.
Khoa Le experienced a similar disillusionment with piano in sixth grade, but did in fact decide to quit.
“I definitely regret it though,” said Khoa Le. “I had a friend whose mom was more strict and made him stick with lessons. He’s really, really good now and part of me wishes that I could play like that.”
Khoa Le still plays from time to time, mostly modern R&B and Hip-Hop, but he’s noticed that his dexterity has deteriorated over time.
“You’ve got to love it,” he added. “It’s like picking a major. You might think you like biology, but are you actually interested in all the little processes?”
Mike Wei ‘11, a pianist from Taiwan, grew up with many kids who were pressured too hard to excel as musician.
“There are a lot of people who quit at the end of high school, once they’re away form their parents,” he said. “They were driven way too hard.”
Chua’s critics doubt the value of an accomplishment-oriented parenting style, but Chua suggests that the benefits of mastering a musical instrument spill over into other facets of a child’s life.
“The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away,” she said.
Katz speaks fondly of the satisfaction he felt learning to play jazz with his high school friends. Ma gets giddy when she recalls the first time that she performed with an orchestra as a sophomore in high school.
“I remember leaving that night and telling my mother, ‘I wish I could do this every night,’” she said.