Pete's Blog

Tiger Moms Raise 'Fraidy Cats

Everyone has heard of Amy Chua by now, whose "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" recommends denying your children play dates and sleepovers, calling them "garbage," throwing handmade birthday cards back in their faces if they don't show sufficient effort, the better to help them prevail in a dog-eat-dog world. This space has little to say on the subject of parent-child interactions and most who know me would place me closer on the scale to the Tiger Mom than most. I expect my ex-wife could tell plenty of stories of my lack of patience with picky eating or the inability to write thank-you notes. But one item in the litany of Ms. Chua's bullying struck a a quite literal chord - how she refused to let her daughter go to the bathroom one evening until she mastered a difficult piano composition. I remember in my music critic days an educator telling me about the demographic shift his conservatory had seen in the past 20 years. In the '70s and '80s, he said, the students willing or able to take on the tremendous workload required tended to be Soviet Jews. With the fall of Communism this pattern shifted dramatically and by the time he was speaking the great majority of his applicants were Asian. Ms. Chua has indulged in enough ethnic stereotyping already for me to want to avoid any generalizations about the Chinese attitude towards creativity, hard work, individuality, the imagination, and so on. This isn't about that. But when parents of any race arbitrarily choose their children's hobbies based on the effort required to pursue them the result (at least in the arts) can be rote, dutiful, anything but creative. Witness the superstar pianist Lang Lang, or "Bang Bang" as I've heard him called in several quarters. He tells stories of his father's maniacal discipline and sacrifice (at one point insisting they both commit suicide when a piece wasn't coming along well) after they had left Lang's mother in the countryside and moved to a tiny Beijing apartment so he could study music. There had been no music in the home, no family tradition of music, until the day Lang's father declared that the boy was going to make the family's fortune as a pianist. The result, repeated in dozens if not hundreds of cases, has been dutiful, proficient playing that, while retaining some interest (it's hard to make Beethoven boring) often makes a listener ask why, exactly, is he listening? Even Lang Lang's much-publicized flamboyance has a packaged quality. I'm supposed to smile so I will smile. I'm supposed to wave my arms so I will wave my arms. What's missing is what my Catholic friends might call vocation, what prospective Protestant divines refer to as the Call, the sense that God has taken you aside and asked you personally (not your parents) to do this work. Plenty of Asian performers have this quality - Midori comes to mind, and Mitsuko Uchida - but Lang Lang isn't one of them. Neither, I suspect, are Amy Chua's daughters, no matter how much they practice.

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