Amy Chua Is a Wimp

Is Amy Chua a tiger mother, for forcing her daughters to practice music four hours a day, and denying them sleepovers?  David Brooks thinks not: “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

Chua is applying to her own kids the lessons she learned from her parents, and she is preparing her kids to be the kind of people she feels they need to be. As homeschool parents, my wife and I have made our own decisions about what is and is not important in our lives, and of course it was heartening to read Brooks’s rousing defense of the important learning that takes place outside of the formal structure of school.

Being in a school play is on the list of things Chua won’t let her kids do. My kids just got cast in a local production of Seussical, and we consider ourselves lucky if we get 20 minutes of piano practice each day. I see the confidence that comes from memorizing lines, forming bonds with your castmates, and singing a solo under the bright lights as important preparation for joining the real world, where there will be plenty of head-turning spectacles and lots of drama.

Chua also targets video games. For my part, I see my son developing people skills and problem-solving skills as he explores virtual worlds, too. I’ve been secretly thrilled as I watch him strike up deals with fellow players in Dungeons and Dragons Online, selling treasure he has no use for, in return for in-game bonuses like health potions or better weapons. A few times when he’s gotten stuck on Half-Life 2, he’s whined to me for help, such as when he kept trying to take down a menacing black helicopter with a tiny handgun. I asked him why he thought that gunfire was his only option. Soon he was dodging and weaving, timing his motions so that he was hiding while the helicopter was firing, and moving while the helicopter was unloaded. Problem solved. And shortly thereafter, when my 8yo daughter burst into tears because she couldn’t solve a particular timing puzzle in Portal, my son stepped in, put her on his lap, put one arm around her, and gave her just enough help to motivate her to keep trying, but not enough to take away the rush she felt when she finally finished the level “by herself.”

As Brooks puts it:

Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

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Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.