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.


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.

2 thoughts on “Amy Chua Is a Wimp

  1. Some words penned in response to the thoughts of a student writing elsewhere . . .

    I would not normally lock horns and try to best a junior in high school; I’m hoping you do not read my words here as such, for they are meant for you only as a provocation to further thought to your ideas well-presented.

    You’ve written that you “used to get frustrated when I had to practice violin and I really didn’t want to . . .” Do I read correctly that you no longer “get frustrated?” If so, that’s a remarkable advancement. As a musician myself I want to ask you, Why do you practice violin and not another instrument of your choosing less frustrating, for examples, flute, harpsichord, tuba, or tabla. There is a vast – and I do mean vast! – repertoire for each of those, and many other, instruments that could challenge you unendingly for the remainder of your life. Instead of spending hours at your chosen instrument (whichever it may be) in the drudgery of isolated practice, why not spend more of your time in practice with music ensembles of various kinds. This can yield a discipline and advancement of a uniquely different kind. If you are studying formally with a violin teacher I’m quite sure he will confirm the well-founded idea that, as a performer, playing an instrument is one kind of challenge but playing an instrument WITH PEOPLE is significantly more so. A musician in isolation is a musician limited. And herein lays one, only one, of the transparent contradictions of the way Professor Chua has taught her two daughters to approach their instruments; opportunistically solely for unartistic purposes.

    A fundamental flaw in the approach to music of Amy Chua – an amusical hack with no known talent for an art of any kind! – is that she has decided it’s perfectly acceptable to pervert one of the greater of the fine arts for use in ulterior purposes. In the example of the Chua family, so-so slogging through masterpieces of music was used to impress others when applying for admission to university. (Would Professor Chua dare to advocate this openly with religion, physics, good grammar, or issues of national interest?) The whole idea that her elder daughter, Sophia, played a debut recital in Carnegie Hall is an early example of the pervasive blight of résumé bloat on which social climbers like Amy Chua have advanced themselves; a blight to which the Chua daughters were introduced early by two parents who know well how to tweak the system to gain unearned personal advantage.

    Carnegie Hall,, includes three auditoria in its building: Stern Auditorium, Zankel Hall, and Weill Recital Hall It was in Weill that Sophia performed as only one among a cattle-call string of young pianists that day. Do you doubt what I write here? Compare the architectural design,, behind Sophia with that of the architectural design at the rear of the stage in Having been a performer, myself, in both Stern and Weill over many years you have my assurance that Sophia performed her piece in Weill. Debut recital in Carnegie Hall! Indeed!

    You have written about your parents that they are “less extreme than Chua I’ll admit, but a lot of her memoir is satire and exaggeration.” Don’t be deceived by quick-change artist Professor Chua. She has spent more than one year trying to convince readers of her text that she is some kind of nouveau belles-lettrist who did no more than exercise a writer’s license to engage her readers. In truth she meant what she wrote until her hypocritical posturing as an authentic Chinese mother — born in Illinois to a Filipino father, neither speaks Chinese nor writes Chinese script — came back to haunt her with a ferocity that caused this self-styled Tiger Mother to recoil into improvised doublespeak. Amy Chua is a complete fake!

    All young musicians should be given only two music instrument choices to pursue in life, Violin or Piano. All else is useless waste. Any adult giving such advice is one woefully ill-informed. As a bass trombonist, my instrument has been my first class ticket from person-to-person, school-to-school, city-to-city, studio-to-studio, and stage-to-stage. With the kinds of preparations the Chua daughters were given will they ever perform, as I have, with Richard Tucker, Birgit Nilsson, Roberta Peters, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, and the two-thirds of The New York Philharmonic who were my schoolmates for five years in Juilliard? Forget it!

    Mercifully, I was never besieged with a Tiger Mother or Tiger Anything to motivate me. Yes, I too sometimes was bored with scales and chords. Yes, sometimes my imagined future seemed an unattainable fantasy. Yes, I did sometimes fall flat on my face in public performance (as did my teachers before me and also their teachers before them). Life went on and continues to do so.

    You’ve written that “At this point (as a Junior in high school) about 35% of the pressure to do well comes from my parents and the other 65% is complete self-motivation.” From the subtlety of your writing I suspect you’re cutting yourself short with that 65%. You appear to be much more highly motivated than your objective perspective about yourself can show you at this early time.

    The violin? I advise you to seriously reëvaluate what you believe is your relationship to any instrument of your choice; if, indeed, the violin has been your choice and not that of someone else. If the violin has been your choice, stay with it through all the coming stormy weather of doubt and seeming incompetence. If it is not, drop it in preference to another more to your liking and its fitness for your physicality. (If it’s the tuba, tell your parents that someone other than I recommended it!)

    Good Luck!

    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  2. Confidence comes from doing anything well, so that wouldn’t seem to be relevant to deciding whether to engage in multiple activities or to focus on a few. What would be relevant would be to decide whether one wants to become a true expert at something or simply to become (perhaps) competent. The literature on expertise has found that the former requires 4 hours a day of studied practice for at least 10 years.
    Looking at “cognitive demands”, that’s an interesting opinion, but where’s the evidence? Even if it’s true, unless someone studies “negotiating group dynamics” over a lengthy period of time, then it doesn’t matter what the demands are. One will stay at a level of low (in)competence. So, such a comparison is no more than a red herring.
    The hard decision is finding something that one’s child is really interested in and then helping the child become an expert in that area instead of the average (in)competent person found everywhere.

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