Have I told you about my brief career as a piano player? I think I was five. One summer my uncle signed us both up for piano lessons, and he bought a piano for us to practice on (he was already a talented musician). The book we learned on had numbers printed above the notes that corresponded with each finger. I got really good at playing the songs, but only by number – I didn’t learn a single note. At the end of the summer, when it was time for us to return to California (we always spent the summers with my Reyna in New Mexico) the piano teacher, instead of recommending that I continue to practice, suggested that I might try exploring a different hobby rather than continue with the piano. How I have wished for a redo – I really didn’t practice all that much, if I’m being honest, and I should have mentioned early on that the numbers were all I was learning.
I was thinking about all of this while I read today; I got through chapter 14. When I was a kid I always imagined having a piano in the home of my grown up self. Maybe when Little Mama gets bigger… No, I won’t use the Chua method. It was difficult to read how she obsessed over her daughters’ music lessons. She would preside over their daily practices, each one ninety minutes long (at least). Not a musician herself, she read books about technique so she could coach them, one on piano, the other on the violin. I couldn’t help but wonder how much sleep this woman got – if I understand her timeline correctly, she also taught at Yale Law School, and she managed to get a few books written too. She looks so young in the photos (most chapters begin with a picture).
Their family got to travel a great deal, and Chua arranged to borrow pianos wherever they went so the girls would not miss a practice (violin was easier, of course – violins are easy to transport). She talks about the drive to make sure her children were successful, and mentions that “children in China practice ten hours a day.” As an adult I can’t imagine that level of commitment – it does make me wonder, how many kids actually choose that? How many kids have the drive to practice ten hours a day at anything? Is there always a parent forcing them, all of the most successful kids (gymnasts, musicians, dancers, etc.)? Is it wrong, because surely the kid reaps the benefits of being an expert? Those kids standing on the gold medal platform – who put them there? Either way, they seem thrilled at their accomplishments. I watch my daughter tumbling around the living room, and I wonder. I watch her dance and I wonder. She is old enough to take dance and gymnastics now, probably even music lessons. So should we or shouldn’t we? I wonder.
Another bit about Chinese parents: they do not assume that their kids are fragile. They treat them like they are strong. Chua talks about hating it when people use the idea that everyone is special and different as an excuse for inferiority. She says that she didn’t feel badly about berating her girls when she knew they could do better because she knew they could take it – they were strong and capable, and she never believed any differently. It’s true, I do pay a lot of attention to self esteem – I want to be as gentle and positive as I can be with my daughter. Now that she is three and testing limits, I work very hard to avoid the tantrum in the first place, sometimes whispering, begging her under my breath to please, please remain calm and don’t start screaming – I am always tempted to bargain with her – a lollipop in exchange for a successful nap time, etc. Maybe I DO see her as fragile sometimes, when really she’s a little toughy (and I’m glad she’s a little toughy). Chua suggests that we should not allow our children to give up or believe that they are incapable of something – I will have to think about this some more.
A couple of other tidbits:
According to Chua, one of the reason Asian kids do so well in school in the United States is that they always do the extra credit. I have to say that I am always surprised at how many people do not attempt the extra credit in my class. I told them ahead of time that I would give some extra credit on the final exam that was guaranteed to earn extra points for everyone who attempted it (I asked them what they most enjoyed learning in my class and why) – I was surprised at how many on-the-line students (thisclose to an A or B) just left it blank. They didn’t even try. Honestly, I don’t care what race or ethnicity you are – always TRY the extra credit.
One thing I think we should all copy from Chua is how she never allowed her girls to make fun of foreign names or accents. She refers to a foreign accent as a “sign of bravery” – I plan to quote her when the time is right, both to my kids and my students. It irks me when people criticize non-native-speakers of English – most of the time they are doing far better in our language than we can do in theirs.
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