All the world — or at least all the world of parents of young kids — or at least all the world of educated parents of young kids who fret about their kids’ psychic and material well-being — is abuzz about Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” which starts out:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.
What follows is a cheerful recounting of Chua’s stern regimen with her daughters. Here she is with 7-year-old Lulu, who was having trouble with a piano piece:
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
And her thoughts on grades:
If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
As it happens, I was just reading Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner’s enjoyable new book Loving and Hating Mathematics, so of course I was reminded of Norbert Wiener’s childhood recollections of being trained in mathematics by his father:
He would begin the discussion in an easy, conversational tone. This lasted exactly until I made the first mathematical mistake. Then the gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of blood. The first warning he gave of my unconscious delinquency was a very sharp and aspirated “What?”…. My lessons ended in a family scene. Father was raging. I was weeping and my mother did her best to defend me, although hers was a losing battle.
Wiener’s student Norman Levinson wrote of his teacher, “Even forty years later when he became depressed and would reminisce about this period, his eyes would fill with tears as he described his feelings of humiliation as he recited his lessons before his exacting father. Fortunately he also saw his father as a very lovable man and he was aware of how much like his father he himself was.”
Ann Hulbert in today’s Slate has more on Chua as the latter-day Leo Wiener.
I tend to think that getting strong in mathematics requires devoting a lot of time to it. Hours a day on average, just like piano. I certainly did that — but not because my parents forced or threatened or tantrummed me into it. Chua leads off by suggesting that her method tends to produce “math whizzes.” Is it true? It goes against all my experience of how mathematics works. But readers, I am curious — did any of you learn math like this? Feel free to respond anonymously — I recognize this survey requires more self-revelation than most.
(Also, never fear, we’re not considering giving CJ and AB this treatment. I’ve lived in an apartment with thin walls where I had to listen to a kid practice piano four hours a day, and friends, nothing would make me go back to that.)