The Casual Ditty Of The Tiger Uncle

Posted by Uncle Jesse

One afternoon last week I had the girls to myself. Stephanie was doing some homework and Michelle was in her room, downloading every new free app on her iTouch she had heard anyone mention in the previous 24 hours. I went up to her room to let her know the piano was open, and that since she had a lesson the next day it would probably be a good idea to hop on. She obliged without objection. I watched her sit down at the piano and heard her start playing. I took a brief bathroom break. When I emerged, I did not hear any piano music. I approached the piano to see if she was stuck on a part, but she had vanished. I did, however, hear the dulcet tones of Ke$sha coming from her room. Once again, I ascended the stairs.

perfect form? we're working on it“I thought you were going to practice piano,” I said with a curious tone, honestly unsure of what had happened to prevent her from practicing.

“I did.”

I looked at my bare wrist as if I were wearing a watch. I do this often when time is being called into question; rarely am I called out for not actually, you know, wearing a watch.

I had taken some reading material to the bathroom with me, but it’s not like I did the puzzles or anything. I surmised that the piano practice could not have lasted more than five minutes.

“Yeah, I’m going to need to hear those songs. I don’t think a 5-minute practice session is going to cut it.”

Protest. Shock. Not only was I asking her to resume a chore-like activity that she already considered completed, I was basically questioning her integrity. I reminded her that since she had been practicing this set of drills and songs for a week now (well, it had been a week since the last lesson–I don’t think there has ever been a “7 days a week” piano practice standard in the house) that they should basically be perfect for tomorrow’s lesson–notes, volume, rhythm, everything.

What I found when I sat to listen to the next practice was not perfection. No songThey make Cliff Notes for this stuff? went through without errors. Not once after opening the book was it viewed for the tips on how the piece should be played, the fortes and pianissimos, crescendos and decrescendos. Whole note drills were being played as half notes or faster. I decided that in addition to more practice, it was time for a gentle (ok, maybe more than gentle reminder) of what piano practice looks like.

Not surprisingly, this reminder was met with tears. But the practice pressed on, and I sat on the bench–not to look for errors any more, I assure you. I had found enough to make my point. Now, of course, I had to do the part that, more than fussy children or tears is typically the reason kids are let off the hook. I had to sit down next to her and practice the darn piano with her.

I have heard and read a lot recently about Yale professor Amy Chua and her new book on how she raised her two high-achieving daughters, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Like most of the folks who are writing, blogging, and offering opinion on Chua and her seemingly (to some) Draconian-strict methods of parenting, I have not actually read her book (this is an important question, I think, to ask anyone who seems especially fired up about Chua and her book: have you actually read the book?). I did read the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal and found it very interesting. I also suspect that Chua is a very smart woman with a very smart agent and, like the folks at the WSJ, are trying to sell as many books (or newspapers) as possible and collectively were wise enough to include some of the more incendiary revelations of the book in the excerpt.

It worked. People are talking.

I certainly did not grow up with parents who threatened to give away my toys overnight if I did not bring home perfect grades, or perform my piano pieces without flaw. But I do think I was raised with a little more of the “Chinese” upbringing with which she reared her children than some of my “Western” friends. While curfews and car rides were not met with much questioning from my parents, it was well-known to my friends not to call on the phone the night after report cards went out if there was a ‘B’ on mine. My status was “unavailable”.

[brief side story: Lisa used to combat this by lining up her friends to call at specifically calculated times, five minutes apart from each other, beginning at 8 o’clock. Each friend/caller was assigned a particular academic query and was instructed to let the operator–my Dad–know that only Lisa knew the particular answer, or who was doing what in the group project, or what pages they were supposed to read, or whatever. This served two purposes: first, it made it seem as if she were thought of as the “academic” among her friends. But more importantly, after three interruptions to “Nova” on PBS, my father would tire of relaying questions and answers, and surrender the phone. Very clever and diplomatic of Lisa. Me? I just threw my stereo down the stairs]

So unlike much of the American opinion I read about Chua and her methods, I do not think, “What a tyrant! What an awful way to raise children! She must not love them!”

Flashy cover? Check. Splashy book excerpt? Check. This thing will sell.On the contrary, I believe she loves her children very much, and that she has devoted and sacrificed much of her own time to raising them in a way she believes will lead to success and, yes, happiness for them. Her theory is not an absurd or even untested one. The thinking goes that children will kick and scream at anything that requires work and patience in the beginning, so kicking and screaming should not be deterrents. Rather, once you get through the initial push, and once a child has a taste of success, it will bring confidence. Which leads to more hard work, more mastery, followed by praise (not only from parents, but non-family members as well), all of which will lead to more confidence, more mastery, more hard work, more success, and, ultimately, happiness. Is this a terrible theory? Of course not. And, in fact, I have neither the academic training, parenting experience, nor desire to try to “set her straight” or “prove her wrong” because, again, I’m not sure she’s off base at all (though I do take issue with the way she degrades some things “Western” parents do as a way to justify her own choices. To wit: Chua says her kids were not allowed to be in school plays. Surely a child can have a small role in a performance of a school play without having “to stay after school every day from 3:00 to 7:00” and “on weekends”. And don’t even get me started on what her kids may be missing out on by not going to summer camp).

But anecdotally speaking (which, from what I can gather, is what most of her theory is based on: her own rearing and that of her children–not scientific studies on the psychology of children and parents in different cultures), I look at my sister Sallie, and think, “there has to be another way.”

I would challenge Chua or anyone to find someone who has achieved at a higher level in a more competitive field than my sister. My sister was pushed, yes, but also allowed to fail, quit the piano (and all other instruments) when she grew tired of it, choose her own field (there are no other scientists in my family–not even close), decide which activities to participate in, etc. Was she pushed by my parents? Absolutely. But sometimes after a particularly trying ballet practice in which she had felt the wrath of the instructor, my mother commiserated with her and agreed that, yes, that woman could be a…well, a meanie.

Back to Michelle and the piano. Here at the Tanner house, I am always feeling outI can't stay here for three hours a day. I just can't do it. my role. At first I concentrated on bringing the fun to the house, because we all needed it. But over time, it has become clear–and Danny will readily admit this–that we are a little lacking for Lisa’s discipline. This is not taking away anything from Danny or the girls. Again, he says over and over what a perfect pair they were, and perfectly complementary when it came to parenting. It only makes sense that, with one of them gone, something would be a little lacking, right?

But I also know I do not have what it takes to be Chua. Not even close. She is right in that many Western parents say they value their children’s independence when really they just do not want to stop watching “Modern Family” to sit next to their kids at the piano bench. And I’m no different there. I could not do it every day. Sometimes I try to crank out a silly little article before a deadline and I watch Danny move back and forth between cooking a meal, sitting at the piano bench, sitting on the couch to do flash cards, back to the meal, back the bench, and so on. I wonder if I could ever keep up the kind of energy it takes to be a “great” parent, the energy that he and, yes, the Tiger Mother, both display.

Typically, I try a little of both. I can sit on the piano bench for 20 minutes. Or I can call out flash cards for one night (hey, we have DVR, right?) But I also try to let the girls know that ultimately, and especially now that we’re down one true parent, that if they want to get ahead it’s on them.

I believe talent is overrated, and that hard work is the only way to truly achieve success. And I also believe in choices, and finding the thing or things you (not your parents) have a true passion for, and that these are the things you will want to work hardest at. So after almost every work session that begets tears (be it book work, piano work, running, dancing…any of the activities the girls are involved in at some point involve tears, I have learned), they typically hear this from me:

“Being great at anything is not easy. If playing piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. It takes work, and practice, and patience, and repetition to get really, really good at something. You are going to be GREAT at something. It may not be piano; it may be drawing or writing or leading or something else, but you are going to be great–one of the best in the world–at something. But whatever it is, you’re going to have to work hard at it. And practicing piano is a way to learn that skill. Again, I’m not saying you have to be great at piano. I really don’t care what it is you choose to be great at. But you’ve got to learn to work hard.”

Two nights ago Michelle was on the piano. I glanced at the clock to see how long she went and was disappointed when it fell short of ten minutes. But I never feel quite as comfortable pushing more piano practice when Danny’s in the house–all joking aside, he outranks me, and I worry about the one day a kid lashes back with “You’re NOT my parent!” because I’m not. But I was also fatigued from the last time we did battle at the piano bench, and I had another article to write.

But a minute later, the piano started back up. This time it had just been a pause, or a bathroom break, or a text from someone on the iTouch (since she knows how to do that now, too). But soon the piano was being practiced again, and whether it was from her desire to get better, or knowing I was within earshot and had raised the bar for what counts for practice time, I’m not sure and I don’t really care. Without getting philosophical, and without taking a lick of credit, I’d like to think that a child doubling her practice time without prompting is at least as significant as one spending three hours with hands on keys (and parent on back), banging out soulless perfection.

Advertisements
Previous Post
Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. Melanie Walker

     /  January 20, 2011

    How’d you get so wise, Uncle Jesse? Great article, and I agree with it all wholeheartedly (but I AM so tired of fighting about guitar practice).

    Reply
  2. King

     /  January 21, 2011

    A little sugar coating…you’re Grrreat! Loved the writing and sagacity, Uncle J. — you lil’ tiger!

    Reply
  3. Beth Fields

     /  January 21, 2011

    Thank-you and Amen!

    Reply
  4. Hopie

     /  January 21, 2011

    You’re a great writer, Uncle Jesse — I think we should send this to WSJ!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s