[Chua] "Nothing is fun until you're good at it"

This is part of a series of responses to Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal. Posts on this topic are tagged as [Chua].

This is the last piece of my response to Chua’s article. Up until now I’ve pretty much been against Chua, with occasional concessions. This last one is the controversial piece where I admit she may have a point.

(But then I still end on a counter-argument.)

I’ve read the article many times by now, but if you don’t remember it, go back and check the story about Lulu and “The Little White Donkey”. A week of practice, then one horrible night of screaming, threats, insults (or maybe “motivational negatives”), hours and hours of nonstop drilling…and she played the piece. And then all was well, and she loved it, and the two had a happy night, and…

I shouldn’t be so scornful. After all, it worked, didn’t it? And it didn’t cause any rift between them. And I doubt it was an isolated incident. I think most of my friends agree that this was excessive, though. Would it really have hurt to spread this out over another week?

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

You know, maybe she’s right. I’m not sure if putting it off for a week would have counted as “giving up”, but it’s true that Lulu had a huge burst of confidence when she managed to get the piece. (She “wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano.”)

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

This is going to be the center of this post. Rote repetition has no value in and of itself. So if you can, say, improve your skill at solving math problems by better understanding the connection between geometry and algebra, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean that “practice, practice, practice” won’t help either, especially since a lot of math mistakes are just typo-equivalents (like sign errors).

There’s also been talk lately, all the way up to the State of the Union, about America’s slipping ranks in achievement for math and science. Now again, rankings don’t mean everything, but in this case I believe there’s at least a basis in truth. At some point saying “well, we’re more creative, we’re more well-rounded, we’re happier” stops being a reason and starts being an excuse (and one that may be less and less true as well). Maybe we do need to bear down and study harder, not by adding more standardized tests, or by piling on the homework, but…hm. Is it the parents’ fault?

More personally, I suffer from this. I’ve generally been pretty good at things my whole life. And what this has come to mean is I’m not so good at doing things that don’t come naturally. I took piano lessons for about a year and a half before I quit, because I wasn’t getting anywhere. Years later, I started playing again with video game themes…but then (and now) I don’t have the coordination to play two different rhythms on different hands.

It’s not like I don’t get anything done. I’ve had two months where I wrote poems for all thirty-one days. I’ve done NaNoWriMo twice. I write useful computer programs, I’m almost never late with school projects, and I’ve spent several-hour days/nights preparing for a performance. But if I can’t see progress, it’s really hard for me to keep going, especially on drills (like scales, unfortunately). I’m not sure I have the motivation that I would had I grown up under a more tiger-ish system.

Nothing is fun until you’re good at it, so if you’re forced to work on something for that first bit, you can get over that hump. This applies to reading, math, music as much as to games and sports. Makes sense.


…it’s not true. Well, not entirely.

Plenty of things are fun even when you’re not good at them, including sports, games, music, reading, and yes, for some people, math. Often, the very same parents might say “Look, why do X, when you could be doing Y? It’s not like you’re so invested in it.” But if you do invest in X, you might become good at it, and maybe it’ll be more valuable than Y in the long run. Meanwhile, you’re having all the great side benefits of an activity you actually enjoy.

I’m not saying that you don’t still need to put effort in; again, you can always improve at whatever you do (and almost always, there’s someone better than you, not to compete with but to learn from). But when this whole attitude is married with “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences”, you end up with wasted potential. (And I’m not trying to be touchy-feely here; I’m saying that effort applied to an activity you enjoy usually goes farther than effort applied to an activity you don’t. Not always, but often.)

In the long run, if you become a brilliant pianist but hate piano, that’s a waste. If you become an okay pianist and quit, then regret it later, that’s also a waste. One lesson to take away is that you shouldn’t give something up just because it’s painful now. But the other is that you might do better if you can find something you love in the first place.

I’m going to close it all off with a quote from How Children Fail by John Holt, a wonderful book about teaching that was required reading when I took CS301 (the how-to course for new TAs). My professor, Brian Harvey, pulled out this excerpt and read it with passion.

The idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties…usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. … So many people have said to me, “If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.” Even worse, they say “If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.”

It is the creed of a slave.

When people say that terrible thing about themselves, I say, “You may believe that, but I don’t believe that. You didn’t feel that way about yourself when you were little. Who taught you to feel that way?”

(p113, revised edition only)

It’s eerily similar to Chua:

To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Kids love learning, they love playing, they love doing. Don’t underestimate your kid. You’re on the same side. And while one of my friends has pushed herself through an accelerated program to become a dentist, others are psychologically scarred from being forced through hoops in their childhood.

But…Chua is right. Sometimes there are hard parts, sometimes there are boring parts, sometimes they may need a push. Sometimes we may need a push. But the thing that NaNoWriMo, P90X, and this part of tiger parenting have in common is this: if you can get up and WORK, you can accomplish something big. And maybe that is undervalued in Western parenting.

So…that’s it. This is the end of my multi-part response to Chua’s article. (I don’t want to read her book for fear it will set me off again.) I will say I’m an outsider, but being a parent is one of the most important things you can do in life in terms of the well-being of another person. Someone whose life you are entirely responsible for. Take it seriously.

Thank you for reading.