[Chua] "Villager Number Six"

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].

Now three weeks old, the contentious Chua article is no longer on everyone’s mind, and these responses are becoming less and less relevant. Still, this is the second-to-last one, and these last two are an important part of what I have to say.

The subject of this piece is basically the list at the start of the article; the title comes from this paragraph:

Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepaway camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, “I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.” God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

It’s an exaggeration, but it’s not too far from the truth. Extracurriculars can take up a lot of your child’s time (and your time), and sometimes money as well. So why do we do them?

The funny thing is that “usually” the consideration goes the other way. Western parents will say “get out of the house! it’s nice outside, go do something!”, which usually leads to sports teams, maybe something more artsy, or at the very least playdates. I was not very “extracurricular” during elementary school, but I did have a fair number of playdates. But then, I started…

  • Making movies, in middle school
  • Singing, in sophomore year
  • Speech (and Debate), in junior year
  • Acting (a little, anyway), in senior year

…and those are only the major things. The first important thing to notice is that these are all creative efforts, to some degree: doing these extracurriculars means creating something new. By doing these activities, you’re exercising a part of your brain that wouldn’t usually get to work in a tiger parenting program. (Speech is the least “creative” of these, but good speaking skills are also the most directly applicable in the rest of life.)

The response I’d expect is that being creative isn’t important and/or isn’t a viable life strategy. It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll make a good living as an artist or musician of some kind. And it’ll affect your learning and other stuff in the meantime. Or, as a TR piece last semester put it (though in another context): “First you become financially stable. Then you follow your dreams!”

Which is not entirely bad advice. But it misses everything else you get from extracurriculars: confidence, public speaking skills, social skills, friendship (which, if you wanted to be crass, you could call “networking”), time management skills (hopefully), a morale boost (probably), a chance to try new things, and a chance to find out who you are.

Those last few, again, are probably not ranked so high in tiger parenthood, again because of that first sentence in the Chua excerpt above. But it’s important. So much of who I am today is a singer, and more generally an entertainer. And while I’ve always been good at academics, I definitely did not (and do not) have good social skills. (Creative skills are kind of a toss-up…I’m creative, but I’m not an amazing singer, actor, or indeed anything in particular.) Being in choir, Speech, Theatre Rice has made me a stronger, happier person, with the opportunity (in a finite life) to try new things and change the way I think.

(My faculty advisor for my CS honors thesis actually said his number-one advice to students who are looking for something to fill their time is to try acting, or a class totally outside of their experience, just to learn a new way of thinking. After all, it’s often new ways of thinking that let us make breakthroughs.)

The idea of disallowing extracurriculars is really more abhorrent to me than it sounds from my “logical” response, because the truth is it’s really hard to measure the “value” of such things. Maybe the production is just mediocre; maybe your kid was just “Villager Number Six” and had one speaking line. Did they still get something out of it? I’d say almost certainly “yes”. It’s a new experience, and new experiences are valuable. And art is valuable, lest we become a 1984 society. (Notice I referenced an original, semi-autobiographical Theatre Rice piece in trying to understand the other side!)

Other activities? Sports build confidence, teamwork, social skills, and of course physical fitness. Social clubs are a little harder, but still you get social skills, perhaps leadership skills, and often the experience of putting a cause out into society. And simple playdates and yes, sleepovers, are a way to recharge mental energy by switching to a different modality and keeping morale high. Sure, as a parent you are responsible for moderating all of these, but I think most people would agree that they’re generally more productive when they’re in a good mood.

I don’t think I put this one forward very clearly, but I believe extracurriculars, voluntary extracurriculars, are essential for a child. They allow choice and freedom of expression, even if the rest of their lives are locked down in academics or expectations. How much of who I am would be wasted if I couldn’t do all the extra stuff I do? How much of who you are would be wasted in the same way?