Bryan Caplan  

Temptations to Cruelty

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The most bizarre thing about Amy Chua's essay is that she combines contempt for drama with fanatical devotion to music.  School plays are too frivolous for words:
[N]o 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.
But virtuosity in the piano is worth three hours of daily practice:
[M]y Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.
I can at least understand claims that strict parenting is good because it leads to educational and financial success.  But piano prizes?  Why should we value such achievements any more highly than acting awards?  They're both financial dead ends, so kids should do them for fun or not at all.


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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Lars P writes:

Playing an instrument is a serious mental and physical skill. Learning it well develops mind and discipline, and presumably transfers to other important skills.

Acting is mostly hanging out with other kids and pretending to be cool.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Acting is mostly hanging out with other kids and pretending to be cool.

Which of course are vastly more important skills to financial success than hand-eye coordination.

Kevin writes:

I was wondering the same thing. The odds of being a successful violinist are probably lower than the odds of making it as a rock star or American Idol contestant, and I don't think that playing any one instrument sends a stronger signal than playing another instrument.

Also, what about sports? Surely sports play a large role in college admissions and various awards and recognitions, plus it is generally more relatable to future employers than is playing classical music. Is she implicitly arguing that Chinese students have a comparative disadvantage at sports?

Hyena writes:

Chinese culture holds music in high regard, provided that it's considered "high class". Children who excel at music are increasing the status of any parents who draw a lot of acquaintances from the Sinosphere.

Dog of Justice writes:
Chinese culture holds music in high regard, provided that it's considered "high class". Children who excel at music are increasing the status of any parents who draw a lot of acquaintances from the Sinosphere.

Anyone know what the origin of this cultural attitude is? It can't be that old, since there weren't very many pianos and violins in China in 1900...

Hyena writes:

Fellow animal,

Violins are derived from a Central Asian instrument and were common in China, which is why so many Chinese musical themes use violin passages.

I assume piano is popular with Chinese in the West because of the large children's piano infrastructure, including a system of recitals and teachers.

Lauren writes:

Hyena,

Could you please supply a reference for your claim that violins are derived specifically from a Central Asian instrument? Rudimentary stringed instruments occurred all over Africa, Europe, India, Asia, and Central Asia, and also in the Americas; and they evolved in many ways.

Or, more importantly, for your leap to infer that such a derivation might explain "why so many Chinese musical themes use violin passages"?

To my knowledge, there is no use of violin passages in Chinese music until the last century. There is also no evidence of anything like a violin or any modern or even a remotely pre-modern form of it as a chin-held, bow-drawn instrument used in China prior to its being imported anew from the West and encouraged as a high form of art. Even early stringed instruments from India didn't resemble the violin as modernly adopted by China.

Neither does the violin feature in the music of dozens of other Central Asian or Eastern European countries that were also exposed to the violin, around the same time, before, or afterwards.

One might equally say that the Irish use potatoes in their food because previous to the Old World's exposure to the New World, they ate other starches and the potato derived worldwide from such starches. Every country has some form of starches, and every country has some form of stringed instrument. That's a far cry from explaining the particular starches or stringed instruments to which citizens of the country switch when those other options become available, cheap, popular, and recognizably desirable.


Finch writes:

> Also, what about sports? Surely sports play a
> large role in college admissions and various
> awards and recognitions, plus it is generally
> more relatable to future employers than is
> playing classical music.

Sports success also helps you attract a high-quality mate.

Or at least it will until the waste is bred out of the population, now that athletic performance no longer says much about your ability to obtain food and survive tribal fighting. Maybe if you are athletic today, you should use your athletic prowess to attract a mate with qualities more likely to be useful in your genetic future, like conscientiousness. Your currency is falling in value, so you should use it while you can to buy something more enduring...

> Is she implicitly arguing that Chinese students
> have a comparative disadvantage at sports?

Certainly that's the stereotype.

Pat writes:

Chua should be embarrassed to not see the contradictions between her views of drama and music. Maybe if she were exposed to more things as a child, she wouldn't have such silly ideas now.

tom writes:

This is probably racial/cultural discrimination by Chinese mothers against their children?

Don't do things that reward verbal or physical dexterity, because you won't be the best at that. Do extracurriculars that require both skill and enormous amounts of focus, and do exceptionally well in all your classes.

What evidence do we look for to prove that family-cultural pressure has been pushing young Asians away from things they might excel at, or that this pressure has been well-applied?

Tracy W writes:

Perhaps the difference is that success is more visible in being able to pay a hard piano piece than in being able to do a hard acting job.

At school I thought that to be a major difference between the humanities and the hard sciences. Doing very well in the hard sciences requires hard work, but at least was generally pretty clear what the right answer is. Doing very well in the humanities was tough because it required figuring out what the exam marker would think was a good answer, which was rather difficult given the anonymity of the NZ exam system.

N. writes:

I just want to remark that I'm glad to see the Chua article receive scrutiny here. I read it on the WSJ website on Friday and it made me feel sick to my stomach all weekend. Disgust and repugnance may not make for good analysis or policy, but there it is.

I would very much -- very, very much -- like to see Bryan pen a rebuttal to Ms. Chua's article for the WSJ. I'm sure their mailbag will be full of righteous indignation for and against, but I would like to see a reasoned response in long form and Bryan seems like a good candidate for that.

Besides, Ms. Chua wrote the article in no small part to plug her book. Bryan ought to be able to write an article in response to plug his!

Noah Yetter writes:

"...kids should do [activities] for fun or not at all."

Sadly, this attitude does not appear to be widely held in the developed world.

tom writes:

Bryans' thesis: have lots of kids but don't work too hard at raising them because it will make you unhappy and will not make a difference for the kids. (I think it's Judith Rich Harris, plus the pro-breeding thing.)

Chinese mother immigrant-to-US thesis: have a few kids and work very hard at raising them; you will be unhappy if they do not succeed and your efforts will make a difference.

Does Bryan have any evidence from his books that the US Chinese mothers are wrong about the impact of their efforts on their own Chinese kids? If they are right, at least about their own kids and lives, what would that do to Bryan's hands-off thesis?

Chinese parent's child writes:

"Why should we value such achievements any more highly than acting awards? They're both financial dead ends, so kids should do them for fun or not at all."

Maybe we shouldn't, but we do, which is a good enough reason. Amateur acting simply doesn't generate respect in a way in which musical skill does.

And as Chua explains in her artcile, 'fun' is an elusive category. Did I have 'fun' drilling scales? No. Did I have fun playing advanced music and impressing my friends and potential mates? Yes. Was the latter possible without the former? No.

Hyena writes:

Lauren,

Certainly but I frankly see no productive purpose in differentiating heavily between things like the erhu and the later violin. That might be really interesting to musicologists but isn't at the top of my list when writing a brief comment on an economics blog.

Curt writes:

Could the Amy Chua mindset perhaps reflect a residual parenting practice that worked best in an old-world, command economy? Perhaps in such economies, proficiency in classical music, math and science, is rewarded, while investment in the arts and humanities is less likely to pay off.

Problem is, I still don't see how that would explain why Ms. Chua thinks it's okay for a Chinese parent to tell an overweight child to "lose weight, Fatty". Hard to discern any survival advantage in that strategy.

Sarah S writes:

Acting, while an economic dead end in an of itself, does pave the way for excellence in public speaking, which is a highly marketable skill.

Troy Camplin writes:

It's because musicians are much more stable people than are actors. Yeah, that's it.

I wonder if Chua feels conflicted over musicals.

Joe Marier writes:

Most of the skills that you develop in piano are music-in-general type skills, particularly in the early stages. Sight reading, ear training, composing, etc. Plus, there are plenty of ways to make money with piano. There's accompanying, there's teaching, there's church gigs...

mick writes:

Similar with chess. The world is cruel to wisen masters giving lessons to little snots.

Aaron McNay writes:

Perhaps I misunderstood the point that Amy Chua was attempting to make in the essay that Bryan is talking about.

It seemed to me that Amy was not attempting to say that music is superior to being in the school play (although the fact that she has her children learning music and not acting would suggest that she does favor music). It seems to me that she was attempting to make the point that she decides what activities her children will partake in, not the children themselves. For example, in the first sentence of the paragraph that references the school play, Amy says "Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences."

So, it seems to me that Amy is not objecting to her children being in school plays per say. Instead, I think she was attempting to say that a child could not come up and tell the parent what activities they will be a part of, as that is the role of the parent.

Perhaps Amy really does object to acting over music. However, based on her statements I do not believe that was the point that she was attempting to make. I am not sure and I welcome any insights into my interpretation of what Amy was saying.

Charlie writes:

"Does Bryan have any evidence from his books that the US Chinese mothers are wrong about the impact of their efforts on their own Chinese kids? If they are right, at least about their own kids and lives, what would that do to Bryan's hands-off thesis?"

I would like to second this question. If a dummy variable for Chinese is put into the regression equation, do children do better? Could being Asian/Chinese be a valid instrument to increased effort spent parenting?

agnostic writes:

Skipping comments, so may be a repeat.

Chinese, whether in China or abroad, have produced incredibly few actors, stand-up comedians, or other like performers. Divide this count by their population size -- even worse.

Is this due to Chinese mothers steering them away from school plays and toward better things like music? No.

If it were, then Chinese would be dominating classical music. On the composition side, obviously not -- all Europeans. On the interpretation side, there may be over-representation, although that's just a guess. However, not at the elite level of performers who at least a casual fan would know. Only one who comes to mind is Yo Yo Ma. Throw in Ozawa to allow for Northeast Asians more broadly.

And if the skills are so transferable, why don't Chinese at least dominate the easier popular music? There, there's zero Chinese -- again either in China or elsewhere -- who make pop music that even a visible fraction of the rest of the world wants to listen to.

Africans, whether from Africa or elsewhere, crush the Chinese in all the areas I've mentioned, despite lower average IQ, wealth, health, etc. But their parents aren't so domineering, so black kids get to do their own thing more. Kids need a certain amount of being left alone to figure out what they're good at and specialize in that, rather than living their pre-adult lives as though they were Harrison Bergeron.

frankcross writes:

Although Ms. Chua's daughter is apparently a fine musician, I believe the reasoning is that piano requires hard work, discipline, lots of practice to succeed. I think it is the development of those skills, rather than the music, which is the point.

KM writes:

I second the comment by "agnostic". If this classical music drilling is a successful way to become a great musician, why don't we see more Chinese top performers? Why don't we see the Chinese dominating in composition? Given how well Chinese students often are at technical and quantitative skills, why don't we see the Chinese dominating AER or APSR publications? Or, why are there almost no Chinese winners of the Fields medal? Rather, there are mostly US and European/Russian medalists.

Being stereotypical; I teach a social science in a European university, and the Chinese master students are usually superior to the domestic European students in technical skills. However, they usually perform significantly worse in analyzing "open problems" or when assigned creative tasks.

Perhaps this is unrelated, but my hypothesis is that there is a significant trade-off in the learning of some of these skills and that Chinese parenting and educational culture inefficiently allocates resources and puts too much emphasize on the aspects and methods as described in the essay by Chua.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

For those who find this a particularly interesting area, read the Spengler essays. Here is a recent one (2009)

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KD21Ad01.html

and it contains links to others. Highlight: there are more Chinese children learning classical western music than there are US children.

mark writes:

I am more sympathetic to Chua's essay then most of the commentators but I don't have any kids Chinese or otherwise. I thought her point about the school play was that the child's part was so small(villager number 6) that it is was a waste of time. This is one thing that hasn't been addressed. The kid didn't run home and announce that they were going to be the King number 1 though it would probably be no more time consuming. Not surprisingly, her child does play a sport, tennis. In America, we spend an enormous amount of time playing sports without actually getting off the bench.

Pamela writes:

I read the fascinating article by Amy Chua and it naturally raised some concerns and questions. But as a pianist myself (who was originally trained as a classical ballet dancer), I can tell you that the mom is making an important critical decision about the BEST USE OF LIMITED TIME and the importance of laying foundations. If parents did their jobs more effectively (maybe not quite as severely as Amy Chua) but with the devotion and sense of responsibility she brings to her "role", our younger generation might not be so selfish, lazy and misguided. Her comment about the process of learning new habits and patterns was particularly important - the brain and the muscles learn through repetition and it is only through repetition that the new habits and skills can be acquired. Throwing in the towel after 1 hour accomplishes nothing and she is smart to realize that. That said, there is a fine line and I wondered for each successful child, how many others end up as a "disaster" with unforeseen psychological issues? Overall, I agree that American parents are generally way too soft on discipline and stick-to-it-ness and coddle their kids' every desire - that, I think we can all agree is a bad prescription

Gene Callahan writes:

"I believe the reasoning is that piano requires hard work, discipline, lots of practice to succeed. I think it is the development of those skills, rather than the music, which is the point."

And what, being a great guitarist doesn't? Being a great actor doesn't? Being a great skateboarder doesn't?

So, why piano, other than the demons in Chua's mind?

Tracy W writes:

Gene Callahan,

The obvious advantage of the piano over being a great actor is that what it takes to be competent at a difficult piece is more obvious than what it takes to be competent at acting. I don't deny that there are great actors, who do work extremely hard at it, it's just that evaluating their work is more subjective, along the way, than evaluating musical technical skill (of course, at the top-end of music performance, there is that factor of emotion).
Great skateboarder - something that happens outside the home (unless you have a really big house) so not so much under Mum's control for the lessons she wants to teach about keeping at something really difficult.

Guitarist, beats me.

Biagio Mazzi writes:

I think the implicit point is not the activity itself but up to which level each activity is taken.
Amy Chua's tries to push her children to the highest level in each activity. Her daughter got to play at Carnegie Hall. The average high school play is hardly at that level. So the point is not music versus drama, is music you can push to the maximum level versus usually poor quality drama.

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