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I recently read a review of a new book out that was written by a woman who, with motivation that utterly eludes me, thought that we all might want to know about the methods she used to raise her children. The lady is Chinese-American and according to the book, her philosophy of child rearing is common to Chinese culture. This may or may not be so, I'm not really in any position to judge, but from her description, raising her children was a lot like being the absolute dictator of a very small country, without the cool uniform, fake medals, and snappily dressed body guards.
According to the book review, a good mother starts to teach her children how to play either the piano or violin at the age of about 2 or 3. Evidently, only the piano or violin will do – trombones, clarinets, trumpets, flutes, etc., are absolutely not allowed. Drums or guitars are probably considered the musical instruments of evil. I have no idea why the piano and violin are the only acceptable instruments to force your toddler to play, and since I have no intention of reading the book, I will probably never know, but its interesting. Apparently, the theory is that children should learn these instruments and start practicing for at least 3 hours every day in order to become proficient at them at a young age. The author told a story about her 3 year old resisting piano lessons and throwing a run of the mill toddler fit about it, to which her mother responded by taking her to the front door and threatening to throw her outside in the middle of winter if she didn't stop carrying on and start tickling the ivories. She shut up and went back to practicing scales or playing Hot Cross Buns or something. When I recounted this story to my 16 year old son he looked at me with raised eyebrows. I asked him what he would have done if I had thrown him out in the cold at the age of 3 for not wanting to play the piano.
“I would have gone to the neighbors,” he answered, “which probably would not have done me much good in China since the neighbor would have no doubt just dragged me into his house and forced me to play his piano, but I'm pretty sure that here it would have landed you in serious trouble with child protection services.”
I agreed that his assessment was undoubtedly accurate. Somehow I doubt if my desire to raise a little Liberace would have held up in family court, the Moonlight Sonata defense not withstanding.
The book review went on to explain that her children were forced to study every single day from the moment they got home from school for a total of 3 to 4 hours and were expected to get 'A's in everything. An 'A-' was considered the same as an 'F'. Emphasis was put on math and science – evidently history, writing, art, and everything else that wasn't math or science is considered a waste of time, although they were still expected to get 'A's in those useless subjects. Sports were restricted to only those approved by Mom, and joining teams was forbidden since it took away time from the studying and piano playing. Joining clubs was also discouraged unless it was the nuclear physics club or something. What few privileges they had were only given so there would be something taken away should they step one millimeter out of line.
My son commented that it all sounded like a movie we had seen about a Nazi prisoner of war camp and if he had been raised by that particular mother he would have spent the time when he was playing the piano thinking up elaborate escape plans involving sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night and digging a tunnel in the basement. I replied that it probably would have been futile since she would have locked him in his bedroom every night and probably without supper so he would be too weak to dig. While I am not unaware that American children are clearly lazy, overfed, over-indulged, and under-achieving, I can't help believing that this kind of totalitarian heavy-handedness crosses the line into abuse. If nothing else, it seriously takes the fun out of having children or being one. There is just no way that I would have been able to raise my children like Ilsa, she-wolf of the SS, and it would probably just have made me wonder why I had the little crumb-snatchers in the first place. In the future maybe we will be able to just go out and buy an android child programmed to our specifications. It would be able to recite the basics of biochemistry to us over breakfast and play a Mozart violin concerto for us at night. Then it could grow up and become a very successful android piano playing doctor or something. We'll be so proud.
According to the author her children grew up to be highly successful perfectly well adjusted people but I can't help thinking that the problem with this philosophy is that while you might create a culture of over-achieving, musically proficient highly successful mathematicians, will you raise the people who, like Stradivarius, are able to invent a piano or violin, like Beethoven, compose a symphony of soaring beauty, like Van Gogh, create a work of art that makes your heart ache, or like Aristotle, look at the world around you and imagine that everything is made of tiny atoms too small for him to even see. Einstein, after all, never even finished school, much less received an 'A' in anything and I'm pretty sure he never picked up a violin in his life, but he looked into the sky and saw the universe as no one ever had before him. I doubt if that had anything to do with 3 hours every day practicing chopsticks.
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