kitchen table math, the sequel: little sister

Friday, January 21, 2011

little sister


QUESTION: Your method may work with children with a native high IQ—but demanding that kind of excellence from less intelligent children seems unfair and a fool's errand. Demanding hard work and a great effort from children is the best middle ground we can reach philosophically, isn't it? Your thoughts?


Jokes about A+s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don't believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it's about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think! It's about believing in your child more than anyone else—even more than they believe in themselves. And this principle can be applied to any child, of any level of ability. My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a Ph.D.! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits. Today, my sister works at Wal-Mart, has a boyfriend and still plays piano—one of her favorite things is performing for her friends. She and my mom have a wonderful relationship, and we all love her for who she is.

Tiger Mother Talks Back
January 15, 2011

14 comments:

LynnG said...

The backlash against the "tiger mom" is incredible. Spend two minutes reading comments on any of the news articles or blogs that mention the book, and its amazing how many people are absolutely certain that the children of the Amy Chua must be miserable, abused robots destined to commit suicide or rebel at their first opportunity.

PhysicistDave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PhysicistDave said...

LynnG,

Amy Chua actually shares the underlying premises held by most Americans – progressive “educators,” ordinary parents, and, indeed, quite a few people here at ktm.

Chua has stirred up such a firestorm because she rubs people’s noses in the fact that, given those shared premises, they have to choose between making their kids miserable or accepting that their kids will be academic failures.

Those underlying premises are:

1) The main reason for kids to acquire serious intellectual/academic skills and knowledge (including classical music), and the appropriate standards for judging academic success, are the largely arbitrary demands of various adults (college admissions officers, parents, teachers, the folks who create the SAT, etc.).

2) Acquiring substantial intellectual/academic skills and knowledge is necessarily unpleasant, even painful, for kids.

I’ve found that most American adults, whether progressive “educators” or many of the folks here at ktm, will actually explicitly state something similar to premise number 2. Chua has certainly done so!

People are a bit more reluctant to openly endorse premise number 1; however, if you ask American adults why kids should read “Macbeth” or study Roman history, the best one can say is that their answers are awfully lame. It becomes clear that the real answer is: “We ourselves had to, the authorities say our kids have to, and that’s that!”

When it comes to the three Rs, of course, there are obvious reasons why kids will benefit long-term from learning those subjects; however, even in this case, the general consensus is that kids cannot really grasp and internalize these reasons. So, in practical terms, the general response of American adults is that the proximate reason, the reason that kids are actually expected to accept, is: “Learn it because adults demand it.”

Given those premises, there is an obvious conclusion.

You must choose between two alternatives:

A) Either make your kids miserable to satisfy the arbitrary demands of adults so that your kids can be “academically successful.”

OR

B) Let your kids be happy and accept that your kids will be academic failures.

Chua has made explicit that she has chosen A and that anyone who completely rejects her path is choosing B (she admits that her implementation of choice A was not flawless, but she stands by the basic approach).

I think most Americans already sort of grasped all this implicitly, but they really, really do not like a “foreigner” (yeah, I know she is American-born) rubbing their noses in it.

Personally, I reject both premises. I stand with Aristotle:
I. “All men by nature desire to know.”
II. “Happiness is the development of all of one’s potential in the pursuit of excellence.”

A natural conclusion from those premises is that kids need not be resistant to serious learning that really has a point, if that point is explained to them, if it is not just the arbitrary decision of some authoritarian adults, and if the desire to learn is not squeezed out of them by a pop culture and by adults who despise “nerds” and who exalt athletes and rather untalented pop singers over serious scholars and scientists.

However, those of us with this Aristotelian perspective are such a tiny fraction of the American populace that it is hard for most people to even believe someone could honestly reject premises 1 and 2 and accept premises I and II. We are deemed at best naïve utopians (odd that Aristotle, of all people, would be accused of naïve utopianism!).

Amy Chua may have generated more heat than light, but, if you think about the issues carefully, the debate she has produced really can dramatically illuminate the prevailing beliefs in American culture, beliefs that are shared by nearly all the sides in the ongoing “School Wars.”

And, I think, it shows why all sides in the “School Wars” – “progressives” and traditionalists, constructivists and “direct-instructionalists,” etc. – hold premises that are false.

Dave

SteveH said...

".. are the largely arbitrary demands of various adults ..."

"largely"

That's only your opinion. I want details, especially for K-6. Macbeth is not good enough.


"Acquiring substantial intellectual/academic skills and knowledge is necessarily unpleasant, even painful, for kids."

That's only your self-serving spin. Why don't you calibrate substantial, unpleasant, and painful?


"A natural conclusion from those premises is that kids need not be resistant to serious learning that really has a point,..."

A conclusion based on false data and assumptions. It's clear that you are starting with a philosophy and then doing your best to make reality fit. You might have some interesting points to make, but the whole package is unconvincing even from a philosophical perspective.


"Personally, I reject both premises. I stand with Aristotle:
I. “All men by nature desire to know.”
II. “Happiness is the development of all of one’s potential in the pursuit of excellence.”"

Until reality gets in the way. Aristotle wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes after the 16th century.

PhysicistDave said...

SteveH wrote to me:
> Why don't you calibrate substantial, unpleasant, and painful?

Steve, I’m not quite sure how to break this to you, but human beings are not oscilloscopes: they do not “calibrate” well.

We all know there are differences between “Christians” and “atheists” or between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but try “calibrating” those differences! I know there are people who have tried, but let’s just say their attempts have been less than successful. (E.g., I know of a retired United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Jack Good, author of a great book, The Dishonest Church, who, by most standards, is more “atheist” than I am. Go figure.)

To appeal to my main man again, Aristotle said that one should not expect more precision in any intellectual discipline than is inherent to the subject matter of that discipline.

SteveH also said:
>>[Dave]"A natural conclusion from those premises is that kids need not be resistant to serious learning that really has a point,..."
>[SteveH]A conclusion based on false data and assumptions. It's clear that you are starting with a philosophy and then doing your best to make reality fit.

Steve, I take it you are merely a lowly engieneer? But even a lowly engineer should know that it is often worth tracing the logical implications of certain premises to see what their conclusions are, even if you doubt those premises are true! Indeed, this is often the best way to see if premises are true: if conclusions drawn from those premises are false, then at least one of the premises are false.

I realize that all this touches a raw nerve for you. After all, if I am right, then you have been unnecessarily, well, unkind towards your own child (note that I avoided saying “cruel”!). I have not tried to rub your nose in that – you are the one who is making it personal.

I have laid out evidence – historical, trans-cultural, and, of course, anecdotal – that fits my hypotheses and disagrees with yours. But this is a religious, and very personal, thing for you and for most Americans. If you believe in transubstantiation, I probably cannot change your mind on that, either.

Most people here at ktm are Yanks who share the general American ideological beliefs when it comes to education. Those beliefs are very strongly held by Americans, and, indeed, part of Americans’ self-identity. I do not expect to change them. I am merely trying to explicate them and explain my own beliefs and why they differ. Incidentally, my dad and my maternal grandfather had views rather similar to mine on education, so my family has a long history of of being dissidents on this subject: both Dad and Grandpa had some good stories about their run-ins with educational orthodoxy.

SteveH also wrote:
> Until reality gets in the way. Aristotle wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes after the 16th century.

Oh, I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have done a lot better than you or me in, say, the seventeenth century, simply because he was a lot smarter than you or me! Sure, his science was wrong – so was Newton’s and Galileo’s (vide Einstein): the human race has learned a few things in science over the centuries. But, I think he could have picked up the new natural philosophy pretty fast – it’s his crackpot epigones in the Middle Ages who were dogmatists, not the old Greek.

And, you really think most modern people understand human beings and human nature better than the author of the “Nicomachean Ethics”? That strikes me like saying that Tom Clancy is a better writer than Will Shakespeare because poor Will was born, as you say, in the “16th century.”

I cannot change how you deal with your son. But, I know there are at least a couple people here (I won’t blow their cover!) who suspect that the points I am making are relevant to their kids. I hope I can give them some moral support in pursuing a very rigorous yet reasonably humane model of education.

Dave

Glen said...

SteveH isn't "merely a lowly engineer". How could he be? One can't be mere and lowly and be an engineer at the same time.

[Dave to SteveH]: if I am right, then you have been unnecessarily, well, unkind towards your own child

That's not what I'm hearing.

Steve says he sets high standards for his son and pushes him to meet them, pushing harder at times than his son would naturally push himself if left to his own devices. This is what all good coaches do. It's what I do, and I'll bet it's what you do, too.

It can go too far, of course, but I don't think Steve is going too far. He sounds like an exceptionally good dad. The problem for those of us who push at all is knowing how hard to push. I'm sure it depends on the kid, but even knowing my kids, I'm not sure of the answer.

Or do you mean all pushing is unnecessarily unkind?

Yes, all men do desire to learn, but not the same things to the same extent at the same stages in their lives. When we're younger, we have little past, so the future doesn't seem real. We naturally discount future fun more heavily, weighting our learning preferences toward things that, for whatever reason, give us immediate payoffs.

But some learning is worth starting now, even if the kids don't see the fun in it yet. You let them spend some time learning things that are fun now, then push them to spend some time building a foundation for things that will be more fun (interesting, useful) to them later.

If we do it right, our kids will be pleased with the tradeoffs we made...eventually.

PhysicistDave said...

Glen wrote to me:
> SteveH isn't "merely a lowly engineer". How could he be? One can't be mere and lowly and be an engineer at the same time.

Ah, Glen! I, too, am merely a lowly engineer. Bill Gates is mater of the universe. Perhaps, Steve Hawking is a master of the universe. But, alas, I, and as I recall, SteveH are merely lowly engineers.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

Glen wrote to me:
> Steve says he sets high standards for his son and pushes him to meet them, pushing harder at times than his son would naturally push himself if left to his own devices. This is what all good coaches do. It's what I do, and I'll bet it's what you do, too.

Well, no. I do not “push” in the way he has very specifically indicated he “pushes.” The word “push” may be ambiguous, but Steve has indicated that he has and does push his son in ways that I strongly disagree with. So, no, we just do not agree.

Read the various “Amy Chua” threads. Steve and I disagreed very specifically about piano: my kids have *always* been free to quit if they wished. He indicated his son was not.

And, Steve and I discussed in great detail our different perspectives on this. I think, first of all, that there is a greater natural interest in learning than he thinks there is, and, secondly, I think that he should have let his son quit piano if the kid wanted to.

He and I sharply disagree.

Glen also wrote:
> It can go too far, of course, but I don't think Steve is going too far.

Well, I think Steve is going too far, for reasons I just summarized and that he and I discussed in great detail in the other thread.

Glen also wrote:
> Yes, all men do desire to learn, but not the same things to the same extent at the same stages in their lives. When we're younger, we have little past, so the future doesn't seem real. We naturally discount future fun more heavily, weighting our learning preferences toward things that, for whatever reason, give us immediate payoffs.
>But some learning is worth starting now, even if the kids don't see the fun in it yet.

I disagree. I have explicitly said that, of course, not all learning is “fun” in the sense that a roller coaster ride is fun.

But I do not think kids necessarily have to have the view that “the future doesn't seem real.” I agree that most American kids do have that view, but I think that this is the result of our infantilization of children and of our toxic pop culture. This society is collapsing -- fortunately.

Look, you share the general American ideological views that Steve also shares. I will not talk you out of them, anymore than I can convince Catholics to stop believing in transubstantiation. Both are essentially religious views.

What I do find awfully peculiar is that you and Steve cannot even conceive that I truly do disagree with you and that you guys insist that I am somehow misunderstanding the meaning of “push” or am being unnecessarily vague. Steve and I have discussed the issues in intricate detail, specifically in the case of piano. I really, truly do disagree with how he handled those details of his interaction with his son.

As to your and Steve’s claims about how children all think and behave, I can think of at least four exceptions – myself, my wife, and my kids. None of us were “pushed” in the way Steve describes “pushing” his son – with one exception. My parents would not let me quit trumpet when I wanted to, even though they had earlier explicitly agreed that I could (music, again!). Looking back from an adult’s perspective, they were wrong – I hated trumpet, I was very bad at it, it was a waste of time. They “pushed” me on nothing else having to do with activities or education, and all the rest went fine.

You guys are acting like religious believers who maintain there are no such things as atheists (I have known such folks).

I really do disagree with Steve and disapprove of how he is raising his son as he describes it, and I really do disagree with the points you both think are obviously true about children.

It is more than passing strange that so many Americans have trouble understanding that there can be real, substantive disagreements among human beings.

It seems, alas, to be a national trait.

Dave

SteveH said...

"I really do disagree with Steve and disapprove of how he is raising his son as he describes it, and I really do disagree with the points you both think are obviously true about children."

"Disapprove"?

Is that really appropriate for an anarchist? It sounds too religious. Disapproving never enters my head when I think of how you raise your kids.

It seems that you define whatever you do as not pushing by definition. The word push IS "ambiguous", and many of the posts have been trying to clarify that ambiguity. This is your reaction to a request for clarification:

"I’m not quite sure how to break this to you, but human beings are not oscilloscopes: they do not “calibrate” well."


"Steve and I disagreed very specifically about piano: my kids have *always* been free to quit if they wished. He indicated his son was not."

It seems that you have difficulty with details and distinctions. I never said that my son was not allowed to quit playing the piano. This is something that he loves, but he doesn't love it every minute. One of his options is to make a career of it. It is my job as a parent to make sure that he knows what that requires. There is a gap between his dream and reality. He doesn't know how much work it will take. It's natural to have dreams, but it isn't natural to do the work necessary to reach them. Therefore I will push. I could call it something else as long as he doesn't complain.

He can drop piano anytime he wants, but my job as a parent is to make sure he wouldn't be making a big mistake. It's too bad that your parents couldn't pick up on the fact that you really hated playing the trumpet. That they didn't could be because they were following some philosophy by rote, or it could be because they didn't want you to make a mistake that you would regret later.

This is not a new or unusual concept. If a child makes a mistake, that's natural. Should a parent not try to avoid or fix the mistake? Maybe yes. Maybe no. There is a risk either way. Using a no push philosophy by rote has risks, but perhaps the philosophy justifies the ends. Whatever happens naturally is good by definition.


"They “pushed” me on nothing else having to do with activities or education, and all the rest went fine."

I think you need a litte more data. Some commenters have been offering it to you, but it doesn't seem to fit your assumptions.



"You guys are acting like religious believers who maintain there are no such things as atheists (I have known such folks)."

I think it's the other way around. You're the one disapproving of how I raise my son. You don't just disagree. Many of us want to discuss details and distinctions, but you seem to claim they don't exist, even though you refer to pushing as ambiguous.


"It is more than passing strange that so many Americans have trouble understanding that there can be real, substantive disagreements among human beings."

What?!? Is this the "Oh poor me." argument? Nobody is denying that there are big differences. They are just trying to understand exactly what they are.

Crimson Wife said...

Some academic skills that are beneficial to learn simply aren't fun. There's no two ways around that. It's like practicing an instrument or a sport- in order to get to the fun part (performing a piece with an orchestra, playing in a tournament game), the kid has to put in a lot of time doing drills that can be rather tedious.

The problem with American education is that unlike music lessons and sports training where the teacher/coach typically allows the child to move at his/her own pace, we take a "one size fits all" approach. We have decreed that classrooms should group students together by age rather than by skill level. It's the equivalent of sticking a musician who ought to be working on a Beethoven sonata in with a bunch of novices practicing "Mary had a Little Lamb" over and over.

Anonymous said...

"'Disapprove'?

Is that really appropriate for an anarchist? It sounds too religious."


Why would this be inappropriate for an anarchist? Anarchists are quite capable of disapproving of some actions, while at the same time also believing that they shouldn't prevent those actions.

SteveH said...

"We have decreed that classrooms should group students together by age rather than by skill level."

I call it tracking by age. But our schools claim that they do it all with differentiated instruction. They claim natural learning using "trust the spiral" in Everyday Math.

Separating kids by ability would help a lot, but it doesn't deal with the, perhaps unnatural, problem of competition and supply and demand, and it doesn't deal with achieving one's potential.

SteveH said...

"Anarchists are quite capable of disapproving of some actions, while at the same time also believing that they shouldn't prevent those actions."

They want to play the role of society and then realize that their philosophy doesn't allow them to do that. What an internal conflict.

Allison said...

--It is more than passing strange that so many Americans have trouble understanding that there can be real, substantive disagreements among human beings.

Actually, Dave, I'm fairly certain what people here keep having trouble understanding is how you can hold views that fail to comport with reality, and hold them so fervently, even as you chide others for doing what you say is exactly that.

You keep saying "we're" built for "learning", but you gloss over learning *what*. Facts? concepts? skills? They aren't all the same, and they don't require the same amount of attention for differing humans to succeed at them. Yet you cling to this belief that it's only when the brain is broken or schools or parents have done something horrible that this learning fails to be innate toward most everything.

"A natural conclusion from those premises is that kids need not be resistant to serious learning that really has a point, if that point is explained to them, [is not arbitrary], and if the desire to learn is not squeezed out of them..."

So sometimes it's most everything, and here now it's "serious learning". What, pray tell, counts for you as "serious learning"?

Do you think children, for example, are willing to apply serious learning to the task of manners? Cleaning their room, saying "please" and "thank you", or do those things fall under the category of without point or "arbitrary" things adults in authority demand? For children who don't naturally take to learning these behaviors, what then? Is it pushing to expect them to?

We've discussed many things my son will choose to learn of his own volition. But there is one thing he WILL NOT spend time on if left to his own devices: art. He will not choose to color, collage, mold, paint, or do anything else that falls into the category of fine art (for his age.) Leave all the supplies out on the table with an open invitation and he still won't. He needs to be encouraged or "pushed". That pushing need not be punitive, but it needs to happen that someone says to him "you and I will do this for 20 minutes, and then you can do something else" or he won't. While he does, HE LOVES IT. So the coercion does not make him hate it, and does not mean he isn't getting something out of it. But for whatever reason (my guess is it's in some sense uncertain and frightening to deal in that world of no rights and wrongs), he won't choose it. Does learning art not count as serious learning to you? Would you say that a child who never was exposed to art was really better for it? Are you willing to say now that who he is at 4 is sure he'll not enjoy being an artist later? I'm not, so I have to open that world to him now, in loving ways, but still ways he would not choose.

Now, the main point, over and over that Glen, Steve, Katharine, and others have in common is not a belief in what you call fallacies, but a belief that if this child has this avoidance of art when we know he has desires to learn in other places, why is it so difficult for you to believe some children will have avoidance of reading, or arithmetic, and have those things NATURALLY? And while in my case, so far, my son does enjoy art while he participates, what about the child that does NOT enjoy reading or arithmetic? Are you really going to wait for them to be "ready"? Or are you going to keep saying that such a case can't occur, or only occurred because "American society is sick" or "schools are appalling", or some other thing to blame?