Monday, February 28, 2011

Death of a Bookstore

Introduction

Recently I went to a Borders Bookstore in San Francisco for its going-out-of-business sale. I thought I would feel sorry for the place, but ultimately I didn’t. I’d expected to see Borders as the good guy in a Amazon-vs.-bookstore battle, but instead left the store thinking “good riddance.”

Amazon has always been a threat to traditional bookstores, and their Kindle e-reader has increased this threat. In this post I’ll start off explaining why I want to hate the Kindle. Then I’ll discuss my trip to Borders and why I think the chain deserves to die. If I have any energy left I’ll offer up some hopeful denial that bookstores—that is, true bookstores—will go extinct.

Why I want to hate the Kindle

I don’t hate the Kindle. I can’t hate it as a product, as I’ve never actually used one. You could argue that I should really try one out—not just play with the demo model at Target, which I have done, but should read an entire e-book—before I develop my opinion. Giving it a good try seems logical enough, but then, you could say the same thing for cigarettes.

I’m sure there are scores of happy Kindle users who would love to give me a demo. I don’t want a demo. There’s something evangelical about how people tout modern electronic devices (not just e-readers but smartphones, the iPad, etc.), and where the Kindle is concerned people can be downright apocalyptic. Consider this reader comment attached to a “Wall Street Journal” article about the demise of Borders: “Any prediction on when will Amazon only offer e-pub and drop the entire dead tree format from its lineup?” (That guy must feel really cool throwing around terms like “e-pub” and “dead tree format.”) In response, another commenter predicted that paper books would be dropped within ten years, to which the first guy replied, “10 years. That’s pretty pessimistic. How about one to two years.”

And why is ten years “pessimistic”—what does this guy have against paper books? Is it a desire to preserve our forests? I doubt it. I think the guy somehow associates himself with a sweeping societal change, and takes pride in his contribution to the success of a disruptive technology. (It’s a bit like feeling really proud when your local sports team wins a game, even though you yourself have nothing to do with the team or its victory.)

No, I’m not going to do battle with those who gleefully predict the Kindle’s eventual dominance. But in case you’re on the fence, here’s my top ten list of Why I Want to Hate the Kindle:

  1. Nobody on the Bart train is going to ogle my book.
  2. I can loan out my book and not have to worry about getting it back.
  3. I can leave my book in the bathroom and not worry about it being ruined.
  4. I have nice bookshelves full of handsome books that don’t deserve to be upstaged by a high-tech gizmo that pollutes my reading experience with the gaudy culture of PCs, cell phones, and the Internet.
  5. If I end up loving the Kindle, embracing its format, and becoming addicted to its convenience and cool features, my literary world will shrink from “anything any library or bookstore anywhere has” down to “anything that’s available on the Kindle.”
  6. I can’t buy used titles at great discount for a Kindle.
  7. Reading in bed is somehow not antisocial. Bringing an electronic device to bed is.
  8. My books don’t become obsolete, leading me to regret that I don’t have 50% better contrast, a 21% smaller form factor, double the storage, crisper and darker fonts, and better battery life, all available on a newer device than my primitive early version.
  9. I fight with PCs and other electronic devices all day, and books are my respite. I don’t care how foolproof the Kindle claims to be: it has an OS that can have bugs, and it has WiFi of which I can be out of range, and it has a battery that can die … all potential headaches.
  10. The name ... Kindle. Shades of Fahrenheit 451. Creepy.

My trip to Borders

So: back to books, and bookstores. I started off going to the wrong Borders, along the Embarcadero, which had already folded. It’s always a bit startling, and then disquieting, to see a business all boarded up like that. I have to say, I felt a little guilty for my role in the store’s demise; after all, I buy a fair number of books from Amazon. I headed over to the other Borders, in the San Francisco Shopping Centre. It was still open, and had its huge sale signs everywhere. As soon as I got in there my guilt evaporated. I’ve actually never liked this place, and the sale wasn’t changing my mind.

I guess I’d expected to see a certain amount of disarray and the sad signs of a business in turmoil. But the sale itself was marketed and packaged with a certain slickness; giant placards had been printed declaring “HUGE SAVINGS! ENTIRE STORE! LIMITED EXCEPTIONS APPLY. Always the fine print. And the “huge savings” amounted to 20% off, making the place merely overpriced rather than hugely overpriced. They seemed well dug-in to enjoy a very long sale with healthy margins. They’re probably continuing to restock at this point. Who knows, maybe if the sale is successful enough, they’ll take the signs down and stay in business.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy. I was hoping to get some books for my kids, but there was actually no children’s section. They had a “Young Adult” section (which should be called the “dumb adult” section because so many shameless grown-ups read such books due to lack of intellectual mettle), and they had a Manga section, and they had a section for toddlers that was mostly toys—but no actual children’s books.

My family is pondering a trip to the UK this summer, so I checked out the travel section. More than half of this section was for “local travel,” and they had some cutesy name for this. (To try to recall the cutesy name, I looked for the equivalent section at Borders online—but in vain. Borders has no online travel section online at all, and I think it’s worth pointing out that when I searched on “travel” on their site, the top three hits were a WWII history book; Eat, Pray, Love; and The CalorieKing Calorie, Fat & Carbohydrate Counter 2011.) The Borders in-store travel collection did have a California section, a small travel memoir section, and then little corner devoted to England & Ireland. Italy was half a shelf at the bottom.

The Literature section was towards the back. More prominent was the Romance section, with a poster announcing “A romance for every mood!” I had to wonder what this was about. Could I collar an employee and say, “Look, I’m just royally pissed off right now, like I just want to punch something, and I’m wondering if you could recommend a particular romance for me to read while the feeling lasts.”

There was also a big Games section. I did find a game I was interested in (“You’ve Been Sentenced”) but at 20% off it was still pretty expensive. I decided if it was only somewhat more expensive here than on Amazon, I’d buy it. So I fired up the browser in my smartphone to check Amazon’s price, only to find I had no signal, despite Borders offering free Wi-Fi at this location. (I’m sure they jam the signal in the stacks. Borders wasn’t born yesterday, you know.)

There was a huge magazine section, a sizeable music section, and a large cookbook section (reasonable to find at a newsstand, a record store, and a cooking store, respectively). There was a giant display of vampire books. They also sold “gifts,” which I would describe as “something of dubious worth which you wouldn’t buy for yourself, but which you might buy as a gift for somebody you don’t know very well.” Then, up by the front, they were selling candy, just like at the grocery store or Office Depot. In short, this wasn’t really a bookstore as I’d like to define it. It was more like what Amazon would be if it were a brick-and-mortar store instead of an online entity.

Could you get good advice from a staffer at Borders? I understand that the original Borders bookstore was a small used-book operation in Ann Arbor run by a couple of brothers, and known for having a very helpful staff. But I’ve never felt like asking for advice in a books-et-cetera superstore like this. (When I have asked for help in such places, the response was like when you ask a waiter for a suggestion and he says, “Oh, I don’t eat the food here.”) I should point out that as I stood in line at checkout, the teenaged cashier did take some time to give another customer detailed directions on how to get to the Stonestown Galleria mall.

Ultimately, I don’t think Borders failed because electronic publishing and online retail leviathans like Amazon replaced brick-and-mortar stores; I think Borders failed because it tried to be a leviathan but its executives didn’t really know what they were doing. If the chain had succeeded instead of failed, it probably would have crushed out more independent bookstores in the process of continuing to change bookstores into something I barely recognize.

What is a bookstore?

What is a bookstore? Of course it’s not really for me to say, but I know what I like. To me, a physical bookstore shouldn’t be like Amazon, offering everything under the sun. In a way a bookstore should be more like the original Google—that is, a search engine whose primary purpose is weeding out all the crap I’m not looking for, to give me a manageable browsing experience. Actually, a good bookstore is more like a search engine with the best searches already keyed in: that is, a place where people who love literature have stocked the place with only the good stuff.

In the mid-‘90s when I lived in San Francisco, I frequented a North Beach bookstore called Columbus Books, on Broadway near the strip joints. This was an unlikely location for a small independent bookstore, as it was just around the corner from the famous City Lights Books and a few doors down from Big Al’s Adult Book Store. Thus, it had to face high rents along with serious competition from both ends of the literary spectrum. I don’t know when it folded (sometime after I moved to the East Bay), but its demise doesn’t worry me particularly, as there was something quixotic about its existence to begin with.

That bookstore was just chock-full of great books, many (if not most) of them used. Sometimes the used books were in eerily good condition. I found a used but pristine copy of a George Saunders book that had just come out, and had to ask the clerk if there was a mistake. “We probably bought it from a paid reviewer,” he explained. “The jerk probably never even read it.” It may be that Columbus Books wouldn’t pay anything for a used book they didn’t want to sell it in their store, and they took evident care in picking out what new books to carry. The staff would put their favorites up on the top of the bookshelves, cover facing out. Once, as a stunt, I decided to pluck a book absolutely at random from a shelf, give it only the most cursory glance, and then buy it. The book I snagged was a hardback, used but in great shape, and cheap. I liked the title, and I liked the cover:

I’d never heard of the author, but he passed the first-page test with flying colors and the book went on to be a glorious one. Just like that, I was turned on to a great writer.

Was the staff at Columbus Books helpful? Yes. One particular instance comes to mind. My wife sent me to find a book called Eight Bald Chicks that her book club had chosen. I had no idea who wrote it, and this was before Amazon or Google had really gotten going, so I the bookstore staff was my only hope. The clerk had never heard of it, but—and this is the important thing—it obviously bothered him that he hadn’t heard of it. He asked what it was about, and I said, “I dunno, I think it’s some feminist thing.” He scratched his head and said, “Ah! I know! You’re looking for 8 Ball Chicks! (They did have it.)

You wouldn’t want the waiters at your steakhouse to be vegans, would you? Why shouldn’t bookstore clerks be bibliophiles? I’ve talked to clerks at two different Berkeley bookstores who knew Jonathan Lethem personally. Knew him from where? They worked with him, of course. At the bookstore.

It’s the network

Amazon makes a pretty big deal (and a good deal of money) from its ability to mine the data it accumulates as customers buy stuff. Their algorithm looks at what’s in my shopping cart or my recent search history, and recommends other things I might like. For example, if I’m looking at a Radiohead album, it’ll see that other customers who bought Radiohead also bought Coldplay, and will recommend Coldplay. The system sometimes works pretty well (I did in fact get turned on to Coldplay this way, though they’re no Radiohead). The algorithm has its glitches, though. When I looked up the rock band Cake in Amazon’s Music section, their algorithm reasonably recommended Cake’s new album “Showroom of Compassion” but also recommended a book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, and a Wilton 13 Inch Angled Spatula with Black Handle.

What isn’t widely acknowledged, at least by the gadget freaks, is that a good bookstore—and especially a good used bookstore—offers something better than Amazon’s algorithm: a community of diehard readers of actual literature. When a bookstore caters to the kind of people who actually read books, thick ones, even ones by old dead writers, it creates the perfect environment for somebody like me. If you got to a top-notch bookstore like Moe’s Books in Berkeley, you’ll find all kinds of good new books, without having to push aside folderol like The CalorieKing Calorie, Fat & Carbohydrate Counter 2011, and you’ll find all kinds of good used books sold back to Moe’s by customers like yourself who have finished reading them. At a chain store, you’re offered what the corporate folks think will sell to a wide audience, but at Moe’s the used section is stocked, in effect, by Berkeley people who love literature.

When I was an English major in college, I went for over a year mindlessly buying my books from the student bookstore, which meant paying three times the cover price for a hammered old paperback edition of, say, Portrait of a Lady—a book that Moe’s probably has a dozen copies of. Then I realized, hey, wait a second, I’m not trying to find a relatively obscure physics textbook written by my professor; I could find any of these books at Moe’s! Once I started buying all my books there, I realized how deep Moe’s selection went. Looking for, say, Crime and Punishment, I had my choice of new vs. used, hardback vs. paperback, and three different translations. I could choose between really cheap for a tattered copy, cheap for a decent one, and full price for a pristine one. One of my favorite books is an old hardback copy of The Scarlet Letter, printed in 1935, that I bought at Moe’s for $7 twenty years ago.

Am I elitist? Not really—after all, I shop at places like Target, too. I just can’t mourn a bookstore chain that becomes too much like Target by trying to attract people who don’t much like to read.

Conclusion

I believe that the demise of independent bookstores, and of books in general, is greatly exaggerated. After all, just when MP3-loving Internet bloviators declared the CD dead, vinyl made a comeback. The Internet is a great tool for prognosticators, but I’m sure a lot of bookworm-types can’t be bothered to make their dissenting voices heard. Lots of traditional English-major types like me will always prefer paper books. And all the books already out there aren’t going to just cease to exist (unless there’s a giant bonfire or something) and will continue making their happy rounds of the used bookstores. I’m sure Moe’s will never be the next Amazon, but I think small bookstores will always be around to serve their niche.

dana albert blog

Monday, February 21, 2011

From the Archives - Tutoring

Introduction

When I was in college, I tutored a fourth-grader at a school right across the street from my apartment. This was in a pretty bad part of Berkeley with a lot of really run-down houses, dead cars in unpaved driveways slowly being absorbed by the earth, their wheels halfway sunken in. There must have been crack dealers next door because there was always one guy or another posted on the street corner looking out for cops. My apartment building was new and pretty nice, but the school across the street wasn’t a good one. I wrote a little essay about my tutoring project and sent it around to my family.

I post this essay now because it kind of ties in to my previous two posts. It addresses a question the Tiger Mother might never ask, which is: what about the kids who aren’t on top, don’t get As, and in fact are way, way behind?

My tutoring gig – spring, 1992

I tutor a little black kid named Eddie Michaels [not his real name]. Today I picked him up from his classroom right after school, which is an established way of making a student feel important. Interestingly, it’s cool to have a tutor at this school, because lots of kids need one and there aren’t enough to go around. When I showed up, I heard several kids in Eddie’s class ask, “Who’s that man there?” and then Eddie said proudly, “He’s my tutor.” Walking down the hall with him is fun because he’s only about three feet tall; I keep thinking I’m going to trip over him or something. It reminds me of how my old physics teacher used lengths of stride as a means of teaching us about wavelengths. I walk along: klunk . . . klunk . . . klunk. By my side, Eddie: clop clop clop clop clop.

At the start of each tutoring session, the tutor and his student fill out a Work Plan Report. This is apparently a result of the education system’s inherent love for paperwork and bureaucracy. I admit to having lost a whole stack of Tutor Orientation Information handouts before having even looked at them prior to my first day on the job. (My student hasn’t seemed to have noticed.) The first question on the Work Plan Report is, “What is the Work Plan today?” I hand the form to Eddie to fill out. This may be a slight breach of tutorial procedure; the other tutors in the library with us fill out the forms themselves. Perhaps the Tutor Orientation literature specifies that the paperwork be done by the tutor, so that it is complete and accurate. I am stubborn, however. To the question “What is the Work Plan today?” Eddie has written, “Homework.” Now he is on the next question, “How will this be accomplished?” and he writes, “Good.” I make him change it to “Well,” and suggest a complete sentence, but do not require him to eliminate his brevity. After all, Hemingway himself would have probably written “Well.” Now we turn to the task at hand: Eddie is having problems with his multiplication.

I understand his anguish, for I too struggled with this as a kid. All they would do is give me test after test, using my failure as a whip to crack on my back. I remember my first multiplication quiz: I raised my hand when I was unable to do the first problem. “Three‑times‑two. What’s the answer?” asked the teacher. I felt like saying, “If I knew that I wouldn’t have raised my hand!” but I knew better than to be a wiseguy. Instead I put on my most pitiful, lugubrious face in hopes she would simply give me the answer. It worked: “It’s six. Three‑times‑two is six.” She walked away, and I sat there scratching my head, wondering how to compute the next one. Four‑times‑eight. No idea. Okay, let’s see what ol’ teach did on the first problem: nothing obvious. No numbers carried, nothing up her sleeve. Must be simple. Okay, let’s go with what I know. Three‑times‑two is six. Three‑plus‑two is five. Aaaaah, I got it. When you multiply, you simply add the numbers together and add one. So four‑times‑eight is four‑plus‑eight‑plus‑one, or thirteen. No problem.

The rest of the test was a piece of cake. I was the first to hand my paper in, while all the other students tore their hair out and cursed under their breaths, as lost as I had been. I handed the teacher the test and said something smug, like “Nooooooo problem!” After getting chewed out, I returned to my seat, now thoroughly demoralized and confused, and did what any respectable elementary school student would do: I cheated off the guy next to me. His answers were all wrong too, as were everybody else’s, so the teacher groaned, realized that she’d somehow wound up with another class full of idiots, and resorted to ceaseless repetition in teaching us multiplication.

From then on we were tested daily, starting out multiplying everything by one, then by two, and so on, according to our proficiency. Only a perfect test could move a student up to the next level, and we were given only two minutes to complete each test. The time limit, I suppose, was aimed at stopping certain students from deliberating (since computation, as we had already proven, was fruitless—memory alone was our only hope of learning).

It took me forever—many weeks, I think—to “learn” my threes. Three‑times‑eight was the hardest of all. To give myself extra time to compute this quotient, I used to fill in the rest of the test in tiny, faint numbers before the teacher said “GO!” so I could transcribe the easy ones quickly, and then get to work on three‑times‑eight. Once I finally got past that milestone, my friend John Gilman stuck out his hand and said, “Welcome to the fours!” At first I thought he said “force” and assumed he was making a reference to “Star Wars,” which was big that year and distracted all of us from our schoolwork. Once I understood what he was actually saying—I had to memorize the fours now—I was furious. I’d gotten nowhere—just to a harder set of problems. This continued all the way up to the tens, which fortunately were easy.

By this time, the teachers were exhausted and never bothered to test us on the elevens and twelves. Of course, they somehow expected us to know them anyway and whenever a student stumbled on eleven‑times‑three or twelve‑times‑six he was a goner. It was at that time that some mathematics genius taught me a trick on the elevens—to just write the number twice—and this changed my way of thinking about multiplication. I realized you could develop a method to figure these things out, and it wasn’t just memorization. Extensive brainstorming taught me a little trick for multiplying by twelves: simply multiply the number by eleven, and then add it to the ensuing quotient. Twelve‑times‑six: eleven‑times‑six (sixty‑six) plus six, or seventy‑two. It was a miracle to me: I had just taught myself in five minutes what the teachers had never taught me after weeks and weeks of effort.

This all comes flooding back to me in my tutoring, when I learn that Eddie Michaels cannot multiply by twelves. I take about five minutes to explain the little trick I picked up, and the moment is as magical for him as it had been for me. When I quiz him, I can see the little gears turning in his head, his lips spelling out “sixty‑six, plus six, is ...” (and then he shouts) “SEVENTY‑TWO!” Upon my verification of his answer, he jumps into the air, his arms outstretched in the victory salute of a bicycle racer or the “touchdown” signal of a football referee (more likely the case), and he whoops with joy.

As the teachers bring around the juice and cookies, I realize we’ve barely got time to fill out the Work Evaluation Report. This one is aimed at the student, but Eddie seems stumped at the first question, “What did you learn today?” and looks to me for input. I tell him, “You learned how to multiply by twelve, didn’t you?” He writes his answer and goes on to the second one: “What did your tutor learn today?” Wanting not to merely transcribe my answer to him, I now speak as if to a third party: “I learned that Eddie is pretty smart.” He “overhears” my comment and writes down his answer. Filing his form, I see that he has answered the first question “You learned how to multiply by twelve,” and the second, “I learned that Eddie is pretty smart.” I let it go, even though I could be found guilty of dictating answers to a student. Oh well.

Now, it’s time for the big payoff: the Wonderbuck. The tutors fill out blank checks, writing in the amount of one to five Wonderbucks, according to the performance of the student. (Tutors, unfortunately, do not receive Wonderbucks, or bucks of any kind for that matter.) Today Eddie was on time, stayed on task, finished his homework, and did two other Wonderful things which I can’t remember right now. It is pretty much understood that every student gets all five Wonderbucks every day. These bucks are filed in a special folder by the tutor to be redeemed at some later date by the student (probably in exchange for more juice and cookies).

But today I feel like Eddie has made a major breakthrough, which calls for more money. After all, ours is a Capitalist society, and for every student to earn five Wonderbucks regardless of his performance would be downright Communist. But now I am faced with a dilemma: were I to take up the matter with the higher‑ups, challenging the status quo, I would certainly have my request denied—and poor Eddie would learn the futility of politics at far too young an age. Instead, I eschew morality and slyly swipe an extra Wonderbuck carelessly left on the supply table by an overworked teacher, and fill it out for the total of five extra Wonderbucks. Winking to Eddie, I drop it in his folder. His eyes light up, and his hand covers his mouth in universal child sign language for “I won’t tell!” I whisper in his ear, “That’s for learning your multiplication,” and he nods his understanding. He knows he’s earned it.

As soon as you finish reading this, I want you to chew it up and swallow it. That’s because if it were to fall into the wrong hands, I would be arrested and punished for the crime of Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, having admittedly stolen Wonderbucks in the presence of a child. “How could you corrupt him like that?” you might ask.

Look, my approach is purely pragmatic. If this kid is going to get anywhere in the educational system, he’s going to learn how to be results-oriented. I am hoping to rebuild Eddie’s conception of performance versus reward. Not all tutors do this. Many hope to win over their students (who can often be ornery and uncooperative) by bringing them food or gum before the lesson. Then, the cookies and juice are brought out after it, followed in rapid succession by the Wonderbucks, whether or not the student has done well. These students are smart: they won’t work if they don’t have to. You think I’d work at the bike shop all week if my paycheck didn’t depend on it? No chance.

Of course it’s difficult juggling my own schoolwork with a part time job and this tutoring. But it’s worth it, as I decided on my first day as a tutor when I arrived late, sweating and out of breath, having ridden my bike flat-out coming straight from a midterm exam. I explained to Eddie why I was late: I wanted to take as much time as possible on the test so that I would do well. For me, “doing well” means getting an A. My student, however, follows a different standard: he asked me, “Do you think you passed ?”

dana albert blog

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Parables from the Rooster Father



Introduction

In my last post, I discussed Amy Chua’s “Wall Street Journal” article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and the ways in which I disagree with her ultra-strict style of parenting. Perhaps the most alarming demand she makes of her kids? They are required to “be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.”

In my essay, I mainly argued against Chua’s idea that her so-called “Tiger Mother” techniques work better than the more lax style she associates with Westerners. For this post, I will give Chua the benefit of the doubt and assume her methods do work—but I will challenge the goals she has for her kids, particularly the overarching goal of being ranked No. 1. In making my points I’ll offer up a handful of parables.

I am garbage

I’d like to start off by confessing that I am what Amy Chua would probably call “garbage.” She might not call me this behind my back, but if I were her son, she’d likely say it to my face. As she describes in her WSJ article, her father called her “garbage,” and she went on to call her daughter “garbage.” In fact, “garbage” isn’t even the worst of it. When her daughter struggled to learn a new piano piece, Chua called her “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”

I can only imagine what Chua would think of my childhood performance. In her WSJ article she lists ten things her kids are never allowed to do (e.g., get any grade less than A) and as a kid I committed nine of them.

Since I’m taking on a Yale law professor and bestselling writer, I guess I should confess up front my many lifetime failures before asking you to consider my point of view. Here is a partial list:

ØI was asked to leave my elementary school orchestra due to my poor cello playing and demonstrable lack of commitment;
ØIn gym class I was always picked last for sports teams;
ØIn high school I got Bs in Algebra, Geometry, and Biology;
Ø I got kicked out of the National Honor Society;
ØI failed to get into the college of my choice, UC Berkeley, as a freshman.

If you read that list with a shudder, perhaps this post isn’t for you. But if you’ve got disappointments hidden away in your own past, maybe you’ll appreciate what I have to say: that there are worse things than being garbage, including—sometimes—being its opposite.

The game

As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t disagree with all of Amy Chua’s parenting ideas. For one, I don’t let my kids play computer games whenever they feel like it. I do let them play educational ones, though these are strictly rationed. Alexa’s favorite game is the Everyday Mathematics baseball game. You click the mouse, the game rolls three virtual dice, you multiply the rolled numbers together, and if you get the answer right you get on base. If you get the answer wrong, you get a strike.

One day I watched Alexa play. (These games can give a parent a glimmer of insight into the child’s mind.) To my surprise, Alexa seemed to be getting the majority of the multiplication problems wrong, even the easy ones that any kid in her grade should easily get. Chua says that among Chinese parents, “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” As I hadn’t yet read Chua’s article, this didn’t even cross my mind. Instead, I decided to withhold judgment and keep watching. After all, my brother Bryan failed to learn his multiplication tables on time, and yet went on to get a college math degree.

Even when I don’t have a Cinderella story handy to prop up my parental spirits, I tend to cut my kids some slack by differentiating between a lost cause and a slow start. This tentative policy was put to the test when I went to my first parent/teacher conference, with Alexa’s kindergarten teacher, a few years ago. The meeting was frankly a bit of a nightmare. The teacher complained of behavioral problems and chastised me for starting Alexa in school so young (she was not quite five at the beginning of the term). Looking at the report card, I was shocked to see Alexa had all 2s (on a scale where 2 means falling short of the standard, 3 means approaching the standard, and 4 means at the standard). Wow, I thought. My kid is going to flunk kindergarten!

But I played it cool. After all, I myself had had a slow start and arguably came out okay. I recalled that my kindergarten teacher’s main comment to my mother was that I did almost nothing but lie around on the floor sucking my thumb. The next year was worse: my first grade teacher called a special conference with my mom to complain about my incessant daydreaming. My mom was fairly blasé about this, and said, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll come around in time.” The teacher slammed her fist on the table and cried, “That time has got to be now!” Other than marveling at the madwoman before her, my mom did nothing. And I did come around in time, at least by Western standards.

And so did Alexa. By the end of her kindergarten year, she’d learned to control her temper, and to play nicely with others, and had achieved all 4s. (What her teacher had neglected to tell me, or what I had managed not to hear or grasp during that first meeting, was that the student is supposed to eventually reach 4s by the end of the term, and that 2s in the beginning are perfectly normal.) This same teacher raved about Alexa, seeming to have entirely forgotten her initial diatribe. And Alexa’s scholastic progress has been great ever since.

So now, watching her at the computer game, I looked for signs of success instead of focusing on the failure. One promising aspect of her play is that she was trying most of the problems in her head. I mused that being overconfident might be better than always playing it safe. I also noticed that Alexa was capable of getting the harder problems right when she worked them out on paper, which she wisely always did whenever she was at two strikes. And then it dawned on me that her wrong answers were always off by one. “Alexa,” I asked, “are you getting some of these wrong on purpose?”

She replied, “Yes. The game is totally unfair because when the computer is up to bat, it just makes up whatever score it wants. And then when you’re up and it rolls your dice, it keeps giving you these lousy numbers so you get ‘out.’” Sure enough, to get on base you not only needed to multiply the numbers right, but you needed the product to exceed some minimum value. A low roll got you an ‘out,’ if you got the problem right. The same low roll only got you a strike if you got the problem wrong. In terms of game theory, Alexa had realized that on a low roll, a wrong answer had higher value than the right answer. She ignored the tiny sting of being told her answer was wrong, because she was playing to win.

Whether Alexa figured this out on her own or compared notes with classmates, I really don’t care. My heart leapt at the sight of my little kid applying a creative solution to subvert the arbitrary authority of the computer game. So did I lavish her with praise like Chua’s archetypal Western parent? No, but I give her a tip: “Why bother calculating the low rolls and then adding one? Just answer zero, it’s more efficient.” Immediately after I said this I realized what this tip said about my parenting goals. I was effectively un-drilling my child! What would a Tiger Mother think? Oh well. What do you expect from a garbage parent?

Prologue to cycling tales: the world-beater

The next two stories I’ll tell have to do with a guy I raced bikes with, first as a rival and then as a teammate. To respect his privacy, I’ll call him “Ace.” He is, by any possible measurement, a true world-beater. He graduated summa cum laude from one top university and received a Ph.D. from another; has a Wikipedia page devoted to him; has published articles in more than a dozen esteemed journals including the “New York Times”; has written a number of well-regarded books; and has spoken on CNN and NPR. As far as I can tell, he has devoted his brilliant career to fighting for an important cause. In short, he is the kind of person just about any parent would be immensely proud of.

What makes Ace a subject for the parables that follow is that, at least where bike racing was concerned, he showed incredible drive of the relentless sort that Amy Chua works to instill in her daughters. And I’d heard stories from teammates, who had raced with Ace as juniors, that his dad was a real hard-ass, the kind of guy who was satisfied when his kid won but bawled him out when he lost. The kind of dad who saw second place as losing. The kind of dad, in short, who might reasonably be called a Tiger Father.

It is of course impossible for me to know how much of Ace’s attitude about success has to do with his upbringing. Perhaps his drive is completely inborn, and his worldview has nothing to do with his parents. Regardless, I think it’s useful to show how his need, as a cyclist, to be number one not only hampered his ability to have fun in bike races, but arguably kept him (in those days) from achieving the greatest leadership success he was capable of.

I haven’t kept in touch with Ace, and I suppose it’s possible he would disagree with what I’ll say here. But whether my points could be proven or not, I think you may find some universal truth in these stories. Whether I’ve accurately represented Ace or not, you may well recognize in my parables some world-beaters you’ve known, who have struggled to enjoy their successes and shrug off their failures, and indeed who have defined “failure” far too narrowly.

Criterium rivals

The purpose of this first story is to show two things. First, I will fully establish my standing versus Ace; second, I’ll examine the psychology behind a) winning and b) settling for second place. Beyond this, the first story will give some context to the one that follows it. (It will be necessary to go into a little detail about bike racing here, which I hope you’ll enjoy or at least tolerate.)

Half my lifetime ago, I was a student at UC Santa Barbara and raced for their cycling team. I was a devoted team domestique, which is a rider who, instead of trying to win, devotes all his energies to helping his team’s star rider. Being garbage, I was happy in this role. You could blame my upbringing—after all, my mom once told my brothers and me, “The world needs ditch-diggers, too”—but frankly I blame my own intelligence. I can tell when a rider has greater gifts, and know I can be more effective supporting him than trying to beat him.

(You might call this defeatist thinking, but my non-world-class physical characteristics are not subtle. I’ve always felt I lacked talent, and have recently learned, from screenings I’ve had done when donating blood, that my hematocrit—the measure of my red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen—is well below average. I’m at 39-41%; the average is mid-40s; the legal limit, beyond which doping is assumed to have occurred, is 50%. In other words, the average person has as much natural advantage over me as an EPO-doped rider has over a clean one.)

One weekend, our team traveled to UC Davis for the races there. Before the criterium event—an 80-lap pancake-flat race on residential streets—a Cal Poly rider I knew mocked for me for my intense warm-up. I had thought we were friends, but now, taking umbrage at his sneers, I was determined to humble him in the race. (Nothing my parents ever said to me could motivate me like that guy’s trash talk.)

Our team’ strategy was simple: win as many points as possible. In a collegiate race, riders score points for their team based on how high they finish. There are no other prizes, beyond medals and jerseys—it’s all for the glory of the team. In a criterium, scoring opportunities called primes (rhymes with “teams”) occur periodically throughout the race, on predefined laps. This race offered a prime every ten laps; for each one, I would give Trevor a “lead-out”—that is, I would start my sprint way early, with Trevor planted safely on my wheel, sheltered from the wind, and then I’d pull off well before the line, setting him up perfectly to win.

Trevor never squandered a lead-out. He was so reliable, I thought of him as Luke Skywalker: I’d finish my lead-out, pull off, and think, “You’re all clear, kid!” In fact, I nicknamed him “Red Five,” and it stuck.

Unfortunately, early in the race Trevor crashed hard and got some serious road rash. He got back in the race, but was clearly not himself. For the first time all season, we needed a Plan B. Our other strongest rider, Eric Cech, wasn’t much for sprinting, and I decided to see what I could do. I rode over to another teammate, Mark Wicker, and asked him to lead me out for the next prime. Mark, or “Wickahead” as we affectionately called him, had struggled with his fitness all season and so far had achieved nothing. He was happy to try a lead-out. He might not have dared lead Trevor out—after all, a sub-par lead-out can actually mess up your teammate—but since I only had an outside shot anyway, he had nothing to lose. It was garbage leading out garbage, and nobody expected anything of us.

To our delight, it worked perfectly. Wickahead’s lead-out was stellar, and I won the prime. The points go three or four deep, and I think he even scored a few points on his own. We repeated this again on the next prime lap, and were both incredibly stoked. “Yeeeeeah, boyeee!” Wickahead cried out in triumph, flashing a grin you could see from outer space. If I had been the kind of person whose ambition requires self-delusion, I might have overestimated myself based on this newfound success, and questioned my role as domestique the team hierarchy. Instead I looked back at Trevor, right after the second prime, and he was grinning too. He had bought in to Plan B, and was working to make it happen. By pretending to set up for his own sprint, he had completely thrown everybody off my scent. They took it hook, line, and sinker. And we repeated the trick.

The only rider who figured it out was Ace, riding for UC Berkeley. He was only fooled at first, and then muscled in on our action. There were two strategies available to him: he could bump me off Wickahead’s wheel to steal my lead-out, or line up behind me and try to come around. He chose the latter, either because it was safer (in terms of not crashing) or because he was confident enough in his sprinting to behave more like a gentleman. It worked, and I had to settle for second place in the primes after that.

When we came down toward the last lap, I was tired, and Wickahead was tired, and I knew Ace would have set aside plenty of energy for the win. Primes, after all, were chump-change: the final placing was far richer, in points and in glory, than these intermediate sprints. If I had any hope of winning, I’d need another Plan B. So I recruited another teammate, Eric, to give me a unique lead-out. I asked him if, instead of starting his lead-out with a half- or quarter-lap to go as was typical, he could lead me out for the entire last lap. He was one of the few riders in the race capable of doing such a thing to good effect, and of course he was keen to get in on the glory. So he went right to the front and completely drilled it. It was an awesome performance. The whole lap I was screaming at him to make him go faster: “All you got, man! All you got!” It wasn’t a sly strategy: it was brute force.

Now, in my private fantasy dream world, I’d have won the race, become a cycling star, and gone on to win the Olympics and one day have my life commemorated by a series of decorative plates, painted by Thomas Kincade and available only for a limited time from an ad in “Parade” magazine. But that’s not how it worked out. The lead-out was perfect, and my sprint wasn’t bad, but Ace came right by in the last twenty meters and easily took the win. Fate had held steady; the tiger had triumphed over the garbage.

The value in this tale comes from its aftermath. Frankly, I was thrilled to have won a few primes and taken second in the race. I know that’s pathetic, but it’s just how I was raised. (Wink.) Trevor congratulated me. And in Wickahead’s VW bus on the drive home, we were all ecstatic. Wickahead thumped the roof of the van, whooping like an Indian brave: he’d just had his best race of the season. Eric was also stoked, having played a major role in a dead-flat criterium, which was completely not his kind of course. Our first stop was In-And-Out Burger. It was time to celebrate: we hadn’t won, but Plan B had earned us plenty of glory. We were about the happiest band of garbage you ever saw.

Looking back, I think about how Ace must have felt after his race. I’m sure he was satisfied to have won, but perhaps his feelings were tinged with relief; after all, he had been raised, it was said, to believe that second place was a defeat. And Ace might have been annoyed to lose primes to a lowly domestique like me. Or maybe I’m completely wrong, maybe he was happier than any of us.

But here’s a mental exercise I’d like you to consider: let’s assume that joy is measurable, like money. For Ace, his joy at victory could be seen as a bonus paid out according to the terms of his contract. He was supposed to win, and he did. But for my teammates and me, the joy at near-victory was a complete windfall. Wickahead had probably expected to be mere pack-fodder in that race, like he’d been all season, and was clearly stoked to have solidly contributed to the team’s success. I had the satisfaction of having contrived a very decent Plan B, of having propped up Wickahead’s spirits, and of having scored a nice load of points on my way to my highest placing ever in a college criterium. Eric got some solid success in a flat crit, and Trevor got to play games with his rivals while helping his teammates succeed. If all this joy were pooled together, it could not possibly have fit in one vessel (i.e., Ace). It was like we’d created joy out of nothing. Meanwhile, if we assume joy to be a finite commodity, there couldn’t have been much left for Ace. In winning he may have felt merely competent; even in losing we felt brilliant, transcendent.

Had I been raised by a Tiger Mother, I would be hard-wired to be disappointed with anything but victory. Perhaps I’d be a winner through sheer effort and determination, or I’d have chosen a lesser college where I could be the star rider. Either way, I still wouldn’t be beating Ace, and I wouldn’t be as happy. What’s the point of spoiling a kid’s fun with outsized expectations? After all, that’s what college bike racing is supposed to be: fun. It’s not varsity; there are no scholarships; it’s just a club sport. Professional teams are not sending talent scouts to college bike races.

Even in the higher echelons of cycling, an ability to lose gracefully is essential to most riders’ morale. After all, only one rider can win, and most lose most of the time. A friend of mine told me a story about when he raced with the US National team in Europe around the same time I was racing in college. Back then, Americans were barely on the map in international cycling, and just to be racing in Europe was a really big deal. One day a rider on the team narrowly missed winning a road race, ending up in second place. In the van on the way back to the hotel, everyone was silent. Most of the riders were so jealous of their teammate’s success, they couldn’t speak. The rider himself was on cloud nine, and didn’t open his mouth for fear of gloating too much and making an ass of himself. Finally, another teammate, a young Lance Armstrong, broke the silence, clapping the guy on the shoulder and saying, “Don’t worry, man, you’ll get ‘em next time.”

Perhaps that’s the fundamental difference between champions like Lance and the rest of us. He alone saw his teammate’s second place as a sound defeat. Maybe that attitude sets Lance apart—but at what cost? I remember when Lance finished second in the prologue of the 2005 Tour de France. He should have been thrilled—he’d taken over a minute out of Jan Ullrich, his chief rival for overall victory, dealing him a devastating psychological blow—but instead Lance hurled his helmet to the ground in anger. All he could think of, in that first moment after the race, was being beaten (by a mere two seconds) by fellow American Dave Zabriskie. Lance had already won six Tours de France; couldn’t he spare a shred of glory for his compatriot?

Road race

Later in 1990, the same year I lost to Ace at the UC Davis criterium, I transferred from UC Santa Barbara to UC Berkeley. Some of my friends were disappointed; one in particular couldn’t understand my decision. But after failing to get in to Berkeley as a freshman, transferring in as a junior was my obvious Plan B. I made no apologies: after all, just because I’m garbage doesn’t mean I can’t strive for higher things. If I couldn’t be the top dog, I wouldn’t define myself by my disappointments, either. (It’s not like the Bad News Bears were trying to be a ragtag band of misfits; they wanted to win as much as anybody.)

On the Berkeley cycling team, of course, I was still a domestique. Frequently, this meant working for Ace, though we had several great riders on that team and the hierarchy wasn’t as well-defined as what I’d seen at UCSB. One weekend, our team hosted the races, and during the eighty-mile road race we got one of our riders, Brian Flora, into a breakaway with a Stanford rider we were pretty sure he could beat. This situation suited most of us just fine, but Ace was having none of it and rode hard at the front of the group. Mike Prime, another guy on our team, told him to stop chasing. “It’s not a good break,” Ace said. Mike fired back, “What, it’s not a good break ‘cause you’re not in it?!” Ace was really miffed by this and went to the back of the pack. For the rest of the race, while the rest of us blocked for Brian, Ace rode at the back and sulked. (Blocking consists of being at the front but not cooperating, to prevent the kind of concerted chasing effort that could bring back a breakaway.)

Of course, there were still plenty of points to be scored by the main group at the finish. I might have had a tough time deciding whom to lead out, as Mike was our best pure sprinter but Ace our top rider overall; but as it turned out, Mike crashed out and wasn’t there at the finish. In the final mile, I dropped back to Ace and offered him a lead-out. Apparently still sore about missing the breakaway, he wouldn’t even answer. So I figured I’d see what I could do on my own, and asked another teammate, Takumi Shimomura, if he’d lead me out. Takumi was happy to do it, and in fact gave me an amazing lead-out. It was like I’d hitched my bike to a comet. I took the field sprint easily—no small feat for a slow-twitch type like me—and Takumi came in right behind me. Oddly enough, Ace didn’t even figure in the sprint.

As it turned out, Brian didn’t win the race—the Stanford guy somehow beat him. In that sense, you might say Ace was vindicated: maybe it wasn’t a good break. But in terms of total points scored, our Berkeley team dominated the race, even with Ace leaving points on the table by not trying. I’m not in a position to say precisely why Ace was so down about missing the break, but I can take a guess: when watching his teammate disappear up the road, Ace could only think of losing. The decent odds of his teammate winning didn’t register for him; perhaps on a subconscious level he was filling in for his dad, damning himself in advance for not being in contention. The problem with pushing your kid so hard, I think, is that you set up this binary response to success: everything is either win or lose, success or failure. There’s no room in such a worldview for gradations of success, such as “I helped the team” or “I finished second but took a minute out of Ullrich.”

Of course, in the heat of competition people don’t always behave well, myself included. (In 1988 a Berkeley rider and future teammate, Martin Dare, outsprinted me to win a road race, and I told him afterward, “I have no respect for you!” The complete pointlessness of my embarrassing remark has been a running joke ever since.) But when I saw Ace at the criterium the next day, he still seemed irked. I thought he was coming over to congratulate me on my good sprint the day before, but instead he said, “So, did you do a little top secret training ride yesterday evening?” Confused, I told him I hadn’t. He fired back, “Dana, I saw you!” I couldn’t understand this. So what if I had done an extra training ride? What would that matter? Was I being insubordinate?

Besides, I hadn’t done a secret ride, so I was completely bewildered at Ace’s accusation. It turned out he’d seen me riding home from my girlfriend’s apartment, where I’d gone right after the race. This still didn’t solve the mystery of his reaction. Squeezing in a workout between an eighty-mile road race and a criterium the next morning wouldn’t help anybody, as Ace should have easily grasped. It seemed his anger had clouded his judgment.

It must be acknowledged, meanwhile, that such insatiable drive does produce results: Ace went on to win the criterium that day.

Teamwork

Completely missing from Amy Chua’s essay is any mention of teaching kids how to collaborate with others. According to an unnamed study she cites, “Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.” Chua requires her daughters to be ranked No. 1 in every subject except gym and drama—the two realms where cooperation is important. Does she think her kids incapable of teamwork, or does she consider it irrelevant?

In cycling, perhaps the most salient show of teamwork is the team time trial event, where a five-person team races against the clock. The times of each team (actually, the times of the third rider across the line for each team) are compared to determine the placings. At UC Santa Barbara during the 1990 season, we won all but one TTT, including the conference championship and the national championship. (The one time we got second, our star rider was out sick.) At UC Berkeley during the 1991 season, though our team looked good on paper and did well in other events, we only managed 6th in the conference championship and 7th at nationals.

Our chief problem was that Ace pulled too hard, as anyone on the team would tell you. Whenever he took his turn at the front, gaps would open up and have to be closed. We could never develop a rhythm, and would often drop a rider for good, increasing the workload on the rest of us. The trick in a TTT is to go as hard as you can without disrupting the line; all Ace understood was the going-hard part, and he seemed incapable of keeping track of his team.

A final note about Ace: as I said earlier, I think it’s important to differentiate between failure and a slow start. Whatever failings Ace had as a team player in 1991, I strongly suspect he has long since transcended them, banking wisdom gleaned from those early years. Perhaps as he moved further and further from his father’s shadow, the message that second place is a failure became quieter, more distant. The field Ace is in now is rife with setbacks for all concerned, and he wouldn’t be thriving there without patience and perspective. Perhaps part of growing up is figuring out which of your parents’ lessons to absorb, and which to jettison.

Alexi

Part of being No. 1 is, of course, looking out for No. 1. This mentality can serve an athlete well, at least in individual-oriented sports like tennis, figure skating, skiing, and gymnastics. But too much individualism can be problematic for team-oriented sports like cycling; just consider the case of Alexi Grewal, the only American ever to win a gold medal in the Olympic road race. He had a very promising start, but struggled to find a place in the sport and had a relatively brief career. Of his Olympic victory, Alexi says, “It was not heroic.”

On his website, Alexi alludes to the difficulty of his upbringing. He asks the reader to imagine himself in his shoes: “You have won the Olympic Games, you have survived a season on your own in Belgium, you have survived all things Grewal. Your entire life has been to win your fathers approval, to be seen in his eyes and hence in your own as a winner. Nothing you have done to date has ever made that possible.” Alexi’s father, Jasjit Singh Grewal, emigrated to the U.S. from India and was a good bike racer himself. But if Jasjit ever taught Alexi about teamwork, the lesson obviously didn’t take, considering Alexi’s own story of his Olympic victory.

As Alexi relates on his website, “My instructions were simple, ride for Davis [Phinney, the team leader].… In the race however and in my mind and prep I never gave one thought to really giving away my chance. I was there to win, it was all I knew at that point in life.” During the race, Alexi set about looking after only himself, even playing his American teammates against one another. At a pivotal point in the race, he deliberately foiled Phinney's chance at the victory: “Two laps to go Davis asks me for food. I lied, said I don’t have any … I believe all it would have taken for Davis to have won the Olympics was to have carried enough food. He was riding good, really good. But I had other plans.” These plans worked out well on a hot summer day in 1984. Long term … not so much.

Fathers

I’ve now mentioned Ace’s father and Alexi Grewal’s. Frankly, I don’t understand the emphasis Chua puts on the Tiger Mother concept; as a male I can’t discount the importance of my fathers’ influence on my life. No, I didn’t misplace that apostrophe: I’m talking about the three father figures I’ve had in my life.
My actual father—a Ph.D. chemist who refashioned himself as an honest-to-god rocket scientist—emphasized education and good grades like Chua, but made no attempt to micromanage his sons’ lives. My second father figure, a business mentor I met through the Coors Classic bike race, gave me huge life lessons in confidence, tenacity, and professional poise; oddly enough he had never graduated from college. (A semester short of finishing, he decided he was wasting his parents’ money and dropped out, and has never looked back.) My third father figure was my career mentor at the job I still have, who taught me just about everything I make my living by. Though he has earned two patents on his technological innovations, he too was a college dropout. (A summer internship became a career and college was lost in the shuffle.) These second two father figures—both highly successful people—clearly weren’t following Chua’s program.

Plan B

If there’s one thing in common among my father figures, it’s their ability to improvise with their lives, to come up with Plan B. This is something Amy Chua says almost nothing about. She seems to parent according to a very basic formula: order your kids to get straight As; choose the extracurricular activities your kids will do and make sure they work at them; make sure the kids aren’t distracted by time-wasting activities like play-dates or school plays; require them to be ranked No. 1; send them to an ivy league university. What if the plan hits a snag? Well, Chua tells us, if the child gets a B on a test, her “devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.” That’s her version of Plan B: just more of Plan A, but get it right this time.

This is all well and good if the kids perform, but what if they don’t? My college girlfriend had an Asian friend who killed himself shortly before graduation. The reason he gave was that he was afraid he would fail his last final, flunk the course, not graduate on time, and not get to start the job he had lined up with Arthur Andersen. Somehow, he couldn’t believe that any other path would lead him anywhere, and found the prospect of failure too much to handle. To him, life must have looked like a connect-the-dots, where if you screw up the picture you have to crumple it up and throw it away.

My parents weren’t pushovers—they had high hopes for me, and gave me the tools to make good. But they also raised me in a manner that didn’t restrict my horizon to a single version of success. Looking back, my entire life has been one Plan B after another. I was supposed to be a swimmer but practically sunk; I turned to bike racing, which better suited my taste for speed. I was supposed to play the cello; I settled for the boom box, which I still enjoy to this day. I was supposed to get all As; I didn’t, and life went on. I was supposed to get into Berkeley as a freshman; I transferred in as a junior after two sunny years filled with friends and bike races. I was supposed to major in math, science, or engineering; I chose English because for me literature trumped all other mental activity, then and now. After college I interviewed for an account management job and didn’t get it; a technical manager found another place for me, and I’m still there fifteen years later. In short, I was supposed to be Ace; instead I’ve figured out how to get pleasure and satisfaction from just being myself.

Battle hymn of the tiger mother amy chua dana albert blog

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Battle Cluck of the Rooster Father

Introduction

If you’re a parent, or otherwise tapped into the parenting zeitgeist, you’ve probably heard of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and/or have read her “Wall Street Journal” article titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Among Chua’s parenting principles: kids shouldn’t be allowed to watch TV, play video games, or have play-dates; must get all As; must be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; and are fair game to be insulted by their parents (e.g., to be called “garbage”) in the name of motivation. If you haven’t read the article but these bold ideas sound interesting, check out the WSJ piece and then come back here.

In this post, I will explain why I think the book and article are important; describe what I like about the article; and then explain what’s wrong with it. My post will be longer than Chua’s WSJ article—not because I’m needlessly verbose, but because it’s harder to carefully analyze something than to say whatever simple, brash thing pops into your head. If Dostoevsky had spray-painted a profanity on the side of a building instead of writing Notes From Underground, I wouldn’t say his existential angst would have been better served. (No, I’m not trying to say Chua’s writing is like graffiti, nor that I’m like Dostoevsky. I’m just explaining where I am trying to land this post within the literary spectrum.)

Why “Rooster Father”? Chua calls herself a “Tiger Mother” based on her Chinese zodiac sign, and tells the reader that tigers are “powerful, authoritative, and magnetic” and inspire “fear and respect.” I’m no expert on Chinese zodiac, but as a rooster I’m said to be hard-working, honest, and blunt. And I can be pugnacious, especially when some human outfits me with spurs.

Caveat

No, I haven’t even read Chua’s book. Why should I, when a) her WSJ article gives me a strong enough taste of her perspective, and b) her writing isn’t very good? I haven’t even read At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien yet. How can I ignore a writer like O’Brien who offers up sentences like “My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign outdoor animal and was rarely seen and my mother never took any notice of it” in favor of Chua’s “Western parents worry a lot about their childrens’ self-esteem”? My time is too scarce to spend it on inferior books.

That said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to make a case against Chua’s parenting tenets by evaluating what she wrote in her WSJ article, which I have read very carefully. It’s reasonable to assume her book is in the same spirit as the article, espousing similar views.

Why the Tiger Mother book is important

I have never encountered a more earnest bunch than parents. The intense yearning to get things right begins before the first offspring is even born, when the mother-to-be gets a copy of that accursed book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. My favorite one-star Amazon review of that book says it all: “Guys ... consider this a warning; this will be the worst book that your significant other can read and will make your life utterly miserable for the next nine months.” It’s true. The book should be called What to Dread When You’re Expecting. And then when the baby is finally born, alive and well and without gills or fangs or asbestosis, you’re still not out of the woods. Parenthood is (among other things) a long cycle of fear and dread, for both parents. When my wife and I took two-day-old Alexa home from the hospital—not just for a visit, but to live with us—I felt like a mistake must have been made: who were we to raise a child? We knew nothing! (An entire industry preys on parents’ lack of confidence; I give you the baby-wipe-warmer and baby-bottle-sterilizer.)

Doubtless there are huge pockets of America where parents pick a pacifier up off the floor, wipe the dog hair off it, and stick it back in their kid’s mouth as a standard practice beginning with the first baby, instead of only gradually reaching this point on the second or third. But here in the Berkeley area (spang in the heart of the Prius belt), parents take their responsibility very seriously, and discuss parenting techniques the way “Vogue” interns discuss fashion, or teenage kids discuss video gaming strategy. When I attended my kids’ school’s Math Night—a chance for teachers to share math teaching techniques with parents—I got there a few minutes early but barely nabbed the last seat.

Highest among parents’ virtues in progressive communities is a willingness to second-guess ourselves. Much of this is worthwhile; parents are rightly cautioned against such evils as helicopter parenting and over-praising. But then there’s the flip side too, like the myth that immunizations cause autism, or that your cat will suck the breath out of a sleeping infant. Whenever parenting culture starts to swerve around, I get really nervous.

When a parenting advice book comes out by a Yale Law School professor, whose husband is also a Yale Law School professor, and whose older daughter got into an Ivy League college and plays piano at Carnegie Hall—well, parents sit up and listen, and are primed to obey. Whether we read the book or article or not is almost immaterial—our day-to-day behavior, grounded in our thoughtful approach but subject to the whims of inevitable parental improvisation, can be easily influenced by the mere notion that ultra-strict parenting is now in vogue. Many of us are desperate to be told the right way to parent, so books like this make big waves, whether they’re shaping behavior or galvanizing parents into a spirited, defiant backlash. (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother calls itself as a memoir and pretends to be a parent-acquires-wisdom tale; the WSJ article is more blatantly a how-to guide.)

The good

Some of what Chua says I can agree with. I’ve lately felt as though parenting trends are already shifting towards greater strictness, but the signs of what I take as rampant over-permissiveness are all around us. When dining with another family I’ll occasionally witness the children being given a totally separate menu—hot dogs or chicken fingers or mac ‘n’ cheese—as though the parents are short-order cooks. (My kids eat what they’re served, even if it’s my wife’s okra-based gumbo creation.) I’m shocked, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, at kids who never say “please” or “thank you.” I’m irked by parents who append every command with “okay?” and let these quasi-commands go unexecuted. It seems to me that some parents, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable with their own authority. Their kids, needless to say, take full advantage.

On Chua’s list of rules, I find some items that loosely match the rules my kids must live by. My kids don’t get to watch TV (they’ve literally never seen it, expect perhaps at friends’ houses), and videos and PC time are strictly rationed. And like Chua, I tell my kids I expect them to get good grades (and that “good” will mean “A” once the kids are switched to the letter-grade scale). My kids are expected to practice the piano (though only twenty minutes a day). And, they will play league soccer until and unless they find an alternative sport that provides as much structure. I do get the occasional raised eyebrow when I mention these things to another parent. Chua’s book and article may reduce the number of raised eyebrows I get, or (on the other hand) may align me, in others’ eyes, with the enemy camp. Perhaps some of both.

The problem with the Tiger Mother

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Amy Chua’s parenting approach is wrong. Now, as much as we may all enjoy simple, bold statements like that, for me to convince anybody of this notion, I’m going to have to back it up. I don’t have a Ph.D., I don’t teach at Yale, I’m not a bestselling writer, this is just a humble blog and not the “Wall Street Journal,” and my daughters aren’t (yet) successful, so I can’t just declare what ought to be done and have thousands of parents scurrying around retooling their policies. But that’s okay! I relish the opportunity to take Chua on, within the (albeit obscure) pages of albertnet. When I’m done taking apart her argument, you’ll be cheering and saying, “Her fame and riches are rightfully his!”

The more responsible way of saying Amy Chua is wrong is to say that her argument fails to show a causal link between its premises and its conclusion (i.e., her argument is not valid), and/or that its premises are false (i.e., her argument is not sound). Here’s how her case, in the WSJ article, breaks down:

Premise: Chinese parents are more strict, and push their kids harder, than Western parents.

Premise: The wisdom of a parent’s approach determines, in large part, her child’s success.

Premise: Asian-American kids achieve greater success than other American kids.

Conclusion: The Chinese-style strict parenting approach works better.

I am going to first attack the premises, because they practically attack themselves. If there’s anything of the argument left after that, I’ll attack the causality (though it’s kind of latent in the second premise anyway, her argument being plagued by the petitio principii fallacy to begin with).

First premise – Chinese parents are more strict

Certainly, Amy Chua isn’t the first person to describe the strict parenting common in Chinese culture (and Asian cultures in general). At the same time, I wouldn’t be the first person to accuse her article of reinforcing unfair stereotypes. There are plenty such accusations in the reader comments on the WSJ article; I also looked at the 1-star reviews of her book on Amazon and found that sixteen out of eighty-six (32%) were from self-identified Asians. It has also been pointed out that Chua’s family actually emigrated from the Philippines, so she herself may not be an ideal spokesperson for Chinese parenting methodology.

Anecdotally, I can offer one solid counterexample to Chua’s assertions about Chinese parenting: while my own mother obviously isn’t Chinese, a prominent figure of my alma mater was (and is). In college, I took a creative writing class from bestselling writer Maxine Hong Kingston. While Chua tells her kids they have to be ranked number one, Maxine had little use for such hierarchy. All you had to do to get an A in her class was write the requisite number of pages (I think it was fifty) during the term. She told us that it was hard enough getting into her class (she offered only thirty spots per semester, with admission based on writing samples), so she felt we all already deserved As. When I graduated, Maxine gave the commencement speech, and a rather memorable moment was when she gave all of us English majors permission to get fired from our first few corporate jobs.

What kind of parent was Maxine? I can’t say, but in her new book (as quoted in a recent interview) she laments not focusing more attention on her son: “I regret always writing, writing. I gave my kid the whole plastic bag of marshmallows, so I could have 20 minutes to write.” Hardly the slave-driver Tiger Mother Chua describes.

Chua’s characterization of Western parents is also troubling. She makes vague references to “my Western friends who consider themselves strict,” but really, how valid a cross-section of the American people is that? Is the Yale community subset of New Haven, CT the epicenter of Western family values? The only statistical evidence Chua cites in the WSJ article is a study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers—a rather small sample. (Her choice of this study also begs the question, “What about the fathers?” In her article she briefly mentions her husband’s dissenting point of view, but the clear implication is that he is routinely overruled. A review I read of her book suggests that it’s no better in giving her husband his say.)

Chua is quite bold about drawing vast conclusions from skimpy anecdotal evidence. She states, “Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t,” such as calling them “garbage.” I doubt the Chinese have a monopoly on verbal abuse; who knows what our nation’s parents say to their kids behind closed doors? What Chua probably means is “Rich white New Haven parents don’t call their children ‘garbage,’ or at least don’t admit to it.” Which is probably true, but really doesn’t provide much support to an examination of parenting styles nationwide. The fact is, there is no such thing as the “Western parent” such as Chua describes. Some Western parents smother their kids; others ignore them. Some bury their kids in praise; others verbally abuse them (though not necessarily with good intentions, like Chua). Some make them practice the piano; others give them all the junk food and soft drinks they want and set them down in front of the TV.

Conveniently, in the context of the WSJ article, Chua doesn’t differentiate between Chinese-American and Chinese families. If she focused on the latter, she might have to answer for the mental health problems in that country and the teen suicide rate. If Chua is really talking about Chinese-American families, then she might do well to look beyond the family and examine the role our immigration laws might have in allowing only the most hardworking immigrants into the country. (For more on the topic of immigrants having more motivation than natives, and how this pertains to Chua's book, check out this interesting essay.)

Second premise – parents’ wisdom determines kids’ success

Chua is clearly proud of her parenting: “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.... Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.” Her authority in this realm stems from the success her kids have had. I’ll take it as given that her kids have in fact turned out great. Here is the petitio principii argument: a) great parents turn out great kids; b) my kids turned out great; c) therefore, I’m a great parent. The first premise, (a), only holds true if you also accept the conclusion it helps to present. I would look like a jerk challenging (b) or (c), and would have almost no evidence.

What I need to show, then, is that Chua’s kids would have turned out great regardless of, or even in spite of, Chua’s approach. Of course I have absolutely no view into the mechanics of Chua’s family (beyond the few shocking anecdotes she relates), but that’s actually okay. Chua makes a number of assertions about what a parent ought to do, and uses her daughters’ success to validate those assertions. To refute her ideas, I’ll attack the assertions themselves, and show that they’re absurd; from there, the reader will naturally conclude that Chua’s kids succeeded on their own merit without their mother’s crazy ideas getting in the way.

(The idea that parenting style determines the success of one’s offspring has been compellingly challenged at length: Judith Rich Harris attacked the assumption with vigor. As described in a 1998 “New Yorker” article by Malcolm Gladwell, Harris posed the question, “What if children learn the things that make them who they are—that shape their characters and personalities—from their peer group?” She ultimately concluded that “what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.” She wrote a book on this that might make a nice counterpoint to Chua’s. It's called The Nurture Assumption. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s a lot higher on my to-read list than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The basic gist of it is well described in Gladwell’s article.)

One suggestion that Chua’s parenting techniques are not all-important comes from her daughter Sophia, who published, in the “New York Post,” a (supportive) letter to her mom. Sophia writes, “I think your strict parenting forced me to be more independent. Early on, I decided to be an easy child to raise. Maybe I got it from Daddy — he taught me not to care what people think and to make my own choices — but I also decided to be who I want to be. I didn’t rebel, but I didn’t suffer all the slings and arrows of a Tiger Mom, either.”)

Let’s look at Chua’s pronouncements about what a Chinese parent does that works so well in raising successful kids. First, consider this business of a child who brings home a poor grade on a test. Chua contends, “If a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child.” This statement would be impossible to prove and I think really depends on the household. In my family, any single test score would have elicited no more of a response than a kid announcing he’d brushed his teeth. My parents wisely never cared how I did on an individual test as long as the final report card had an A. They voiced certain expectations (i.e., all As) but never stooped to micro-managing my education.

But wait, it gets worse: Chua goes on, “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” Is this really true? Do these supposed Chinese parents actually have that little faith in their kids? Could it really be useful to create such a elaborate parenting structure that every test score must be reported? And when does this end: after high school, or does the kid have to continue reporting back every score when she’s away at college?

(When I was in college, I became exasperated at my French professor because of how he scored his quizzes. The quizzes were always worth 20 points, but given the complexity of the language, there were usually at least a hundred mistakes you could make. Each mistake cost you, arbitrarily, half a point. Thus, you could turn in a test that was 90% perfect and worthy of an A-, but would only earn a 15 out of 20—a solid C. The solution was to do flawless work, which I generally did, but after realizing how high my average must have been after seemingly endless quizzes, and having other priorities one evening, I didn’t bother studying for the next day’s quiz. I’d learn those irregular verbs later, and in the meantime, I could absorb a bad grade on a single quiz. I pulled like a D or an F on it, and the professor was shocked. He was even more shocked when I shrugged it off. Did my parents known about this? Certainly not, unless I told my mom about it to make her laugh.)

Chua also contends, “Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” Really? Nothing? Um, Ms. Chua, have you ever heard of play? I happen to know something about fun things that you don’t have to be good at; in my blog post “In Defense of Fun” I describe how children live in the moment, cultivate fun, and defend their right to have it. In giving advice on how adults can keep having fun, I provide a list of my top twenty fun things to do, and only ten of them are things you have to be good at, or that require work. Could Chua’s daughters’ lives really be devoid of simple, unearned fun? Of course not, and I can prove it: Chua’s daughter Sophie writes about “blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ with me over and over.” Gosh, I hope she didn’t get in trouble for confessing this….

Some of my greatest delight is in watching my kids’ creative play. Here, Alexa has literally put her sister in the palm of her hand:

One afternoon my wife stumbled across a strange ritual seeming to involve feline idolatry, with several stuffies showing obeisance:

I’ve always loved how absorbed kids get in their play. Here, Lindsay completely ignores the cat and the photographer while somehow integrating an umbrella into a car ride:

video

These kids will have their whole adult lives to tirelessly fine-tune their skills and strive for glory. Is it truly wise to confine them to drilling themselves on schoolwork and learning an instrument instead of idly exploring their imaginations? What would Hayao Miyazaki have to say about this?

Chua goes on to say, “Children on their own never want to work.” To which I reply, “Says who?” I get the impression that Chua hasn’t given her kids the opportunity to try something on their own, without being monitored and hounded. Why not let hard work be the kid’s idea? Alexa takes her homework more seriously than I do; I often find myself assuring her it's not the end of the world if she turns it in a day late. Meanwhile, I keep finding scraps of paper with her self-initiated practice math problems on them. (From what I learned on Math Night I gather Alexa is pretty far ahead of the curve on lattice multiplication.)

Over the summer Alexa asked me to help her write a sonnet and for Christmas she asked Santa for a “Brain Quest” workbook. Both my daughters received the workbooks, and both plug away at them of their own strange volition. Of course I’ve had to pester my daughters to practice the piano, but not all the time; they’ll take it up on their own, too. (Alexa recently begged to be allowed to learn the clarinet, and although her playing so far sounds like a cat being tortured, who knows, maybe the clarinet will end up being her favorite instrument.)

By far the weirdest statement Chua makes is “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.” Am I reading this right? If this policy is followed, how on Earth can a child surpass her parents in achievement? Such a child is necessarily limited by her parents’ imaginations. What if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s parents had shared Chua’s view of drama as relatively unimportant, and kept him too busy with schoolwork to discover acting? What would it mean for the US entertainment industry—entertainment being one of our main exports—if all our parents felt this way? And what if Hendrix had only been allowed to play the violin? What if Michael Jordan hadn’t time for basketball because he was studying and practicing the piano all day?

My brother Bryan, though he has loved both swimming and cycling, has not bent over backwards to encourage his son John's baseball playing. Bryans position is, “What value is all this athletics in our own kids’ lives? They’re not going to grow up to be über-athletes. They’ll just be has-beens. What good did all that swimming do Geoff and me?” Bryan never even bought his son a bat—John has to borrow. Though he’s right-handed, he bats left because as a kid he couldn’t get anyone to pitch to him as much as he wanted. But at least Bryan hasn’t overridden John’s choice, freeing John (now in high school) to become a great ball player. (His teammates fight over who gets to loan him a bat.)

Instead of decreeing the realms in which my kids may succeed, I say, “Surprise me.”

There’s also something to be said for a child learning to stick up for herself when her desires are being denied. I was raised by pretty strict parents, and one of my mom’s expressions would seem to be right out of a Tiger Mother’s phrasebook: “Because I said so!” I hated this expression as a kid, and vowed never to use it as a parent. And I don’t—I let my kids try to appeal my decisions, within bounds. For example, while I was out with my kids recently Alexa asked if we could stop by the video store on the way home. I said, “No, there’s no time—your mom and I have to get ready for our date. Besides, you’ve had enough videos this week already.” Alexa replied, “Please? It won’t take that long. It’ll be surgical. I know exactly what movie I want, we’ll be in and out of there in like two minutes. And besides, it’ll be easier for Grandma to babysit us if we have something to do.” This was a compelling argument, and I was flattered by her use of “surgical,” which she got from me. I relented, contingent on finding a handy parking spot.

Not only does the freedom to negotiate hone my kids’ rhetorical skills, but it actually reduces whining and other offensive behaviors. When Chua describes her effort to force her child to learn a difficult piano piece, she says, “Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed, and kicked.” Chua seems to tolerate these behaviors so long as she gets her way in the end. I will not. My kids know that their only hope at an appeal is to make it reasonable. If they whine about something, I explain, “Now that you’ve whined, there is no way you can get what you want, because then I would be rewarding your whining. So now, on principle, I have to say absolutely not.” This hasn’t eliminated all my kids’ offensive behaviors, but it has helped.

Chua cautions, “As a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up.” This is only true if your child’s self-esteem is caught up in the activity you advocate, and (particularly if you’re a Tiger parent) that’s a big “if.” I was on the swim team for years because my mom wouldn’t let me quit until I’d given it plenty of time and effort. The whole time I swam, I sucked, and I knew I sucked. But did finally quitting it damage my self-esteem? Of course not—I couldn’t have cared less how slow I was in the pool. Swimming was, and is, a stupid sport. By letting me quit, my mom gave me the opportunity to try another sport—cycling—that I cared about. And though I started off sucking in cycling, too, I gradually improved and made something of myself—with zero oversight from my parents. Cycling was my thing, I got good at it, and that built my self-esteem, from the ground up (instead of from the parents down).

Third premise - Asian-American kids achieve greater success

On a macro level, it’s widely acknowledged that American kids are scoring poorly on standardized tests, far below their Chinese counterparts. But I cannot see this as an indictment of the parenting philosophy Chua encounters among the Yale faculty mothers she has lunch with. I’m not saying we don’t have a problem; only that the mothers Chua encounters probably aren’t the ones dragging down the national average. An old dude I used to work with liked to say, “The average person has one testicle and one breast.” His point was that the word “average” is slippery. There probably aren’t many American students whose scores reflect our national average. You’ve got the top, and the bottom, and likely not much in between.

It bugs me that some parents in my community are going to be throwing up their hands over this book and saying, “Oh my god, I’m not strict enough! I’m not a good parent!” even though the kids in our town are thriving. It’s in the less fortunate communities, with greater social problems (e.g., mothers working two jobs with no husband around, and who are too busy to read parenting books), where kids are failing. The sad state of American schools is utterly relevant to society, but since the target audience of Chua’s article and book are parents who do care, and who have good schools available to their kids, the broader problem of American schools isn’t germane to her parenting argument.

Perhaps the real point Chua is trying to make is that among parents who are trying their best, the Chinese ones have a better track record with their kids. Her own kids have done well, but that’s a pretty small sample set. If we’re looking at the wider crème de la crème of parenting—the affluent, education-focused Asian-Americans vs. their Western American counterparts—maybe we should look beyond grades and musical prowess.

How about entrepreneurial success? I give you Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both Westerners who dropped out of college. Major, society-changing innovations like the light bulb, the telephone, the birth control pill, the computers, and the Internet all came from the U.S. Meanwhile, our books, music, and movies are hugely popular worldwide. I’d say our top tiers must be doing something right. I won’t attempt to draw too large a conclusion from these examples, but perhaps the utterly straightforward lifestyle structure of achieving top rankings in parent-defined realms doesn’t encourage the kind of wildly imaginative experimentation that sometimes results in major new enterprises. Maybe a blank sheet of paper is actually harder than a Sodoku.

Backpedaling

A final bit of evidence I’ll file against Chua’s parenting doctrine is her willingness to backpedal when challenged about it. In a follow-up WSJ piece she writes, “I also know of people raised with ‘tough love’ who are not happy and who resent their parents. There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach (I don’t believe, by the way, that Chinese parenting is superior—a splashy headline, but I didn’t choose it).” First off, shouldn’t she have more authorial control over her article? Second, her original article does match the spirit of this headline. It is nothing if not a formula for parenting.

Chua continues, “It doesn’t come through in the excerpt, but my actual book is not a how-to guide; it’s a memoir, the story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother. Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict ‘Chinese’ approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13.” Now, if Chua’s excerpt is not true to the book, whose fault is that? And if she has truly retreated from the strict “Chinese” approach, why is she so vigorously touting it in her article (which, after all, came out after she wrote the book)? If Chua had really had a change of heart, her book would be an indictment, not a celebration, of this parenting style, and her WSJ article wouldn’t get the title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”

Another strange quote from Chua’s follow-up article: “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.” Give me a break! Isn’t this exactly the kind of mealy-mouthed, anything-goes, just-do-the-best-you-can approach Chua has dismissively associated with Western parents? It certainly doesn’t jibe with her unconditional directive, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades.” Look. Ms. Chua, you can either be touchy-feely or be the Terminator. You can’t be both.

Conclusion

I think Chua’s article, and I suspect her book as well, could have really benefitted from some deeper thought. Clearly her off-the-cuff, deliberately shocking style has generated enough buzz to sell a lot of books, but it didn’t convince me of anything but her own recklessness.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, congratulations: you have a great attention span. If you think your parents deserve the credit, please thank them for me!

If I haven't convinced you that Amy Chua is wrong in her approach, that’s fine—after all, she’s the law professor with the successful kids. But you may want to check out my next post, which takes for granted that the “Tiger Mother” approach really works, while challenging the very goals Chua has for her kids in the first place.

A final note: Ms. Chua’s WSJ article has now spawned 7,740 responses. I’d be thrilled to get two or three reactions to this post. Post a comment below, or e-mail me.

amy chua battle hymn of the tiger mother dana albert blog