Sunday, February 13, 2011

Parables from the Rooster Father


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’s 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 within 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.


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.


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.


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


  1. Hey Dana:

    It's Andrea (Hanelt, now O'Keefe) Don't know if you remember and Erin stayed at a house in Allston, MA during your national bike tour back in 1995? I've thought of you guys over the years and am glad to see your beautiful daughters and that you are still cycling. I'm a chef in Alabama now - we actually have a big race here in a couple of weeks (Sunny King Criterium). Hope you guys are good. Just wanted to say hi but please stay in touch if you would like!


  2. Why is the art of music required to endure the ill-informed antics of such inartistic imbeciles as Amy Chua? Her lust for fame as an old-fashioned stage mother of either a famous violinist (yet another mechanical Sarah Chang?) or a famous pianist (yet another mechanical Lang Lang?) shines through what she perceives as devotion to the cultivation of the cultural sensitivities of her two unfortunate daughters.

    Daughter Lulu at age 7 is unable to play compound rhythms from Jacques Ibert with both hands coordinated? Leonard Bernstein couldn’t conduct this at age 50! And he isn’t the only musician of achievement with this-or-that shortcoming. We all have our closets with doors that are not always fully opened.

    And why all this Chinese obsession unthinkingly dumped on violin and piano? What do the parents with such insistence know of violin and piano repertoire? Further, what do they know of the great body of literature for flute? For French horn? For organ? For trumpet? Usually, nothing!

    For pressure-driven (not professionally-driven!) parents like Amy Chua their children, with few exceptions, will remain little more than mechanical sidebars to the core of classical music as it’s practiced by musicians with a humanistic foundation.

    Professor Chua better be socking away a hefty psychoreserve fund in preparation for the care and feeding of her two little lambs once it becomes clear to them both just how empty and ill-defined with pseudo-thorough grounding their emphasis has been on so-called achievement.

    Read more about this widespread, continuing problem in Forbidden Childhood (N.Y., 1957) by Ruth Slenczynska.

    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.