"Chua didn’t let her own girls go out on play dates or sleepovers. She didn’t let them watch TV or play video games or take part in garbage activities like crafts. Once, one of her daughters came in second to a Korean kid in a math competition, so Chua made the girl do 2,000 math problems a night until she regained her supremacy."
The quote is from a David Brooks editorial and lists other examples of what we might consider a harsh parenting style, but we get the idea. Critics of Chua are up in arms about her book, in which she recounts her own story and criticizes the laxity of American parenting. So while everybody is criticizing her for being overbearing on her children, David Brooks takes a different approach:
"I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t. Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale. Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement..."
The key phrase there is that, again, "She's protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn't understand what's cognitively difficult and what isn't." And there I thought that he's captured years of my own struggle in one sentence. It is still far more mentally taxing for me to walk on any given night into a party filled with strangers made up of various cliques than it ever was to take any of the most difficult academic tests I've ever attempted such as the SAT, the CPA exam, and others. I'd rather spend 2 hours working on a difficult accounting issue than spend five minutes getting the answer from my boss.
I realized early on in my working career that everybody in my profession is actually pretty smart whether they went to private, public, or home schooled. What separates those who stay at the bottom from those who rise to the top is not smarts at all. It's the ability to schmooze, to socialize, to say the right things, to be the alpha dog. This is all stuff you only learn in battle. Smarts will only get you in the building. They won't get you off the floor of that building. Brooks goes on,
"Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together. This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table. Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?"
Harvard, Yale, and Oxford don't hold a candle to the elementary school bus ride, the middle school cafeteria, the high school dance, or even the weekend sleepover. Those are the times that try men's souls. Childhood is hell. We extend that hell when we fail to discern the "truly arduous tests" in life.