Friday, February 4, 2011

I Was an Unwilling "Tiger Mother"

My fave radio host presently has author Amy Chua as a guest on his show, discussing her smash discussion-provoker Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  He made a "confession" that he feels guilty for allowing his/our daughters (not to mention our son) to quit their piano lessons before "becoming all they could be."

I'm here to tell you: Easy for him to say.

Our eldest child, who my classical-music expert husband assumed bubbled with untapped musical genius, was started on piano lessons at age 4.  Her teacher used traditional methods, simple songs that needed practice, practice, practice.  Every day except the Sabbath.

Did my husband sit next to said daughter during her practice? Not once.  Her mother (that would be me) was assigned that task.

This daughter is a classic first-born, naturally eager to please.  Her greatest goal was to earn praise from her Baba and me, and she cheerfully complied with every request.  At age 20 months, for example, my dear politically-involved husband thought it would be cute to train her to provide specific answers to questions.  This was 1988.  The question posed to the chubby toddler was, "Who do you think will win the upcoming Republican primary?"  The sage little girl lit up: "Bush!"  Approving smiles and nods all around. Throw her a fish.

Back to piano.  Child X, who I'm sure prefers to remain nameless, began her piano lessons, sitting next to the friendly young woman teacher who taught her scales she could barely reach.  She got sweetly titled little songs, like "The Swing" meant to sneak in scales under the guise of melody.  At the end of each session, she'd come home with six or seven songs and the admonishment that it was important she practice every day.

Trouble was, when it was time to practice, little X couldn't be found.  "X!  X!!" I'd call, looking in every room in the house.  Where could she be?  Pretty soon she learned not to choose the closet again.

Once seated next to me on the piano bench, her sweet little legs dangling below, I'd have her proceed through the practice, as written out by the nice teacher.  The scales, reading the notes, singing the song and then playing it.  I'm MOMMY!  I do fun things with you, X!  Why then were you doing everything you could to distract in order to keep from actually playing?

I cajoled. I played games. I offered rewards.  I made rhymes. I colored beautiful charts on which she earned sparkly stars. I made her a sticker book that she got to choose stickers for at the end of each practice.  Because little X wanted so much to please me, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  I did not tell her to stand in the cold. I did probably mention 'no dessert,' but I'm quite sure I didn't embarrass or shame her.  We stayed there at the piano and eventually she practiced. The half-hour allocated for practice stretched.  She hated every moment, and after awhile, I realized that I did, too.

But we didn't stop.  I told my husband about our otherwise compliant daughter's reluctance.  And he didn't care. She must continue.

On the playground, my darling daughter skipped and played and laughed, but on the piano bench she performed acrobatics I never knew a small child could do.  She would sit on the bench and lean backward, in a demonstration of amazing abdominal-muscle strength, her head leaning so far she nearly formed a Cheerio around the bench.  I had a heck of a time getting her to straighten up and play the next ditty, "Up and Down the Street."

Sometimes she'd sit, back straight with fingers poised over the keyboard, and suddenly slip her torso down between the bench and the base of our upright piano, effectively disappearing onto the floor.  She'd need to go to the bathroom, a lot. She needed a drink. She leaned back and slipped down and flattened herself against the piano bench and found all sorts of interesting things out the window.

Nearly a year went by, and Darling X had her first recital.  She was so nervous she was shaking.  She found a new hiding place, this time in the yard, and we nearly missed the event.  At the recital, bone-china teacups were set out, and little petits four beckoned with pastel sugary-frosting, an irresistible draw for a nearly-five-year-old.  But Sweet X didn't even notice.  She was looking for another closet.

She quaked while awaiting her turn to play, and ended up flawlessly performing her three songs.  The smiles and congratulations from her warm and encouraging teacher were ignored as she asked to leave.

I discussed Child X's dislike for the lessons and practicing with her teacher.  The teacher replied that darling X was doing well, and progressing, and it was better to ingrain practicing as a normal part of her life so she could make the most of her talent.  How the teacher evaluated the potential of a four-year-old whose greatest feat was completing "The Pretty Little House" was beyond me, but I felt duly chastised for doubting the enormous potential of my budding prodigy.  It must be my own laziness or incapability to motivate at issue here.  After all, little X was pleasant at her piano lessons, and did exactly as told.

Of course, the teacher never saw X when she was Rubber Girl.

I told my husband nearly every day about my frustration trying to inspire Sweet X to practice, and to make her musical education fun.  "I don't want her to quit now," he replied.  "She needs to keep going another year."

He might as well have clicked the cell door shut behind me, and thrown away the key.

Which he did three MORE times.  Our daughter completed four years of piano lessons, from age 4 to age 8. She went to two more recitals, after which I asked the teacher if, please, X might be spared from performing.

At our ongoing practicing battles, I made up unlimited little rhymes and codes and sing-song reminders, and she immediately "forgot" them.  I repeated them.  To this day, I remember some of them, and when they pop up, and I mention "do you remember....?" to my now 24-year-old non-piano-playing daughter... she does.

Two waffles and an egg. There, I said it--that was my response to her refusal to hold her hands above the keys as if enclosing an egg.  She kept saying it was "too awful, too awful!" so I morphed it into "two waffles and an egg," as she rightly corrects me about this memory.  But still, whenever I encounter waffles and egg, it all comes back: my darling, wonderful, normally-cheerful daughter using her considerable intellect not to absorb musical theory but to change the subject and twist her little frame so her head would be as far from the keyboard as possible.

I begged, begged  my husband, after four years of torture, to let daughter X stop her piano lessons.  Again he was against it, and wanted her to "learn persistence."  It only takes tenacity, after all, and you can accomplish anything.  There are no failures, there's only lack of effort.


I finally stopped acquiescing to his insistence.  Our daughter was definitely brilliant, but by Golly, if she was ever to become a virtuoso, she'd have to do it without me coming up with breakfast-food teasers.

The piano teacher was astonished. Puzzled. I don't know why, because I'd regularly told her of X's resistance.  Maybe she was shocked because never before had any of her progressing students quit. Or maybe because never had my complaints led to anything--we always returned for our weekly lesson, and obedient little X had made progress.  Well, no more.

There were some benefits from this four-year ordeal.  Not in terms of X's musical education. She retained very little of what she'd so painstaking (my pain) practiced.  But I learned how to play the piano.  Not very well, because I never practiced, but I could read music, and learned a passel of little songs and even a few easy classical pieces.

We still have the piano booklets inside our piano bench.  The pages are yellowed, but the stars pasted atop each one still shine.  I'm not going to take them out because nowadays, looking at mementos of my children's childhoods makes me sad rather than warm and fuzzy inside.  This is the first year I'm an empty-nester, and my house seems just too quiet, without my son's ukulele, the "b-l-l-i-n-g!" of instant messaging, and, way back in the echoes of my memory, the halting scales of "The Swing."

Amy Chua, you've got a great book and deserve your success.  I've defended you to my friends, who just read the headlines and sub-heads and didn't see that you provided a warmly loving and laughing home to two supremely lucky daughters.  But I'm no Tiger Mother.   I'm Jewish, and believe me, there are plenty of Jewish mothers far more Chinese than I was with my little X.  No, it's me--I haven't got the mettle, the moxie, the fortitude to stick it out.

And ya know what?  Everything worked out just fine.

P.S. the photo above is not my darling little X.


  1. Oh! I find this woman fascinating and can't wait to hear what Michael says to her (I'll have to listen on midcoast later). My 2 daughters (8 and 5) are in piano. They don't love it, but so far haven't refused anything. I'm torn as how to handle it when the time comes. I appreciate your insights!

  2. I think a lot of mothers can relate to your daughter's piano lesson tale. But unlike Amy Chua, you didn't really think piano lessons were vital. Don't you think the question we should all ask is what are the areas where we are willing to be a Tiger Mom? The answer will be different for each of us, but surely there are some things for which we are willing to face tears and anger knowing that we are doing what is best for our child even if he or she can't see it at that point in their life.