Social stupidity cannot be covered up by the violin

Amy Chua’s new book describes what she calls “Chinese parenting.” Her methods include:

  • No sleepovers
  • No play dates
  • No television, video games or arts and crafts
  • Hours of closely monitored instrumental music practice
  • Threats to burn stuffed animals if a piece of music isn’t played perfectly
  • Required revisions of homemade birthday cards
  • Hours of academic study every day without exception

As you might imagine, the book (and her methods) have been criticized by many, and while my gut told me that her parenting style couldn’t be good, I wasn’t able to put my finger on why I felt this way.

Then I read David Brooks’ piece in the Times.

In critiquing the parenting described in Chua’s book, Brooks writes:

“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.”

Brilliant. And so true.

What would you prefer for your child?

Average academic performance and mediocre musical ability along with strong social skills, a core group of friends, and the ability to function effectively in a group?


Exceptionally high academic performance and instrumental musical mastery accompanied by little or no experience with interacting with others outside the family?

I’m not saying Chua’s children will turn out to be social misfits, but it is reasonable to assume that their chances of becoming misfits is greater than those who interact with other children on a regular basis.

In my life, academics has always been easy. I graduated from high school and four different colleges in the top 10% of my class or better each time, and I did so in each case while working at least one full-time job (high school included).

Wow. That fact never occurred to me before until just now.

But it has always been the social realm that I have found the most difficult to decipher.


  • I am rarely the most effective member in a group and usually prefer working alone or with one other person.
  • I have difficulty with small talk.
  • Unlike my wife, it is a challenge for me to walk into a room of strangers and emerge with three new friends.
  • I do not remember names well.
  • I often lack a filter in terms of the things I say.
  • Earlier this year, colleagues who were leading a new initiative for our school were worried the most about me and my potential resistance to their new system, because in opposition, I can be quite difficult.
  • I tend to generate a love or hate reaction from many people, and when you hate me, you really hate me.
  • I am overly direct and unnecessarily honest.
  • I flaunt social mores.
  • My wife receives phone calls from angry family members who I have offended but who would prefer to avoid my wrath.
  • I was told that I was “physically intimidating” this year while debating the merits of a decision with someone.
  • I am rarely dressed for the occasion.
  • I judge intelligence unfairly and by using rather arbitrary means.
  • I created a Friendship Application.
  • The eye roll-to-eye blink ratio that I engender in others is not good.

I could go on.

I think David Brooks is right. The social realm, with its limitless variables and unending string of unexpected personal interactions, is infinitely more difficult to negotiate than a piece of music or a chemistry textbook.

To deny children experience in this realm strikes me as short sighted and foolish.

I also find it interesting that Chua is a professor and an author, professions to which I was drawn as well.

While there are many reasons why I (and presumably Chua) decided to become teachers and writers, perhaps part of the reason is that both careers provide us with a great deal of autonomy and do not require us to work in groups.

Writing is a solitary business, and while teaching provides me with an endless string of student-teacher interactions, these are structured interactions that take place in a clearly defined teacher-student relationship. I have the power, and there are fewer unknowns than the interactions at a dinner party or similar social gathering.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Chua underscores the importance of social interactions since her choice of professions seems to underscore it as well.

I just wonder if people roll their eyes at her as often as they do at me.