Entry from February 10, 2011

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, James Bernard Murphy of Dartmouth College took a somewhat novel line against the controversy which has recently arisen over Amy Chua and the “Tiger Mother” she has held up for our admiration.

What Ms. Chua and her critics agree on is that childhood is all about preparation for adulthood. Ms. Chua claims that her parenting methods will produce ambitious, successful and happy adults — while her critics argue that her methods will produce neurotic, self-absorbed and unhappy ones. It took economist Larry Summers, in a debate with Ms. Chua at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to point out that part of the point of childhood is childhood itself. Childhood takes up a quarter of one’s life, Mr. Summers observed, and it would be nice if children enjoyed it. Bravo, Larry.

Boo, Larry! Here’s yet more bad advice from a man who has made something of a profession of giving it out. Maybe no one has said something like this to Amy Chua before, but it is very far from being the first time that such sentiments have been expressed. As someone who has complained for years about the laxity of American schools and their unwillingness to make children work hard at their studies, particularly in comparison with children in foreign countries, I have been hearing this or something like it all my life. “Isn’t it better,” I am asked in pitying tones by otherwise shrewd and sensible people and loving parents, “to let them enjoy their childhood?”

No it damn well isn’t. They’ll enjoy it quite enough whatever you do. Both the “work-ethic” and a sloppy sentimentalism about childhood have long been characteristic of the American culture, but when the two come into conflict, it is a sort of Romantic, laissez-faire Rousseauism that nearly always comes out on top. Children should “learn at their own pace,” we are told by our educational experts, and with minimal interference from adults, even if that means they hardly learn at all. And so Professor Murphy cites the childhood of Tom Sawyer as his ideal, doubtless including in his admiration for Tom’s “adventures” (though he doesn’t mention it) his frequently playing hookey from school. Somehow we can’t imagine Tom or his friend Huckleberry Finn, who hardly went to school at all, turning into uneducated louts in their post-pubescent life. Perhaps we suppose that, like their many present-day emulators, they could always catch up in college. Or, since college is now nearly as undemanding as high school, in graduate school. Whenever.

For that is the problem with valuing childhood for its own sake. It always tends to overstay its welcome. Ask any parent who has a college-age or older child still living at home whether he remains content with the fact that his over-grown kid continues to feel, to use Professor Murphy’s words “liberated from the grim economy of time.” Once the grim economy of time, a.k.a. reality, has been kept at the stave’s end for the better part of 20 years, it becomes ever more difficult to come to a just appreciation of its exigencies and their necessary centrality to adult life. One has lived one’s own life in defiance of this necessity, shielded from it by overly tender-hearted parents and teachers, precisely by extending one’s childhood into the third or even the fourth decade of life. Why should one not suppose that this can go on indefinitely — or that, if it doesn’t, one has become the victim of a monstrous injustice?

It’s true that, as Professor Murphy points out, Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God,” but no one until very recent times would ever have supposed that this means children should be protected from an adult sense of industry and prudence — any more than anyone would have supposed that what the Professor calls the childish “gift of moral innocence” meant that children should not be taught right from wrong. “The Bible says a lot of things,” as Chief Wiggum unanswerably puts it to Lisa Simpson when she cites the equally misleading “Judge not, lest ye be judged” — including St Paul’s once-famous saying from the first book of Corinthians that “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

And then there are Jesus’s own words in tenth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel when he says that “There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” That doesn’t sound to me like someone advising a postponement of adulthood to someone who prefers to live in his parents’ basement and play video games. Amy Chua may go further than most of us would like to go in advancing it, but she’s got the right idea. Teach them early that adult life and responsibilities are on the way — and in way more of a hurry than either of you would like — or you may find that, when the time comes, they will reject adult life and responsibilities as being among life’s optional extras.

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