“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is a memoir written by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua and is based on her own experience of raising two daughters. Chua was born and raised in the United States to Chinese-Philippino parents. Her book tackles the differences in parenting methods between what she calls “Tiger Mothers”- her general term for Chinese parents and their parenting philosophy; and Western parents. Seeing that the Dulwich College International group has international schools and programmes that cater for a vast number of different ethnicities and are located geographically and ethnographically within both Chinese and Western locations, we put together a panel of educators and parents within our Dulwich College International network and asked them what they thought about the “Tiger Mother” phenomenon. Our questions varied around the below themes: Definition and characteristics of “Tiger Mother”? Are you for or against the author’s method of parenting? Would you raise children in the “Western” or “Chinese” way as described in the book? Do you believe that strict regimens and additional classes are good for your children? How often do, or should, your children talk to you about their lives and dreams? And we also asked them to give examples of some incidents that highlight different methods of parenting. (Editor - we tried but failed to hear about the “Wolf Dad” yet another cycle in the great media frenzy that Chua’ s book created.)
Sharon Leong: Nursery teacher at the Dulwich College Beijing Little Riviera campus. About Sharon Leong: I have taught kindergarten and nursery for 11 years in Beijing and have been with Dulwich College Beijing since its inception. I am a Chinese-American who was born and lived in America for 20 years and have now lived in China for 14 years. Although I disagree with many aspects of Amy Chua’s parenting philosophy, I think the book provides a wonderful platform for thinking and debate. In a paper I wrote last year for a comparative teaching course, I discuss three mantras from her book (which I use as headings below). It was a springboard to gain valuable insights into the educational and parenting values of my diverse nursery class parent base. All of my class parents had heard of the book and many of them had read it. I also gained insights into myself as a teacher and mother. My prediction on the results from my parent interviews in the three areas of play, pain and praise in a child’s development, was far too simplistic. Having grown up in a Chinese household in America and having observed the Chinese educational system to a certain degree, I held certain expectations. I thought it would break along the lines of ‘Chinese’ values with my Chinese parents and ‘Western’ values with my Western ones. I assumed my Chinese class parents would buy into the Tiger Mother values and Western parents would be the opposite. To my surprise, my class parents all shared more commonalities than I had assumed, along with a tendency to mix Western and Chinese viewpoints. Of the seven Chinese parents, five were from the mainland, one from Hong Kong and one from Taiwan. Of the six Western parents, three were from the U.K., two from Belgium and one from the Czech Republic. Another Chinese parent said that while he was “spoon-fed, he wants his boy to explore and tinker, ultimately to acquire a “zijiao jingshen” (‘self-teaching’ spirit). Despite their different nationalities, they share cross-cultural backgrounds, variety of languages spoken and high levels of education. In fact, one growing ‘group’ of Dulwich parents refer to themselves as ‘hai gui’ (sea turtles), who have returned to China after years spent studying or working abroad, changed by their experiences. This sense of global sophistication seemed to inform their ideas as much as anything. I had also overlooked the reality that I am a person of mixed cultural backgrounds who grapples with different, competing values and viewpoints. One growing ‘group’ of Dulwich parents refer to themselves as ‘hai gui’ (sea turtles) No Playdates Contrary to Chua, all my class parents believe in the value of a child-initiated free play. This surprised me, as I assumed the Chinese parents would have inherited at least some traditional demand for more academic rigour at the expense of freedom. One Belgian mother and one Chinese mother did point out the importance of balancing play with discipline, a term I associate more with Chinese parenting and learning. But that sentiment did not temper the rest of the Chinese parents who came out passionately pro-play because their own childhood experiences involved too much schoolwork and not enough play. I assumed my Chinese class parents would buy into the Tiger Mother values and Western parents would be the opposite. To my surprise, my class parents all shared more commonalities than I had assumed, along with a tendency to mix Western and Chinese viewpoints. A Chinese father stated he is against “forced learning”, which he says left him unhappy， “without knowing the meaning or ‘why’ behind it,” and for him, it meant the opposite of play, which leads to happiness. A Chinese mother said she went through “rote memory, overloaded homework, which inevitably leaves no time for free play, which is the soil for creativity and healthy growth.” Another Chinese parent said that while he was “spoon-fed, he wants his boy to explore and tinker, ultimately to acquire a “zijiao jingshen” (“self-teaching” spirit). So Chua’s strict regimens and loading on additional classes goes counter to this spirit. As a teacher and parent, I second this Chinese father’s aspirations for his boy. The highest form of learning that I am trying to achieve with both my own children and my class children is that of self-initiated learning, which requires stereotypically Western and Chinese emphases – respectively, freedom and discipline. Success Comes from Pain and Suffering An everyday Chinese phrase, “chi ku” (literally: eating bitter), expresses the ability to suffer as part of becoming a good person. Both my Chinese and Western parents agreed that hardship and discipline are necessary in a child’s development, but, as opposed to Chua’s more blanket view, it was a matter of appropriate degree. A Chinese mother shared a proverb her parents would tell her: “Build up your character first; the skills will follow.” She said she was grateful to have been taught the virtue of perseverance by way of tough Chinese schooling and parenting. At a class birthday celebration for her daughter, her own father (the child’s grandfather) came along as well, and nagged her repeatedly (in Chinese) about the homemade cake: “your skills are so mediocre...this is so much worse than a store-bought one!” When I asked if it bothered her (it really got to me), this mother said the comments did not affect her negatively because she has been “well-trained by her parents.” Yet she recognises that her daughter is different from her, so she refrains from making critical comments and instead praises her daughter when she can. She accepts that her daughter is on the self-conscious, sensitive side and adapts her parenting to suit her daughter’s personality. She says that the hardship or failure that is allowed must be relative - individualised. We talked about a time I observed her daughter offering to help a classmate put on an apron with tricky strings. She struggled first with untangling the strings, then getting them in position to go through her classmate’s arms. She went on with patient determination for five minutes -- a very long time for a kindergartener to go at something. She eventually gave up, leaving the apron on a chair and going about a cooking activity. The mother was happy to hear that her daughter did not ask for help and that I did not intervene. She says she knows her daughter is learning about failure and persistence at school, albeit in a very different way from the way she learned it. Can we say this parenting is Chinese with Western characteristics? One of my Western mothers states wisely, “Failure is not a failing,” and I agree, especially at this tender kindergarten age when so much is about practicing at something until you get it. I feel young children should be guided out of their comfort zones and take risks and sometimes fail, but in actual practice, I find perhaps I do not stretch my children enough. Does that make me too Western? “we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children...protect them from dangers and discomforts… yet we all know on some level...that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”(Tough, Sept. 14, 2011) So I have been excited and challenged by a New York Times article on an initiative in New York-area KIPP schools teaching and measuring character attributes like grit (Tough, Sept. 14, 2011). The author encapsulates so well the conundrum: “we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children...protect them from dangers and discomforts… yet we all know on some level...that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.” A source of a child’s self-esteem is realising that they have mastered a challenging task. And that is my challenge: to empower my young students to take more risks to build up their resilience, and along the way, their self-esteem. It can be seen possibly as an interesting mix of the Western embrace of self-esteem with a more traditional Chinese give-em-pain mentality. Never Praise Your Child All of my class parents shared that they give out praise to their children at least occasionally. The reason given for praising is to nurture their child’s self-esteem. But for all my Chinese mothers, additional reasons stem from being denied praise or being criticised growing up in a context of Chinese parenting and schooling. One mother shared that she was “not good enough” and “never got praise” from her parents or teachers (her younger brother got it even worse as the male in the family). Her mother in particular laid on so much criticism that “to this day” this Chinese mother suffers from self-esteem issues, and the “damage done” powers her to praise her son a lot. She became emotional when she mentioned having tried to confront her parents about the detrimental effects of their negativity. Instead of understanding or an apology, she got matter-of-fact justification: “Our kids are for others to praise, not for us to praise.” At the same time, most of my Western and Chinese mothers tout the dangers of over-praise, and I, being praise-prone, share that concern. I have recently become enlightened and challenged by American psychology professor Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the effects of praise on children. She reports that children who were praised for their performance took fewer risks and were less resilient, while those praised for their effort took more risks and were more resilient (Dweck, 2002). I am struck by how her findings relate back to the traditional Chinese emphasis on hard work and effort. From experience, I know I should give out more specific praise rather than blanket “Wow”s, and that I should curb my praise to allow intrinsic motivation to develop in a child. But enthusiasm is one of my hallmarks as a person and teacher; I am a bona fide over-praiser. Equipped with the new knowledge that praise could adversely affect a child’s self-esteem and desire to try new things, I resolve to be more reflective-in-the-moment, more discerning with my praise. Does that mean I will be more Chinese and less Western in my approach to praise? I think it is difficult to categorise. Those children praised for their effort took more risks and were more resilient The lines have become blurred in this new globalised world and in our local Dulwich international school setting. I have been challenged to re-think areas of play, pain and praise in my classroom. But they are secondary to the bigger lessons. I come from a mixed-up background. I grew up in a predominantly white suburb in America where I was made fun of by schoolmates and misunderstood by my mother, whose cultural background and values clashed with my headstrong Western-leaning ones. Because they are overseas Chinese, I had assumed the thinking of my Chinese class parents would be similar to my immigrant parents’. I now realize that my Chinese class parents’ thinking is different and varied because they are cross-cultural. As a Chinese class mother said, “My values have been influenced by the experiences of living abroad. When you were not given the option, you did not know there exist others. When you see the other options, you do not want to go back.” With mixed childhood experiences and educational backgrounds, and movement and migration to different parts of the world as adults – and their children growing up in a place both different from and similar to their ‘home’ – my “turtle” parents reveal educational and parenting values that are mixed and fluid, in bits along a spectrum, rather than falling into dichotomous categories. In the same way, I put my Western parents into nice, neat boxes, assuming they were mostly or purely ‘Western-minded.’ Working at Dulwich has been an eye-opener. Here I have taught young children from over 30 nationalities. My job as a teacher is to respond to my class children, facilitating and instigating. I set up my class to stretch and challenge them, they take us in a new direction, and I respond to them and reflect and make changes to my teaching. My views on parenting are also changing as my children (and I) grow older. My journey as a teacher and mother is flexible and evolving. Dr Zhang Xiaolu: Director of School Development – Byron Education Born and educated in China. Taught in both Chinese and US universities. Has one child, aged 11. Why are Chinese parents more achievement-oriented? A major reason is that China is a highly competitive country with a huge gap between the poor and the wealthy and a not-really-working social welfare system. It is highly competitive if you consider China’s huge population. For thousands of years, the exam initiation system is the major tool to filter people out along their way to the top of the social pyramid. For students from poorer families, succeeding in all the exams and getting into an elite university might be the only way to change their social status, and eventually that of their families. If they fail in exams, they fail in life, which means they will struggle at the bottom of the social pyramid for the rest of their life. The exams have changed a lot, but the mindset to see exam scores as lifelong achievement hasn’t.
Two of Our DCI contributors to this article left, Dr Zhang Xiaolu and right, Chris De Marino
I think it’s the same in the Western world. Wealthy kids are more likely to be encouraged or tolerated to follow their hearts instead of parents’ minds simply because they can afford failures! While kids from poorer families usually take a more traditional route to success because they have more pressure from the family wellbeing. As most first generation overseas Chinese, Tiger Mom’s parents fought their way from bottom through the top, and Tiger Mom’s parenting style is heavily influenced by her parents. I doubt Tiger Mom’s daughters will educate their kids in the same way. They will most likely give their kids more freedom to seek their personal growth and happiness, but the odds for their children being less successful (from a traditional social standpoint) are also higher. That’s the curse of the third generation, isn’t it? Chris De Marino: Director of Business Development – North Asia DCI US citizen educated in the US and China. Has two children, aged 13 and 7 and a Shanghainese wife. I find Tiger Mothers a bit extreme. My kids often require a push – to practice piano, go to swimming or art lessons or just to keep off the video games to focus on their homework. These additional outside-of-school-classes should be enjoyable. We all get lazy and need a push sometimes but to force children into a regime of discipline but without learning how to enjoy and actually like activities is a bit over the top. The Chinese way of education – the discipline and rote approach – is a great foundation to have. My son was exposed to this until Year Four as a student in a local Shanghai public school. He had loads of homework and he felt immense pressure from his teacher and classmates to achieve. I found myself wondering on his behalf - why? He could recite long poems in Chinese but didn’t understand their meaning. It’s good to build the skill of memorisation but at a certain point, there needs to be an appreciation of what is being memorised. These additional outside-of-school-classes should be enjoyable. We all get lazy and need a push sometimes but to force children into a regime of discipline but without learning how to enjoy and actually like activities is a bit over the top. Annabel Parker: Assistant Director of Schools - Mandarin, DCI Ethnic Chinese, born and educated in China and UK. Has two children, aged six and four. The “Tiger Mum” is a product of the Chinese education system and societal values. Of course as a parent I want to provide as much opportunity for my kids and make sure they have all they need to achieve. However, in some extremes, parents project their own dreams and aspirations onto their children. It will always be the case that children need guidance and support and will need to be given direction, sometimes at odds with the child’s wishes. Whatever we do as parents, we want them to grow up happy, confident and with the right skills to succeed. However, I don't entirely agree with Tiger Mum's style of parenting. I wasn't raised up by “Tiger Parents” and I worked towards my goals due to my own self- motivation and confidence. I knew for a fact that if I didn’t work hard I would not be able to achieve success. I never had opportunity to attend any of the art, music, dance classes or learn an instrument; I wish I had that opportunity but I will not project my aspirations onto my children. I worked and lived in UK for 11 years and I raise my children in the way that I think will prepare them for their life. My daughter had ballet lessons because she said she wanted to. We stopped the lessons because she wasn't enjoying them. Now she says she would like to start the lessons again and we will support her. We want the children to be happy so first thing we ask when they come home from school is: “Did you have a good day?” “Did you make friends?”. Whatever we do as parents, we want them to grow up happy, confident and with the right skills to succeed. I don't think it's as easy to make the distinction between Western style mums or Chinese mums as not all Chinese mums are “Tiger mums” and not all Western parenting styles are productive. Parents need to raise their children in a way that's right for them.
Five Things About Tigers 1. A mother tiger nurses her young for about three to six months. The father does not assist in their upbringing. 2. Cubs open their eyes at about one week of age, but do not see clearly until about two months of age. 3. For the first two months, tiger cubs are confined to the den site, and are seldom left unattended. During this time, females may move their cubs several times to new dens to avoid predators like leopards, hyena, and unfamiliar male tigers. When moving, the female gently carries the cubs, one by one, in the jaws. 4. After two months of age, the cubs begin to eat meat. The female will hunt on her own, and afterwards lead her cubs to the kill. The cubs now weigh about 10kg (22lb.). 5. Tiger cubs are quite playful, and spend their time stalking and leaping on each other, or attacking their mother’s tail. They also practice their stalking technique on small animals, like birds or insects.