Friday, 25 May 2012

Tiger Mothering and Me



I've just finished a book I've been meaning to read for ages, and finally got round to: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it is the controversial story of how Chua (a Yale law professor) applied Chinese Mothering principles to bringing up her daughters in the US. This involved, among other things, a strict regime of many hours of music practice a day; never being allowed to get less than a A on a test; and not being allowed playdates, sleepovers, TV or to be involved in anything as frivolous as a school play. Chua's thesis is that Western parents are too relaxed, and are therefore failing their children, whereas Asian parents push their children to succeed, often with amazing results.

Chua does admit that although her elder daughter appeared to thrive on this approach (she ends up playing piano in Carnegie Hall), her younger daughter rebelled and she has now 'taken a step back' from such ferocious Tiger Mothering. But apart from that, she is fairly unrepentant about her methods. (NB Chua says that anyone can be a 'Chinese' mother - it is the style, rather than the race, that is important.).

It's an interesting book because it got me thinking about how I bring my children up. I'm pretty relaxed; not to the extent where they can do what they like all the time, but I'm not particularly restrictive about playdates, TV or sleepovers for instance. On the other hand, there are some ground rules; they have to do homework as perfectly as they can (if it 's messy, I make them rub it out and do it again); they can't give up on an activity just because they don't feel like it that day (I've paid for these swimming lessons, so they're damn well going to do them!); they can only play games on the iPad at a specific time of day (and they haven't been allowed a Wii, a Playstation or anything like that - yet).

I'm very, very far from being a 'Chinese Mother', and I spent most of the book thinking 'how could she do that to her kids?" and wondering if it would permanently damage her relationships with her kids, particularly the younger one, in later life. But it did make me wonder - should I be pushing the boys  harder?

For example, Littleboy 1's piano teacher seems to think he's quite talented - if I made him practice for hours each day, would he become really, really good? Since reading the book, I feel I've already become a little more rigorous about enforcing practice. On the other hand I'm loathe to push him at something he already enjoys, and put him off entirely.

Then there's the academics. The boys are definitely going to be behind somewhat we return to the UK, due to US schooling starting later, so we will need to do some extra work over the next year. But the question is, should we be ensuring they're 'two years ahead of their peer group in maths', as Chua suggests, in order to ensure their future success in life? Is that the only way, in this ultra-competitive world, to give them a passport into a good school/college/job? (And being even more philosophical about it, does that equal happiness anyway?).

I do agree somewhat with Chua's point that children don't really know what they want, and if you give them free rein they will just choose to watch TV and eat chocolate. You do have to 'make' them do some things. But then there's going too far. Do you really want them to be little automatons, who are only good at mathematics or music because they've spent hours preparing, rather than because of natural flair and talent? Should you not encourage their interests, rather than enforce ones that you've chosen for them?

In the end, I think I'll have to say no to tiger mothering. I think I'd rather be a domesticated cat. But maybe one who occasionally shows her claws.


Tiger Picture: Copyright Littleboy 2.



16 comments:

Expat mum said...

I've never really understood the desire for kids to be X number of years ahead of their peers. After all, we're all going to plateau intelligence-wise at some point, so being ahead just means that you get to tell people that you jumped a grade or two. Big deal; it often brings on other problems such as not being as mature as the kids you're in class with. A friend of mine wouldn't allow her son to jump more than one grade for that very reason.

With my 8 year old and piano, although I haven't really ever had to push him to practice, what I find works particularly well is if he goes off to practice on his own and then gives me a little "performance". i stop what I'm doing, take a seat next to the piano and give him my full attention.

I quite often find my friends in England push their kids a lot harder than I do. One used to give them money if they learned to recite really long poems, another used to push them to the point of tears when skiing, but apparently it "paid off" in the end. (Not quite sure how though.)

My teen son comes in every night after school and spends hours on his guitar. I've never ever even suggested he does that, but he's passionate. I think you have to find that passion first, otherwise they just loathe whatever it is you're trying to get them to do.

Knackered Mother said...

With you. Domestic cat. But must admit to worrying about not 'pushing' enough, only because I know others who do, and we just don't.

Iota said...

I think parenting is more about teaching children to take responsibility, because that's what they're going to have to do when they're adults. Who is going to make them do stuff then? It's not a very good habit to get them into.

But I do feel a bit anguished about my oldest giving up the violin, as he has just done, after all those hours of practice and lessons. Should I have insisted he continue?

I like the photo!

MsCaroline said...

This has become a huge issue for me since moving to Korea, where most Korean mothers are very much 'Tiger mothers' - and many of Son#2's classmates have Korean mothers, even if they have Western Dads. Son#2 regularly comes home with stories about classmates having near-breakdowns and panic attacks at school because they got a 94% on a test - (at this school, a 96-100% is an A, which explains the panic.)Many Korean children - beginning at a very young age - attend school all day and then head to hagwons (cram schools) for several hours afterwards, as well as sports and music coaching. The 'joke' (eg, the truth) I was told at one of my first PTA meetings at Son#2's school in Seoul was, "5 hours of sleep, no University; 4 hours of sleep- university." Most of the Western parents(a minority) don't feel this way, but I suspect many of the Korean parents-no matter how Westernized - have feelings closer to this sentiment than we all realize.

I had one Korean parent call me to request tutoring in English 2 days a week after school (regular school, then cram school) from 6-7 pm - it would have been more days but the child also had violin lessons and other language tutoring. The child in question was 5 years old.

As a teacher myself, I have always emphasized academic excellence with my own children - my children have always been expected to bring home only 'A's - not necessarily on every assignment, but for all their report cards. They do this with reasonable effort and still have ample time for social and extracurricular activities - which I didn't get involved in beyond requiring they both try an instrument in middle school - which they both did and enjoyed. They both played soccer in a local league and tried a number of other activities in elementary and middle school while still managing to maintain high grades. If they were different children who had different abilities, I wouldn't expect A's of them, but both of them are bright kids who have been able to earn the grades without me nagging them or instituting a number of stringent policies. I would say that our expectation is simply that they do their best.
I agree 100% with Iota with regard to teaching children to take responsibility for themselves - another reason I've never gotten too involved beyond setting expectations (with clear consequences) and offering help when it's requested. As a high school teacher and as a Uni professor, I interacted frequently with young people who didn't have the first idea of how to get their work done without someone telling them what to do. In fact, I got e-mails from parents when I was teaching University who wanted me to tell them whether their child was attending classes regularly or to report to them if the child was failing the course. At University! Fortunately for me, privacy laws prevented me from doing anything like that (once the student is 18, the parent has to get information directly from the student), but the bigger concern was the fact that these were young adults whose parents were still having to manage them because they'd not learned to do it themselves.

In our case, our high - but reasonable - expectations and (mostly) humane parenting have worked well for us. Son#1 just finished his freshman year at University with a 4.0 and I didn't have to nag him or his professors even once! ;)
Son#2 is finishing his first year in high school in Seoul with High Honors (despite our lax non-tiger parenting.)I suppose the proof in the pudding will come after he sits the iGCSEs next Spring!
(I just realized how long this is and apologize, but you really did hit very close to home with this topic!)

Kit said...

I find the whole Tiger mothering idea totally scary. Those kids must have missed out on so much social learning without any playdates and free time. That is something they will find a whole lot more difficult to learn as adults.

I have no problem with banning the TV, but let the kids choose what they want to do and then just give as much encouragement and support as you can.

Home Office Mum said...

Hats off to any mother that has the stamina to nag enough to get their kids to practice/study for hours. I probably need to be tougher (I do think I am quite tough but nowhere near tiger mother).

For me it's about observing your child and helping them find their unique strengths and encouraging them to excel at those.

Circles in the Sand said...

I first heard about this when a Malaysian school mum told me she structured her twin's free time after school, into half-hour slots of different activities, writing, reading, etc. This was KG1, which kids can start here at age 3. I literally didn't know what to say!!! Flabbergasted doesn't come close!

Jay said...

I've heard of this book before and the style really isn't for me. We do push our children a certain amount and guide them in their choices but there is such a thing as work overload = no fun. There has to be room for fun and laughter, they're only children for a short time and plenty of responsibility comes with age.

Anyway if I was given free rein to do as I please for 1 day it would be eat chocolate and watch TV!!

Rainbow Prams said...

My mother tried this approach with me and it totally backfired. All children are different and in some cases the tiger mothering works but not with all, I think it's a case of knowing your child before placing any routine of work upon them. xx

nappy valley girl said...

Expat Mum - Right. I would never push them at something they don't want to do. I think the problem is working out what to do if they're good at something - how much to encourage it, how much to enforce. But sounds like you have it right with your teenager.

KM - I know. You do wonder what will happen if all their classmates are tutored, and they are not - because surely the 'norm' will change.

Iota - I gave up the piano at 18, and I do regret that. But I gave up the cello at 16, and while in some ways it's a shame, not once have I thought 'Ooh, I'd love to play the cello now'. I just didn't enjoy it enough.

MsCaroline - I like long comments! It's great to know that a blog post can prompt such a considered reaction. Much food for thought here. My children aren't really old enough yet for tests etc. but I wonder what I will be like when that happens. I was always academic at school, and I can imagine myself being quite exacting if they're not performing well. But I certainly won't be chasing after them at University - surely you're an adult at that stage!

Kit - right. You have to learn social behaviour too, if you are going to succeed in the real world.

HOM - I know, it must be so exhausting to be constantly battling over work and practice. I have enough trouble persuading them to get dressed for school!

Circles - I know a Malaysian mum who is like that too. Her kids spend their Saturdays going off to advanced Kumon maths classes. Mine spend it playing soccer in the garden, watching cartoons and doing Lego. Maths doesn't get a look-in.

Jay - It is an interesting read even if you don't agree with her (which I don't, mostly). Very thought provoking.

Rainbow - yes, and I think the book bears this out - it really didn't work for her younger child.

Nota Bene said...

Childhood is for enjoying isn't it? I think parents have a responsibility to give their children the best opportunities, but I'm so so so against the Tiger Mother approach...after all perhaps the whole world would be better off if we were all a bit more relaxed. Nice picture!

About Last Weekend said...

I just read this book too. I was surprised how funny - and actually - how likable and self critical she was. She was honest and always the first to make fun of herself. The thing is - I'm too lazy to push my kids that much, its take all of your time and energy too. I've just seen the results of someone pushing their boy in a sport. He got exercise anorexia - to get some control back into his life

Metropolitan Mum said...

I kind of like the idea of encouraging children not to give up too easily and making them work a little harder to achieve greater goals. However, cutting out playdates and not allowing TV is a step too far for my liking. Really enjoyed the book, tough.

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

Domesticated cat - I like that and largely share your sentiments. I want to encourage my kids to work hard and as met Mum says not give up too easily BUT also want them to benefit from experiencing social freedom and fun that will also shape them so much in the long run

A Confused Take That Fan said...

I agree with Jay, fun and laughter, and let them be children for as long as they can. They say that the school days are the best of your life and that is because you have no responsibility and are making friends, experimenting, enjoying yourself. Who wants a child who is anxious and panicky about getting 94% in a test? Where has their childhood gone. I have had to reign in my expectations for my child, and relax, but I also want to encourage ambition, and that learning is exciting and the key to unlocking lots of opportunities. My eldest has just given up drama after one term. I was trying to force her to finish this term, as we have paid for it already. But there were many tears, she really didn't like it, and at 8, what was there to be gained by forcing her to go for the next 6 weeks? (Also, it meant I didn't have to fork out for a peasant costume for the three lines she had in the play). She quite clearly didn't LOVE acting. I remember going on work experience at a school and a newspaper. Before the work experience I was determined to be a teacher. The work experience taught me teaching was not at all for me, but I thrived at the local paper. Sometimes, you have to give things a try to realise that they aren't for you. Anyway, I have digressed. It's such an interesting subject!!

A Confused Take That Fan said...

I agree with Jay, fun and laughter, and let them be children for as long as they can. They say that the school days are the best of your life and that is because you have no responsibility and are making friends, experimenting, enjoying yourself. Who wants a child who is anxious and panicky about getting 94% in a test? Where has their childhood gone. I have had to reign in my expectations for my child, and relax, but I also want to encourage ambition, and that learning is exciting and the key to unlocking lots of opportunities. My eldest has just given up drama after one term. I was trying to force her to finish this term, as we have paid for it already. But there were many tears, she really didn't like it, and at 8, what was there to be gained by forcing her to go for the next 6 weeks? (Also, it meant I didn't have to fork out for a peasant costume for the three lines she had in the play). She quite clearly didn't LOVE acting. I remember going on work experience at a school and a newspaper. Before the work experience I was determined to be a teacher. The work experience taught me teaching was not at all for me, but I thrived at the local paper. Sometimes, you have to give things a try to realise that they aren't for you. Anyway, I have digressed. It's such an interesting subject!!