Tiger mums' little trophies

By Camilla Keane

Erica Lee. Photo / Doug Sherring
Erica Lee. Photo / Doug Sherring

Erica Lee lined up in front of the blackboard with her classmates, put out her hand and waited for the smack from the thick wooden ruler. "Not good," the teacher told her as he slammed the ruler down on her tiny palm. "You must work harder."

Lee was 6 and had not failed an exam. She simply hadn't achieved the results her teacher at the primary school in South Korea had promised her parents.

Outside, the grades and names of the children deemed to have not performed well enough were pinned on a board for the community to see.

It was a lesson in disgrace and one that the teachers in South Korea felt was never too early too learn. Success was expected and anything less would not be tolerated.

"The pressure to succeed was intense right from a young age," says Lee, now 19, living in Auckland, and studying to become a doctor.

"There was a lot of tension. I went to school all day, then on to a maths academy for two hours in the afternoon and then often on to an English college.

I would get home at 11pm.

"At home I learned the flute. There was no outdoor play, no games. My life was all about learning and achievement."

Lee's family emigrated when she was 11, her parents motivated by seeking better opportunities for her in an English-speaking country.

"When we moved to New Zealand in 2002 it was very different. I couldn't believe it when I went to school here. For me the whole day was like playtime. School was fun."

Lee finished high school with straight As in biology, chemistry and physics and is now in her second year of a bio-med degree at the University of Auckland.

The debate over whether children learn best by rote and with rigid discipline or, as is more common in Western countries, if they should be encouraged simply to work hard and "do your best" has been ongoing for decades.

But it has been fiercely reignited by a best-selling new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by 48-year-old Chinese-American Yale law professor Amy Chua, which has created an international furore.

In the book, Chua, a self-confessed "tiger mother", describes how she forced her 7-year-old daughter, Lulu, to practise the piano through the night, without even toilet breaks or a glass of water, until the child could play it properly. She did not let her daughters go on school trips, have sleepovers or take part in school plays.

She publicly called her older daughter Sophia "garbage" after the child behaved disrespectfully (Chua's father had done the same to her), and she even rejected a card Lulu had made for her birthday on the grounds that she hadn't put enough thought or effort into it.

In China and other countries, such gruelling training is considered par for the course. Top marks equal top jobs, which equals monetary success.

In New Zealand and countries where it's popular to profess, "I just want my kids to be happy," such behaviour would be seen as bordering on child abuse.

Certainly Chua has been pilloried across the world. "The way she raised her kids is outrageous, where is the love? She's a monster," declared one US television reviewer.

Others branded her rigid, bootcamp style as appalling, and said it was likely to produce children who knew the answers to academic questions but had no sense of how to think for themselves. In other words automatons.

But Chua, who says her daughters (now teenagers) are well adjusted and happy, has her defenders too, particularly other immigrant mothers who believe such relentless discipline is not only necessary, but that it is doing the best for their children.

So which mum wins?

Immigrant communities throughout the Western World are known to push their children hard-particularly those parents from countries which have been historically impoverished and where anyone who fails to get top grades, and a good job, gets no second chance. And many are shocked at the apparently relaxed "as long as you're happy and do your best" attitude they claim to find among some parents in New Zealand. According to the 2006 census, the most recent figures available, 354,552 Asians, including Chinese and Indians, are living in New Zealand, almost 10 per cent of the population. That figure is expected to more than double by 2026 when it is predicted Asians will outnumber Maori.

Dr Carina Meares of Massey University is managing a six-year Foundation for Research Science and Technology research project on economic integration by Korean, Chinese, Indian, South African and British migrants to New Zealand, due to wrap up next year.

Her research throws further light on why newcomers are often so dedicated about ensuring their children excel in education.

"Across all cultures, one of the main reasons people give for moving to this country is to give their children a better future," says Meares. "They believe that living in an English- speaking country like New Zealand, with a good education system, will lead to their children's health, wealth and happiness - the thing that will make them successful global citizens.

"They have often made huge sacrifices to move here. Many are well skilled, well-paid professionals in their home countries and they find they can't transfer those skills. So they take up lesser employment to fund the future for their children. That is their investment.

"The paradox is that they want a safer, healthier world for their children and a more relaxed environment-but they often impose the same rigid discipline at home as exists in their home countries."

SU-Lee, in her 40s, came to New Zealand from China in the late 90s with her daughter. She says she has struggled with the cultural differences.

She was a doctor in China but has not been able to work in that profession here.

She didn't allow her daughter to do most of the extra-curricular school activities, banned sleepovers and kept a close eye on her daughter's friends.

"I was extra strict because not only was the culture very different here, but I couldn't always understand the language so I wanted to keep big discipline in my family," she says.

"I wanted my daughter to get good grades, be able to play a musical instrument and be a good person. I don't like it when young people are allowed to smoke and drink and not study. It is not the way for children to have a happy future."

Another reason Chua's book has provoked such strong reaction is that it fuels debate over whether the West, with its more relaxed attitudes, is in danger of losing ground to China, with its increasingly skilled workforce and its Tiger economy.

But does punishing discipline produce the kind of high-flying achievers many parents dream their child will become?

Studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) across 30 countries, conducted at three-yearly intervals since 2000, comparing the literacy of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science, show New Zealand does rather well, particularly considering it spends less on education than many of its competitors.

But in 2009 - the first time China took part - Shanghai leapt to the top of all three tables. New Zealand slipped to seventh place in science and maths and plummeted to 13th in reading.

Some educationists saw it is a simple equation. Yong Zhao, assistant dean of the University of Oregon in the US, remarked at the time: "When you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected for their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test results."

But another Chinese lecturer, DinYi, vice-principal of Shanghai's Jing'an Education College, expressed concerns.

"Since China opened up to the world we found children in foreign countries were relatively more creative and better at solving problems in real life."

The principal of Westlake Boys High School, David Ferguson, feels strongly about the issue. "It's all about balance," he says. One of his students, Jason Dong, who is Chinese, beat candidates from 160 countries to be ranked top in the world in biology, chemistry and maths in last year's Cambridge exams. The year 11 student also topped New Zealand in business studies.

Dong has achieved dazzling results without being chained to the text books. He manages to fit in time for violin, badminton, basketball, debating, singing and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme around his studies.

Another Westlake Boys' student, Prasad Navi, who is from an Indian family, came second in New Zealand in Cambridge results.

"We have terrific ethnic diversity at our school with more than 70 nationalities among our 2200 boys," says Ferguson.

"It's a great representation of the ethnic diversity of Auckland, and indeed New Zealand, but we don't find particular attitudes to study attached to any one ethnic group.

"All our students, from all the families, know that exams are the most important thing. But across the board they recognise other activities, such as music, sport, debating and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. It is all about balance," says Ferguson.

Family therapist Diane Levy says it is all too easy for mothers and fathers to feel confused about how strict they should be - particularly if they have differing attitudes to discipline. "As parents we've been shuttled backwards and forwards as to what is more important - extreme values such as the Victorians had, where only discipline mattered, or recognising that children have feelings and wanting them to be happy."

Levy likes the term "backbone parent" - being loving and firm, helping children acquire skills but also being flexible.

"It's important children feel loved, but they need guidelines," says Levy. "They need a range of opportunities but there has to be balance. I do think there are a few over-programmed children who have a different activity after school every afternoon. There has to be time for the socialising and simple play.

"China-after the Cultural Revolution, for example - produced terribly skilled musicians. But then they realised they performed without soul. It's the same when it comes to equipping children for life."

Levy says Kiwis generally do not have a very elevated sense of discipline and obedience and many of us do not

work particularly hard. "But there is also no benefit in tormenting the hell out of kids."

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Allen & Unwin) goes on sale in New Zealand in March.

- Herald on Sunday

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