Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: There's much to learn from Tiger Mothers

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Photo / Sarah Bicknell
Photo / Sarah Bicknell

One of my children once accused me of being just like an Asian parent. I took it as a compliment.

I used to think of myself as a strict, demanding mother, but after reading the Yale professor Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal article on "why Chinese mothers are superior", excerpted from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I now realise what an underachieving pushover I've been.

I failed as a Tiger Mum. I was far too easy on my children. I gave them choices. No wonder my children didn't become competition-winning pianists or violinists.

As Chua writes: "A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it."

We may be sincere about wanting our children to be kind, caring citizens above all else, but what parent hasn't harboured dreams of raising the next musical child prodigy or maths whizz?

Yet Chua's recipe for success can be a little hard to swallow. Her two (now teenaged) daughters weren't permitted to waste their time on sleepovers, playdates or taking part in school plays. Watching TV and playing computer games were out of the question, as was refusing to learn the violin or piano. And getting anything less than an A, or failing to be the number one student in every class except gym and drama weren't tolerated.

Such was Chua's uncompromising commitment to the advancement of her children that she once refused to let her then 7-year-old daughter have water or a toilet break until she'd mastered a difficult musical piece, even threatening to burn all her stuffed animals when she rebelled. She didn't pretend to like the substandard birthday cards her daughters gave her either; she demanded new ones.

Chua thinks Western parents worry too much about self-esteem - she called her daughter "garbage" when she got cheeky - and scoffs at the idea that a child's happiness should be a primary consideration. Happiness comes with mastery, and mastery comes with practice, practice, practice.

"For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child.

"If a Chinese child gets a B - which would never happen - there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

"Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and improve from it ..."

Critics were quick to lambast Chua for denying her daughters the benefits of social interaction, and the pressure-cooker cultivation which they said would produce stressed out, rote-learning automatons lacking in creativity. They pointed to the high rate of depression and suicide among Asian-American women aged 15 to 24.

Yet when the Wall Street Journal asked readers which style of parenting was best, 63 per cent voted for the Tiger Mum's tough love over "permissive Western parenting".

The results seem to be on Chua's side. Her daughters get straight As and win music competitions; she says they're happy and well-adjusted, so who are we to judge?

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that Chua "is the logical extension of the prevailing elite practices. She does everything over-pressurising upper-middle-class parents are doing. She's just hard core".

As Chua says, you don't have to be Chinese to be a Chinese mother.

China's recent success in the international PISA, in which Shanghai's 15-year-olds topped the world in reading, maths and science seems further proof of the influence of Tiger Mothers. (We came seventh; the US limped in at number 15.)

Actually, Shanghai's success is credited to better-paid teachers, curricular reform and educators being given the freedom to experiment.

There are signs too that many Chinese are favouring a more relaxed approach to parenting. Among the best-selling parenting books in China at the moment is A Good Mom is Better than a Good Teacher, which advocates listening to children, rather than forcing them to obey authority.

Chua would dismiss that as soft and indulgent. Still, there's much we could learn from the Tiger Mothers - not the least the belief that intelligence and ability aren't innate or the preserve of a lucky few, but in fact skills which can be developed in any child with the right encouragement and support, and a lot of hard work.

- Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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