Responding to the Roar of the Tiger Mother

Paul Lau Chun Man (Hong Kong, UWC AC 2010-2012)

Amy Chau, Professor of Law at Yale Law School recently published her third book titled ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. As part of it’s release, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’ containing excerpts from her new book. Since then, it has generated a mountain of responses which can easily be found on Google, Wikipedia or other American new sites.

Since it was released in early Jan, it has sparked a lot of soul-searching within me. I wasn’t sure what I could/should write in the first place. Coming from a Chinese family but having been raised in Canada and in the more western Hong Kong, I’ve often considered myself simultaneously unChinese and unWestern. After lots of thoughts and reflections, my response to the whole debacle would be:

How accurate is the piece?

Amy presents what can only be termed an ‘extreme case’. There are few if any parents that I know personally who would actually put their child through what was described. Admittedly though, it also isn’t hard for me to imagine those events happening. Why? Because as extreme as the cases Amy cites are, the ideology behind them; the need to throw immense amounts of time and effort towards education, the prioritization of academics and the hierarchical approach to parenting are all entirely true. Each family may interpret and act in a slightly different manner, but all ‘Chinese’ families (as a loose ideological term) take academics far more seriously, consider a parent’s higher status as sacred and consider success a mere result of putting in hours and hours until you get it right. As difficult as it may sound, Amy’s depictions were largely correct.

Does it work?

The book was intended to be just another book on parenting techniques. So the question one must ask is whether the ‘Chinese’ method of parenting works. Reality does appear to show Chinese students as more focused, achieve better grades and reach higher qualifications; in short, they are more capable of jumping through the hoops. This was something that the PISA results seemed to confirm. On this point, I see the issue as being a mixed bag – It all depends on what it is you want to achieve. If the goal in life is to achieve straight As and go to an Ivy League university, then undoubtedly, a ‘Chinese’ approach is far better. But as the ‘Western’ approach seems to embody, success is measured in far more ways than just a set of results on a test and a load of numbers. It perhaps includes things such as creativity and innovation, problem solving and social skills. Amy Chua was entirely right that the ‘Chinese’ method was superior, but only if your life’s goal is to achieve straight As. As many Chinese parents are starting to realize, enjoyment, interest and a williness to continue are also important virtues. At the end of the day, neither an absolute academic focus, nor an absolute ignorance of academics is the correct approach. It is, like so many things in the world, a balancing act; a balancing act between academic rigour and extra-curricular involvement, social skills and academic results, internal content and external approval. That’s part of the reason I went to UWC, it’s not just the academics but also the experience that UWC Atlantic College provided me with. Whether the ‘Chinese’ approach is correct depends entirely upon your goals in life.

So what can we learn from this media fire-storm?

Firstly, remember that NOT every Chinese student that you ever meet has had Amy Chau as a parent. We are all individuals, with different upbringings and different opinions. There are lots of ethnically Chinese teenagers who may have been brought up in a stereotypically liberal western system, and just as many Western teenagers who may have been raised in a strict ‘Chinese’ style environment.
And secondly, find your own balance, set your own goals and discover your own path. If your aim is to achieve the academic excellence you crave, there is nothing wrong with the ‘Chinese’ approach. In my own experience, it is often a far better course of action.

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