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Sunday, January 09, 2011

The "Tiger Mom" Parenting Controversy

The blogosphere and quora controversy over Amy Chua's "Tiger Mom" parenting article has reached a fever pitched in the part of the internet where I sit. As a non-parent I normally would try to stay out of this discussion, but since I grew up in Asia and had such a parenting regime, I feel qualified to make a few notes about this.

But first, a note from the author of the article (via Christine Lu):
I did not choose the title of the WSJ excerpt, and I don't believe that there is only one good way of raising children. The actual book is more nuanced, and much of it is about my decision to retreat from the "strict Chinese immigrant" model.
Note that the Quora responses come from people brought up in America under the Asian model. There's a huge amount of negativity about this "hot house" environment for bringing up kids from Asian Americans. I can believe it. If I had been brought up in Asia like this, I would have been comparing myself to the non-Asian kids who had the freedom to do what they like, and then resented my parents for not being as cool as other people's parents. The truth is, many middle class kids in Asia were all brought up like this, and not knowing any different, there's no resentment. Note that this "hot house" environment is not unique to Asia. Plenty of non-Asians have used this method to develop high achievers. The book, Talent is Over-rated, for instance, describes a Hungarian couple which deliberately set out to raise 3 daughters to become grandmasters in Chess, just to prove a point about how education should be handled. They succeeded, and while their kids eventually gave up Chess, they were hardly scarred for life. Similarly, I know plenty of non-Asian parents who obsess about getting their kids into the right daycare, the right Montessori school, or the right prep school. My favorites are the ones who spend gobs of money on an expensive school district for their home, and then decide that even that expensive school district is not good enough and send their kids to private schools. And of course, in the field of sports, non-Asian parents seem to be exactly what Asian parents are as far as academics is concerned. I have no doubt to my mind which emphasis is most likely to lead to a productive member of society.

If the environment was solely responsible for such emotional/psychological scarring, then Asia should have an incredibly high crime rate/suicide rate. I think the real cause in this case is the huge contrast between that "hot house" environment and what the rest of America values. Certainly, myself and my two brothers are emotionally well-adjusted and our family doesn't show any of the psychological scars and resentment between ourselves and our parents that many of those who visit Quora describe.

It all depends on your goals as parents. One of my friends recently told me over lunch about his philosophy behind parenting: "Your kids will turn out fine, so my goal is to enjoy my time with them while they are kids." Many Asian parents would be horrified to hear that, since their goal is to raise high achievers. I remember having a conversation with a Netscape millionaire in the late 1990s. This was a man who'd arrived from Taiwan with just the clothes on his bags and a suitcase of cash, and was now successful by anybody's standards. He said to me, "My kid has a trust fund, so now I have to make sure she has a work ethic." My response to that was, "That's absolutely the wrong goal for her! She doesn't have to work if she doesn't want to, so what's going to make her life miserable is if she is a poor judge of people! If someone cons her out of her trust fund, then all the work ethic you inculcate in her will not keep her from being unhappy." (No, I don't know how to teach you how to be a good judge of character, but the point is: work ethics, etc aren't the most important things in life)

Ultimately, I don't think that the "hothouse environment" is something every parent should strive for, but it's clearly useful for some parents, and it works for some families in some environments. For me, it was more helpful than hurtful, and I'm sure for others the inverse was true, but it certainly doesn't merit the kind of hysteria one way or another that the internet forums appear to approach the subject.


Jean said...

Hi Piaw, I think we met some point at Google. Here's my personal response to Amy Chua's article:

It's really interesting to hear your perspective. Hopefully you will enjoy my insights as well!

Piaw Na said...

Hi Jean, yes I remember you! I'll respond on your blog. I had no idea you had left Google!

bawa said...

Reminds me of the situation for Indians too. I think a lot of kids in India are scarred by this approach, much more so than when I was brought up. Competition is tough. For instance, for about 1500 seats in the top 6 Management Institutes in India (students in great international demand), there were 250,000 takers, and most probably are pretty high achievers.
And the goals of parents are pretty narrow: MBA, Medicine, IT, Engineering.

From my own experience with family at a globally top-rated performance arts centre, you will see East Asians (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) (although usually in traditional high-profile instruments, i.e. piano, violin, cello...: no Indian- obviously, to be a great trombone player is not "high-flying" enough!