The positive side of tiger parenting

Tiger parenting isn't all bad — children should get the best of both worlds

February 27, 2011|By Robert Herschbach

Each Sunday, in her Chinese-language kindergarten class in Columbia, my daughter and I follow the adventures of Baby Pig and Well-Behaved Bunny, the lead characters in the textbook. After several years of trying to learn my wife's native language, I can almost keep up.

The teacher, Mrs. Jin, has a dancer's physique, an enviable fashion sense and a manner both friendly and firm. I've never heard her raise her voice; there's no horsing around or talking back. These kids are guai guai — a term you'll invariably hear among Chinese when the younger folk are in earshot. It means, roughly speaking, good or obedient or well-behaved. Just like the bunny in the book.

The mood in the class is cheerful but focused. The kindergarteners relish taking turns by the projection screen, selecting the correct answers with a pointer almost as long as they are tall. Later they practice writing Chinese characters, row after row.

Their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, sit at the back, playing with their smartphones. I wonder how many fit the description of "tiger parent."

With her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," self-described supermom Amy Chua unleashed such high-potency outrage that some within her own ethnic community rushed to disown her. Whatever her faults, though, she cannot be fairly accused of misrepresenting Chinese parenting norms. Whether among peasants in the rural provinces, upwardly mobile professionals in the larger cities, or the very wealthy, beliefs about the care and upbringing of children can be fairly hard-boiled.

Asian family culture generally assumes hierarchical distance between parents and children; it's typical for elders to refer to themselves in the third person. Whereas a standard image of American motherhood is that of a perpetually smiling nurturer, Chinese moms are expected to be strong and stern. They've got your back — and will, if needed, kick you in the butt.

As Ms. Chua notes, the culture stresses resilience. It's also highly pragmatic. The tendency among some educated Westerners to disdain the pursuit of wealth is baffling to many Chinese, who as often as not remember times of privation or even mass famine. In the mainland, almost every front door is adorned with a character that connotes happiness and prosperity of the most concrete sort. It's often accompanied by images of babies, gold or a bounty-dispensing god.

Sometimes openly, sometimes less so, many Americans look down on such a worldview. But immigrant parents I've talked to tell a different story. Newcomers, they insist, know better how to take advantage of the opportunities America offers than many Americans do. They can succeed here because they bring their discipline and work ethic into an economy that poses fewer institutional barriers. The biggest enemy here, they say, is complacency.

My wife, a scientist whose childhood home might fit inside a two-door garage, tells me she is "80 percent" in agreement with Ms. Chua, despite finding some of her tactics extreme.

"What I want most for my kids is that they have the ability to deal with all kinds of circumstances and that they have a hardworking spirit and the drive to reach their potential," she says.

Some of tiger parenthood's fiercest critics have been second- or third-generation kids who were at the receiving end and hated it. "Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy," Betty Ming Liu declared in a now-famous riposte. Suicide rates have risen among college-age Asian-American women; pressure to succeed is an obvious culprit.

Still, Asian parenting is tough because life is tough; ask anyone who's been downsized, or laid off, or foreclosed on. And though Ms. Chua — or her headline writer — may not win any prizes for subtlety, she raises a question few can afford to ignore: What kind of world are we preparing our kids to meet?

Though we like to call it self-empowerment or self-esteem, our prevailing ethos often boils down to simple feel-goodness, tailor-made for consumer culture. Whether or not we've mastered any art, craft, sport or profession, we can assure ourselves that we're winners and demonstrate it at the cash register. Undermining traditional authority figures — such as parents and teachers — clears space for Mattel and Disney.

Meanwhile, the income gap widens. Though unemployment is high, some companies have trouble filling positions because more and more jobs require specialized skills.

As for me, helping my daughter locate a sharper pencil from the depths of her backpack, I'm counting on there being ways to salvage the best from both cultures and minimize the worst. I hope she'll grow up knowing when it's good to be guai guai and when to throw caution to the wind.

Robert Herschbach, a resident of Laurel, works as an editor for an IT firm. His e-mail is rherschbach@gmail.com.

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