Tiger Moms

Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has shaken up the staid world of American Parenting with her recently published book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. There is so much coverage of her book on the net so no point in recounting the key points here.

While she might be right in certain aspects of parenting that she has experimented with, I think that her methods and conclusions are so way out of the current thinking on parenting, even in today’s China. May be her book would see an outstanding acceptance in Singapore !

Disciplining kids in today’s world requires an exquisite balance of the type we learn in the corporate world. One does not wish to create a rebel out of one’s kid in a wanton fashion. There has to be a certain amount of “buy-in” from the kid, whether he/she is in his/her pre-teens or teens. Today’s exposure that a child gets and chooses to receive is so enormous and rich that we need to work hard, as parents, to help them sift through the rubble and find the real gems of learning. Easier said than done, even for ourselves.

Prof Chua disregards the realities of today’s world in her treatise on Tiger Moms. While I agree that Asian mothers, in general, are more concerned with academic performance than Western mothers, they do not provide a “total” or “better” solution for the development of their children. If that were the case, Asia would have, by now, created a phenomenal number of Nobel Laureates and other global inventors of repute, which we all know is NOT the case. Asia’s proportion of Nobel Laureates is well below 10% even today. Asian innovators seem to thrive in Silicon Valley better than in Bangalore or Shanghai, though things are very slowly changing. The American Economy has not collapsed, it is having a growth rate of 2.6% which is not bad for a USD 14T economy. Let us not write off the U.S. economy or their system of higher education which still remains the envy of all world, including China.

Ask a Chinese student or an Indian student where he or she wishes to graduate from. Given equal opportunities and resources, it would be almost inevitable that they respond with an American University name. Do they say they want to graduate from a Delhi or a Shanghai University at the post-graduate level ? No. I haven’t heard such an answer. Even a reputed school such as NUS (National University of Singapore) is rarely mentioned.

Why ?

America still produces the best inventive and innovative minds in the world. It is having some challenges in the secondary school education system, which they are trying to fix.

Coming back to Tiger Moms and their characteristics, I disagree with the harsh techniques used by Prof Amy Chua. I am surprised that as a product of the U.S. University System and a teacher in the same system, she chose to use those techniques on her own children. May be she wanted to inculcate “Asian” or “Chinese” value systems in her two daughters. That may be fine, no issue with that. We all tell our children to respect elders, be frugal, follow rules, be disciplined, study well, etc., We all try to do parts of what Prof Chua advocates in her book. However, she has stepped out of line with her harsh techniques and her assumptions on “good parenting” that she picked up from her parents.

Times have changed. World is not the same place that her parents started off with in the U.S. The essential skill that we must teach our children are not related to Maths and pushing them to be #1 in the school maths tests (like what Prof Chua did with her first daughter). It is not about piano lessons, or horse riding, or swimming skills. It is not about driving them hard on academic output, to the exclusion of all the rest of the life skills.

Today’s children need “life skills”, more than anything else – they need to be able to handle complexity from the word go. They need to develop into the equivalent of “general managers” in the corporate world when they grow up. The specialization into something close to their heart can happen after they hit 16 or 17, ready to get into college. I have seen and experienced the fact that kids do not wish to know the impact of world affairs, leadership behaviour, interactions between leaders and countries, scientific developments, historical antecedents when analysing a particular dispute, and psychological issues. Maths, Physics and Chemistry are important, no doubt, but rote application of the principles in these subjects leads to a mind which is not able to apply the same in later life. Example : mine !

A combination of “scientific application of principles” and “development of life skills” is what is called for, and this would require parenting of a different style. Unfortunately, parenting cannot be outsourced. And, the U.S. has just too many broken families with no serious child support. Parenting by graduates of the U.S. education system (like Prof Chua and her husband) in the traditional American way would not have produced kids which are worse than the current children, since highly educated, integrated families produce a better impact and influence on the kids – they learn from imbibing and seeing what their parents have accomplished in life.

Well, I can go on and on, but the key point is that the message has got to be different – it is not possible for the American parents to quickly switch over to the Tiger Mom way of parenting and benefit from its output. They got to think for themselves, learn a few techniques, and ensure that the family support system is in place to produce great children who would grow into great adults.

No shortcuts, folks ! And, to Prof Chua – I am sure you will reconsider some of your conclusions as you receive feedback.


Vijay Srinivasan
13th February 2011


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