Strictly Speaking

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A few years ago, a friend in London admitted that whenever she had one of her son’s classmates round for a playdate after school, she would sneak a look in his school bag to see what level of reading book he had been given, so she could gauge how her son was doing in the class pecking-order. At the time, to my “Western” sensibilities, this seemed like shockingly competitive behaviour. But after the publication of the best-selling book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Yale Law professor Amy Chua details the extreme steps she took to ensure her two daughters’ academic and musical success, my friend’s behaviour now seems laughably lax and half-hearted. Just checking your child’s reading level would probably rate as “neglect of duty” in what Amy Chua describes as her “Chinese” parenting style (she uses the term “Chinese” loosely to mean parents of any ethnicity who use her strict regime).

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Amy Chua admits that to produce her “stereotypically successful” children, sacrifices had to be made. She says, “Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than an A; not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; play any instrument other than the piano or violin; not play the piano or violin.” After years of relentless drilling, study and practise, Sophia and Louisa have grown up to be accomplished, disciplined and high-achieving young adults. But did they sacrifice too much?

Clever cubs

Hong Kong mother Rosalind Corlin has her own set of celebrated “tiger cub” twins, Estèphe and Perrine. After passing a maths exam for 16-year-olds at the age of ten, with A grades, the children wrote a book, The Roar of the Tiger Cubs, to give an insight into their high-achieving lives. Not only are they academically successful, but they also excel at judo, swimming, sailing and chess. They write of rushing to 5:30am swim training sessions, private physics tuition, extra maths study, judo competitions, chess tournaments – plus plenty of fun family holidays. Rosalind has taken charge of selecting tutors and devising lessons for her children. She says, “There are times when nobody feels like going to swim training or doing homework, but we know we have to get it done. Life is a challenge and results come with effort and self-discipline.”

Of course, a strict regime is nothing new. Tiger parents have always existed in all corners of the globe, and many education systems are run on competitive, class-ranking systems, with rote-learning and drilling the norm. And the academic success stories of this approach seem difficult to dispute. So, could there be something to be said for bringing back some of the old-fashioned, results-driven, mother-without-mercy theory of parenting that recent more liberal child-raising ideology has shunned? Are we all busy over-parenting in our child-centred “kindergarchy” (where children are rulers and parents mere facilitators to the child’s whims) and failing to recognise that, sometimes, adults can firmly steer a course for their child’s future?

Prizes for all

Many tiger parents sneer at the “prizes for all” culture of heaping praise upon children for any mediocre achievement, such as a rushed squiggle on a piece of paper or a lacklustre exam result. Amy Chua famously rejected a last-minute birthday card that one of her daughters made for her as it didn’t have enough thought or effort put into it. But while rejecting anything a child has done might seem harsh, her stance against meaningless praise is something that research indicates she may have got right.

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When a group of school children in America were given a series of tests, researchers praised some children for their intelligence, and some for their effort. Children praised for their intelligence subsequently tended to avoid challenges, were more interested in how they ranked in the tests, less interested in learning how to improve, and more likely to give up or perform poorly after failure. They were more likely to think that they failed because they were not intelligent enough. By contrast, children praised for their effort went on to prefer challenging tasks, were more interested in learning how to improve, and less interested in finding out how other children performed. The message is clear: empty praise designed to boost a child’s ego is counterproductive, and effort is what counts.

Under a tiger mother’s regime, effort – whether voluntary or involuntary – is one thing that is never in short supply. The formula is simple: effort equals results. Tiger parents expect their children to achieve the highest grades, and the only explanation if they don’t is that they didn’t try hard enough. Estèphe and Perrine Corlin echo this sentiment in their book, saying, “Everything can be done if you put your mind in it. At least that is what we have always been told and until now it seems to be very true. We have seen that when we do not put in any effort we do not achieve much, but with a little effort and focus we can achieve so much more, so how could this not be worthwhile?” So how much effort can a child be expected to put in? And how excellent does he have to be?

Practice makes perfect

According to some tiger mothers, no amount of effort is too much, and your child has to be the best he can possibly be. Amy Chua recounts many fierce battles over the hours of music practice she demanded from her daughters, even on family holidays. However proficient her daughters became, she knew they could always do better. And doing better required more hours of practice.

This is another area where there may be some truth in the tiger parenting philosophy. Research has repeatedly shown that what separates the truly successful from the also-rans is the amount of practice they do – either through choice or coercion. Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters all practised relentlessly from an early age. Studies of musicians show that those who go on to be soloists, rather than members of the orchestra, put in more hours of practice, often under more pressure, throughout their lives.

But what if your child doesn’t want to practise or do extra homework? What if no amount of reasoning, asking, cajoling and bribery could get them to change their mind? Amy Chua remembers insulting and threatening her children if they didn’t practise hard enough – she even recalls her daughter physically fighting with her. To the shock of her friends assembled for a dinner party, she recounted the occasion when she called her daughter “garbage”. In a much more extreme case, world-famous pianist Lang Lang writes in his autobiography of the occasion when his father told him to take an overdose or jump off the balcony when, at nine years old, he was home late one day and missed some practice which his father thought vital to his gaining a place at the prestigious Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. In the cycle of ultra-high achievement, it seems that perspective can sometimes become very blurred.

Sticks and stones?

But couldn’t some of these taunts and threats scar a child for life? Amy Chua answers, “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” Surely this is a dangerous assumption to make? While it may be true that some children can shrug off hostile criticism like water off a duck’s back, the internet also has many accounts from offspring of excessively pushy parents who bear lifelong mental scars from their gruelling regimes and expectations.

And research suggests that mental health problems may result from excessively authoritarian parenting. Desiree Qin from Michigan State University found that high-achieving Chinese American students were more depressed, and had lower self-esteem and more anxiety than European Americans. She told the Daily News, “Research shows that when parents place a lot of pressure on their kids, the children are less happy.” More tragic still are the countless cases from South Korea – where academic and parental pressure can be intense – of an alarmingly high student suicide rate, including that of a ten-year-old boy who was thought to be devastated by his declining test scores.

Grade expectations

Critics say that this strictly timetabled, choc-a-bloc, achievement-driven life can stifle creativity – children become “grade-chasing zombies”, lacking flair and the thinking outside the box skills that are necessary in a rapidly changing world. According to Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of The Over-Scheduled Child, a bit of downtime can be a valuable commodity. He says, “Boredom is not necessarily bad. It can stimulate kids to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture. America’s economic success is based on people who tinkered and followed their inner passions – people like David Packard, Bill Gates, and of course, Steven Spielberg. Over-scheduling discourages that.”

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And it may be that an extreme tiger-parenting regime has a central irony: in intensively preparing children for their future, they are being robbed of their childhood. With few opportunities for friendships to develop and evolve, some of life’s valuable lessons might be missed. According to David Brooks in the New York Times, “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group – these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.” Could potentially missing some of the building blocks of future life be a price worth paying to achieve an ever higher grade at an ever younger age? Are we trying to prepare our children for college, or for life?

Whether we like or loathe the regime of hot-housing tiger mothers ultimately boils down to how we see childhood. Is it a precious time to be cherished, leaving children with lifelong memories of pressure-free, play-filled days of discovery with fun and friends? Or is it, as Amy Chua sees it, “a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future”? Most parents would strive for a mixture of the two approaches. Researcher Desiree Qin agrees, saying, “There is a healthy middle ground between the parenting extremes of the East and West. What is most beneficial to children, regardless of the culture, is clear and high expectations in a warm and loving family environment.”

All parents want, in Amy Chua’s words “to invest in their children’s future”. The only point of difference is how we decide to spread our portfolios.

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