Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tiger Mom - The Story Just Won't Die

I've had quite a few people ask me what I think of Amy Chua's WSJ article on what she calls "Chinese" parenting, presumably because I spent three years in Beijing with school-aged kids.

If you haven't read the article, by all means, go read it. It's a fairly horrifying tale written by a woman who refused to allow her children to be less than #1 in any subject in school. They weren't allowed sleepovers, or television time, or any other standard American kid-fare. They weren't, if you believe the article, really allowed any choices at all. She justifies her harsh parenting with the fact that her kids have turned out well. (Although she has backpedalled in interviews since the article first appeared, saying the article, which is taken from her book, doesn't quite reflect her actual ideas. I don't plan to buy the book, so I can't compare the two.)

It didn't make me feel conflicted about my parenting style. No way would I treat my kids in that way - even if I knew for certain that the end result would be a full scholarship to Harvard, or an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, I still wouldn't do it.

I'm more of the parenting school of "benign neglect." I'm trying to give my kids enough space to make their own mistakes, and I try desperately hard not to compare them to other kids. (I try not to compare myself with other parents, either, yet look at me now!)

There were lots of parents like me at our rigorous international school in Beijing, parents who tried to stay involved without crossing the line into anxious hovering. The kids were smart, the curriculum was demanding, and the teachers were, for the most part, excellent, so I felt my role was to cheer from the sidelines. I didn't sit next to them while they did their homework. I didn't volunteer in the classroom every week. I didn't even go on field trips, much as I would've loved it, because it seemed to me (and still does) that they should be finding their way at school without me standing right behind them.

I was told, when I first arrived in Beijing, that many of the Chinese and Korean kids in the school just went there to become proficient in English - they went to their "real" school after our school closed, and they spent evenings and weekends studying while our kids roamed the playground or negotiated sleepover plans.

I didn't believe it at first. But the longer I was there, the more stories I heard from my kids about their classmates, who went to math school at night and got 100% on the pre-tests in math. Whatever. My kids might get only 70% on the pre-tests, but the post-tests, the ones they took after the material was covered, usually showed them performing easily at an "A" level. So I told them not to worry about those other kids. Feel sorry for them, I said, because they have to sit in your math classes all week long, bored, while you're learning something new. They aren't smarter than you - they're just being forced to learn the material in advance, and that doesn't threaten you. As long as you learn it, and succeed on the post-test, that's all that matters.

I actually discussed the tutoring phenomenon with quite a few local educators for an article I wrote on balancing sports and schoolwork. One teacher, also a coach, told me he could tell which kids were being tutored to within an inch of their lives, because they were often unable to make independent decisions. So, for example, during a game of dodgeball, he'd actually have to tell them when to duck, or they'd get pelted by the ball. Yikes. That snippet didn't make it into the final article, but I've never forgotten the image.

My kids can duck.

So, do all Chinese parents parent like Amy Chua? Certainly not. But there was definitely a large sub-set of such parents at our school. Their kids were the ones who disappeared behind closed doors after school while ours hurried to finish up homework so they could play soccer outside. Did their kids do better than mine in school? I have no idea. I'm not in the business of comparing my children to their peers in that way. I know my kids did very well. And that's it.

I did have one opportunity to compare Shay to his peers in the third grade. The kids were given a "shoebox" culture project. They each chose a culture that was important to them, and they created a picture of that culture on their shoebox. Each side of the box was to represent one facet of the culture: music, sports, history, etc., and inside they were to place "artifacts" of that culture. And after they finished the project, they had to present it to a group of their peers and the parents.

Shay chose Ireland because of his dad's heritage. I knew that much, but he was emphatic that he didn't want my help. He pulled pictures off the internet and glued little facts to the sides of the box. Every so often, he'd ask how to spell something, or he'd ask for extra pencils, or a straightedge, but for the most part he hid from view for weeks while working on his shoebox.

I was nervous. I knew he was going to present the box, and I was a little bit worried that he'd embarrass me somehow by turning in a second-rate project. But he made his wishes clear, and since it was obvious that he was working on the project, I stayed away.

Finally the big day came. The kids were separated into groups of 5 or 6 to do their presentations. Our group was a mix of foreigners and locals. One of the first kids to present was a Chinese girl. She reached into her shoebox and pulled out a thick set of laminated index cards, each covered in her neat, tiny script. There must've been 50 cards, dangling from a large round key fob, and inwardly I groaned when she started reading them. The kids were supposed to have less than 10 minutes each - was she really going to try to read every single one of those cards?

She had barely started when her mother interrupted, telling her in Chinese to speak up. The girl started over, only to be scolded again: speak up. Instead of speaking louder, the girl turned red and began to whisper. Her mom let her have it this time. I couldn't catch every word of the lecture, but she was angry. She was telling her daughter to stand up straight and speak clearly, and every time the girl tried to start again, the mom interrupted to scold. Finally the girl started arguing with her mom, waving her cards and saying she was trying. This went on for a good 5 minutes, with all the rest of the parents sitting awkwardly, feeling sorry for the girl. Another Chinese parent tried to intervene, but when she told the first mom that her daughter was doing fine, the mom waved her hand dismissively at the daughter and turned her back in disgust. She turned her back on her own daughter, and the girl just stood there quietly, face burning as she looked down at her index cards, not knowing what to do.

All of this commotion caught the attention of the teacher, who'd been moving amongst the groups. She came over and gave the girl a hug, standing between the girl and the now livid parent, who would not stop complaining loudly about her daughter's poor performance. The girl's time was up, and despite how hard she'd clearly worked on her project, she wasn't going to get a chance to present it.

Meanwhile, the rest of the kids sat, open-mouthed, watching the mom and the daughter fight it out while the teacher did her best to provide a physical barrier for the girl. It was just... so sad. Our role there that day, as I saw it, was to watch our kids present and then congratulate them for having the courage to stand up in front of their peers, and for having the perseverance to finish the project. Clearly that mom saw things differently.

If you put her shoebox next to my son's, I daresay it would have been voted the more elegant of the two. His box showed no signs of parental interference. But do you know? He did a great job. He talked for the allotted time about Irish sports and music. He told the story of Saint Patrick. And he showed his classmates a picture of his great grandfather, along with that grandfather's watch, to illustrate his connection to the culture.

He did it all by himself, and I was so, so proud of him.

I'd venture to say this other mom was of the Amy Chua school of parenting. Maybe it works for her, though it certainly backfired on that warm spring day. Maybe some kids respond well to the structure, to the commands from on high to succeed. I know my kids wouldn't do well with that system, though, and neither would I.

Would I love to see them win a scholarship to a prestigious university some day? Of course. Do I wish they were more interested in their music lessons? Definitely. But all four of them have their own distinct personalities, their own interests, and their own ways of working. I guess I think it's my job to nurture those differences in abilities and interests, rather than forcing them into my mold of success. I'm not interested in parenting like Chua. I'm not a helicopter parent, either. I'm a traffic cop parent: I'm there, watching for trouble, but as long as they're moving forward and generally following the rules, I'm not going to intervene.

I think there's a skill I'm trying to acquire here. I'm trying to be the parent who supports, who encourages, and who gets out of the way when I'm not needed. Sure, I remind them to put their homework folders in their backpacks on occasion. But I won't do it for them - don't want to helicopter. And no - they can't watch TV if the haven't done their homework. But I don't check their homework over their shoulders, and I don't make them do extra work on top of what the teacher assigns. When they finish their work, they choose what's next.

It's tricky, when you move from place to place, because parenting standards change as you go, as do the schooling standards. Our school in Jordan is quite a bit different from the school in Beijing. The local parents are different, too. Even the expat community is different. My kids are being forced to negotiate an entirely different learning environment, with different rules and expectations. Some aspects of this new place they love. Others they rail against, constantly. My hope is that, in the end, the changes they undergo as we move will mold them into interesting adults, with something positive to contribute in whatever professional fields they choose. That, I think, is far more important than whether they beat their other classmates on any particular science test.

I'm sure Chua-style parents also want what's best for their kids. I can't say "Chinese" style, sorry, because I know too many Chinese who don't parent like Chua does, and while I understand that she didn't intend to lump all Chinese under the label "Chinese" parent, still I can't bring myself to use her term. So: Chua-style parents are trying their best to parent, just as I am. But they use very different methods to achieve their goals.

This much I know: I don't ever, ever want to be that mother, the one who turns her back on her own child because the child didn't meet her standards. There is no school assignment that can possibly matter that much to me.


Fairevergreen said... [Reply]

I've been lurking since October when my daughter introduced me to your blog. She aspires to your life (dating a young man who wants to become a diplomat), so she's been extremely interested in what you have to say.

I feel compelled, as a parent, to let you know I think you are absolutely "Doing It Right". The only thing I can add is to say "yes" as much as possible so that when you way "no" it carries weight. And always explain why you say "no". I swore I would never say "because I'm your mother, that's why", and I don't think I ever did.

I followed your rules before you invented them, and have three interesting, exceptional, mostly well-balanced adult children, whose company I very much enjoy.

Bethany and Will said... [Reply]

This post is excellent and totally right on. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and experiences!

As a teacher I can always tell which projects were done by the parents and which were done by the students :-) I've seen children brought to tears by their parents in front of the class,as well as those afraid to go home and show their parents their grades.

When parents focus on whole-child education (social, emotional, academic, physical) then they are on the right track!


A Daring Adventure said... [Reply]

Oh, Donna, how brutally heartbreaking. What a horrible story.

See, now, something like this makes me think that my husband married the wrong girl, for when we go to China, if one of my boys ends up in school, and I see something like this happen, I just KNOW I would lose my mind on that mother. And then she would probably be some important Chinese official's wife or something, and then I would somehow get us PNGd from China or what have you...

What a sad, sad story.

Spectrummy said... [Reply]
Time for the Weekly State Department Round Up and you're on it. Please let me know if you would like to be removed.

Spectrummy said... [Reply]
It is time for the Weekly State Department Round Up and you're on it. Please notify me if you would like to be removed.

Connie said... [Reply]

Excellent post Donna! One thing that Chua-type parents (IMO) seem to forget is that eventually the kids grow up and LEAVE parental control and help. A kid who is bullied and pushed may well rebel completely when they get free. A kid who is brought to tears over school and training, is not likely to learn to 'love learning' and may not wish to keep seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge as he/she heads off alone. I haven't raised my own kids to adulthood yet, but as a former Army NCO, I've had to finish raising other people's children. I could always tell when I met up with a child of an overly demanding parent.

We push our kids only enough to teach them to push themselves. We make ourselves available to help, WHEN they want help. We do try to encourage them to aim high, but we also try to explain why it's good, so they'll want it for themselves, not because we said so. One day, they'll turn 18 and be off to start their own lives..not much we can do to help then.

THIS is the time for kids to learn to make their own decisions - when they have mom and dad for back up! If we do it all for them, they'll be in a world of hurt when faced with reality for the first time, unprepared. That's a huge parental failure in my book.

Elaine said... [Reply]

The teacher part of me is appalled that the presiding classroom teacher did not instruct the visitors about expected conduct-- (hopefully, she'll do that next time) or invite the parent to step out with her. The mother part of me feels dizzy! I have had the unlovely experience of sitting while my child bombed out in a judged music festival--because she did not practice well enough, often enough. I felt badly, but I also felt like she was learning something valuable from failing publicly. (If she had said, "I'm not ready," I would have agreed and asked what she wanted to do; maybe she was hoping for a miracle.) It's good to learn how to pull yourself back up after falling on your face. Nobody said being a parent would be sitting while rose petals floated down all day...

Kate said... [Reply]

Donna, I loved this post. Hope you don't mind that I linked to it.

Kami said... [Reply]

What a great analysis of this stupid debate, if you can even call it a debate. I love the term Benign Neglect and aspire to be that kind of parent. If only my momtrolling tendencies could be more easily restrained...The story about the shoe box is terrific and clearly underscores for the necessity of kids figuring things out for themselves. Hmph.

The Empress said... [Reply]

I've read too many pots to count on the Chinese mother. This is the best, and clearest, I've come across.

Your points are well made, and there is a heart behind your words.

I, also agree, love should never be performance based. We can encourage and guide, but we should never withhold love. Never.

Sara said... [Reply]

I have to agree that, that is definitely not my style of parenting. However, I imagine that I'll be a little more strict than you, but not so much that my children resent me, their teachers, their schools, or certainly not learning. At least I hope to be that way. I guess (since I only have a "kindergartener") that only time will tell.

fourmommy17 said... [Reply]

Brilliant statement. You are mastering the hardest most exhausting goal of good parenting...teaching your children the lost art of self sufficiency. Bravo!

Please. Write your own stuff.