Tiger Mums

Karen Tye speaks to parents in China about the learning methods they are using with their children.

So much brouhaha has resulted from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother. The Harvard-educated, Yale professor’s Chinese-influenced dogmatic approach to parenting and education includes demanding that her daughters not come home with grades less than an A, are not allowed to watch television, play computer games or attend a sleepover and must learn either the piano or violin.

Over the past decade, there has been much mention of Chinese work ethic, diligence and efficiency, but the response to Chua’s comments has blown the scale out of the water.

There are bound to be polarized opinions. Western-style education fosters creativity, individuality and confidence. And, despite all that focus Asian parents place on maths and science, a Chinese national is yet to win a science-based Nobel Prize. Furthermore, in the corporate world, the higher echelons of multinational companies are dominated by Westerners or the Western-educated Chinese.

The other train of thought is that Chinese-style rote-learning no doubt produces sterling results, though this may be at the expense of interpersonal development and creates intense pressure from an early age. In December 2010, following a worldwide survey testing abilities in the three key categories of literacy, maths and science, Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) declared Shanghai’s 15-year-old students the “smartest” in the world, trumping traditionally educationally stringent nations of South Korea and Singapore.

Surrounded by a country full of parents that have a Tiger Mother approach a-la-Amy-Chua towards education, expat parents living in China are perhaps more likely to come to grips and even be influenced by this parenting style than their counterparts back home.

However, it seems that the majority of expat parents are not overly convinced that when in Rome, they should do as the Romans do.

Ellen Kim, an American of Korean descent, is often described by her friends as a “supermum”, as she not only has four children, but juggles a demanding career as a lawyer in Shanghai.

Despite her high academic achievements, Ellen says her parenting style is more laid back. “I tend to be more of the ‘let them be’ school of thought, like as Pink Floyd says, ‘leave them kids alone’.”

However, Ellen’s decision to send her three daughters to the Shanghai Korean School in Minhang, was a well considered one.

“It is important for my children to learn Korean, which is part of their background, and they can also learn more about the deeply reverent and polite Confucian culture and values, which are not really emphasized in the West. I also like the quality of the Korean education system and I believe the educational level the children receive at the school is quite high and very complete,” she says.

“Yes, the pressure for homework comes from school and peers, but I rarely cave in,” she adds.

Ellen’s daughters are fluent in Mandarin and Korean and speak some English. Her oldest, eight-year-old Audrey, spends a maximum of one to two hours on homework a day, but none her daughters are enrolled in out-of-school activities.

For Ellen, one of the big pluses of raising her children in China is the diversity of cultures.

“Children learn from their peers. My children can befriend Chinese, Korean, and Western children and it would be all too normal for them,” she says.

Matt, an American parent who lives in Suzhou, also has a more varied approach to education, placing emphasis on both academic and extracurricular development, as well as social interaction, an attitude that stemmed from his own upbringing.

According to him, the switch of his eight-year-old daughter from a local school last year to an international school this year has been particularly effective for her development.

“She’s certainly happier at the new school and the approach of Western schools in China tend to give the students more freedom of choice to explore the areas they’re most interested in,” he says.

While his daughter is bilingual, Matt admits that the local school pushed her very hard to raise her Mandarin skills. “There is pressure on kids to focus on mastering the test, in order to enter the next academic level,” he says.

“As such, Chinese students tend to be better at science and maths and other technical skills, but I think they lack the well-roundedness of the excelling Western students, who have the advantages of extracurricular activities,” he says.

However, a Western education in China does come with Western prices.

“International schools in China are over-the-top expensive, and my wife and I are still debating whether or not it is worthwhile,” he says. Currently, his daughter’s yearly tuition costs RMB 130,000.

“It was not an intentional plan for our family to move abroad but when the opportunity presented itself, I was enthusiastic to offer my children a little something different from the classic American culture,” says Kristin Lack, a mother of three who lives in Beijing and sends her daughters, aged eight, six and three, to Daystar Academy, which offers a balanced bilingual education model at the kindergarten and elementary levels.

Kristin, who is also the director of marketing and admissions at Daystar, chose the school because she felt it had a good balance between language and child-centered curricula.

At Daystar, students spend three hours per day immersed in the Chinese National Curriculum and three hours per day studying the English Montessori curriculum.

Daystar students take unit, mid-term and final exams similar to a local Chinese school so by the end of first grade, they are able to read and write up to 1000 characters, 2000 characters by grade two and 3000 by grade three.

The beauty is that the program blends what the school believes is the best of the East and the best of the West. The students do learn skills of memorization and good work habits in their Chinese classrooms and develop how to internalize and synthesize concepts through experience inquiry and critical thinking with the Western schooling,” she says.

Interestingly, more than a quarter of students enrolled in the school are Chinese Nationals, while 22 percent are native Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, suggesting that some Chinese parents are placing more importance on early exposure of their child to Western teaching concepts.

According to Kristin, students spend approximately eight hours at school everyday and starting in first grade, students spend about 45 minutes to 1 hour on Chinese homework per night. For English homework, students are asked to read books they enjoy. Extracurricular activities, including sports, music and art, are offered twice per week.

“Coming from the US where we believe in balancing our children’s academic education with other types of learning like team sports or community outreach, I still continue to question my choices for educating my children today. However, I also know that it is a gift, coming from a monolingual culture, for my children to learn another language and culture, which will broaden their perspective about who they are, and can also contribute greatly to their futures,” she says.

Matt also has a similar train of thought regarding parenting and education. “In general, Chinese parents across the board tend to be a bit more obsessive with their kids regarding education and other endeavors. They seem to guide their kids in a particular direction, in some cases, mapping out their entire future. Western parents tend to encourage, not force, our kids to do well in school, and choose a path that fits their interests and personality. Certainly, there are many Western communities that could use a bit more focus on academics, but at the end of the day, I believe taking a more open-minded, creative approach to education will win the day, no matter where the child goes to school,” he says.

So it seems many parents, including expatriates immersed in Chinese culture, are not entirely sold by Amy Chua’s bestseller after all. Expat parents in China are perfectly placed to offer their children the best of both worlds, and that’s exactly what they are doing – providing a balanced education for their kids and saying “no” to the Tiger Mother methodology. 

*To read a case study on the Early Childhood Centre at the Western Academy of Beijing, click here.


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