Friday, July 22, 2011

East or West....Mom knows best !

Image source : joansheartart

A few months ago, I came across this interesting article . It is by Amy Chua, author of the book ' Battle hym of the Tiger Mother'. The article and the book caused quite a stir in the American parents' world . Blogosphere and parenting forums  everywhere lit up with reactions ranging from disappointment to disgust, to even calling her an abusive mother. The western world found it difficult to accept a parenting style so polar opposite to common parenting styles in their part of the world. While almost everyone seemed to universally reject her ideas and tried to distance themselves from her (even other asian mothers who said she was giving them a bad name), yet somehow her book remained on the Newyork Times best seller list, so certainly people out there wanted to know what she was talking about .  Here's  an interview of Amy Chua, after the backlash about her article and the book. The wall street journal even posted a rebuttal  article to Chua's article. I haven't read Chua's book (yet), but upon reading the article, I couldn't help but wonder, how I could substitute every place it said 'Chinese' in the article for 'Indian' and it would still be rather true.

Mothering is a very sensitive topic for most people (certainly western people) . It is the most important job one can do in life ...i.e raise a good, decent and successful human being in this world, but unfortunately there is no prior training, no degree, no job description, or no manual for this job, it's a very dynamic, and very subjective topic, and one just has to learn on the job, one of the reasons why many call their first child, the practice kid. Mothers just learn as they go, with every child, a parent is born as well, and it changes the person they were before the child came into their lives. Their world which revolved just around themselves thus far, now includes another person, a little person, who suddenly becomes even more important than their own selves.
Pretty much every issue regarding mothering can be a separate discussion in and of itself, like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and many more. Each mother learns her own way to parent, from the situation she's in, and also to a large extent borrowing from the way she was parented, when she was little. Mothering is something people are usually very defensive about and not really open minded about a lot, especially to criticism,  mainly because it involves a very sensitive topic...their kids.

Chua's book hence struck a nerve with American parents, as they saw it as a criticism of their style of parenting. The article which came out before the book was titled  'Why chinese mothers are superior' ? and it certainly raised eyebrows with many an american mothers. I think asians and non-asians had very different reactions to the book and article, mainly because most asians could relate to what chua was saying in the book, many had lived it in their homes as well, and saw the benefit to the method.

I personally too identified with what chua was saying in the article. I didn't exactly have a tiger mom growing up, but certainly high expectations were placed on me as well as my sister, especially academically. There were consequences of bad grades. My mom never pushed it to the extreme that chua did in the book, but yes, I remember many nights of staying up well after dinner, trying to get my math sums right, and my mom was right there with me, putting in equal effort as me, or maybe even more.
My grandma (mom's mom) was definitely a tiger mom, she made sure all her 4 kids had excellent grades throughout, I remember my mom telling me a story when my uncle (her brother) came home with his report card which had him placed at the third rank in his entire class (they had a rank system as opposed to a grade system) and he was trembling with fear to enter the house and show his mother the report card, so yes she was definitely a tiger mom, today that uncle is the vice-president of a multinational corporation.
My grandpa as well as my own father were not the disciplinarians in the house, they were more just the support behind the mom's, while the mom's ran the parenting show.
As a child I certainly thought this was a harsh method, but as I grew older, I did see the value in it, if it hadn't been for my mom pushing me to achieve more, I could've even ended up as a high school drop out, finding it difficult to get any work, because I was a lazy student throughout school, it was only when I was in college did I develop a serious attitude towards education, and had it not been for my mom making sure I had the basics right, I would've never had the opportunities I did later.
I believe that most of the people in the world are average (like me), and not born genius or talented (like my husband). Most have to work very very hard to achieve excellence in academics or music, dance or sports or any other vocation of their choice. Those who are born genius or talented may have to work less harder than others to be excellent at the activity, but hard work is indispensable. What a genius can achieve with little work, an average person can too with a little more hard work, so even though they may be at a slight disadvantage due to their lack of inborn skills, they can more than compensate for them by woking harder at mastering it, be it a math problem, or a difficult piano tune. It's easy to say just pursue your passion, but what if you don't have a passion, I mean no-one really has a passion for accounting, or clerical work, or such other paycheck jobs, if we all just pursue our passions, who'll do these jobs ?? That's not to say that one must groom their kids for these kinds of jobs, but just something I think of when I hear people say that we must motivate our kids to pursue their passions .
We know that children thrive with boundaries, and even want boundaries, and this is affirmed by many parenting and child psychology experts. Likewise, I think, children need goals, targets, and expectations to be placed on them, it motivates them to do better, try harder and demand more of themselves.  Success can be addictive, and crave you wanting more, once you learn how to achieve it,  this principle, I believe is at the heart of tiger mom strategy .

I do definitely think that Chua's method were a tad too harsh, and could be toned down some, but the basic principle she works off of, which is pushing your kids to achieve their best, and setting high standards for them is something I agree to as well. I don't say that everyone must do it, and that any other way has to be wrong, but I merely feel, that when I find around me, that kids are given trophies for merely participating in a game or competition of any sort (and not winning it) I think, it's not realistic, it's not how the world works, and one does have to work hard to achieve any success in life .

The Indian (and by Indian I mean urban, middle class educated Indian parents....thanks Mr. Sunil for pointing it out) style of parenting differs a little bit from the chinese (or other asian styles) where Indians usually only focus on academic achievements, whereas chinese will place some importance on other activities like music, sports as well. Which results in India having almost no place in any international sports, whereas chinese and other asian countries do perform consistently well . Okay, the sports issue is much more complex than just that, with India lacking good world class sports infrastructures to groom budding sportsmen, in addition to a lot of red tape issues and procedural problems, but certainly the Indian attitude of keeping children away from anything non-academic doesn't help.
Also, one more unique thing about Indian style of parenting is also that most Indian mothers find it perfectly normal to keep the child heavily dependent on them (the mothers) for everyday needs for as long as the child wants, much more than is actually required. As a result children will not be feeding themselves at meals till almost the age of 7 or 8 (even 10-11 in extreme cases), will be co-sleeping with parents for a long time, etc.
So, the Indian style of mollycoddling your child in the early years, drastically transforms to becoming a tigeress to their cubs in the later years of their children's life. I dunno why it is so, I don't have an answer for it, but it's a pattern I've seen with most desi families.
Desis in US also follow this pattern in most cases, they may include some western styles as well, but will largely stick to what they'd seen growing up. The tiger mom type moms are very common in desi circles in US. Mothers pushing their kids for top grades in school, piano lessons, horse riding, one or more sport, even learning one or two Indian languages in sunday school, maybe pursuing another hobby like learning Indian classical music or dance forms, are all common cases in desi circles. I have seen incredible competition among desi parents over the 'gifted and talented'  ( GAT or TAG) program in school, everyone wants their child to be the one placed in the program, thankfully only teachers have a say in who gets placed in these programs.
Most desi parents are not beyond whooping their kids either, infact most of the desi parents I know, live in fear of US child laws, due to that fact, I remember a friend of mine, who had just moved to the US with her 4 year old , and after barely 2 months of school her daughter threatened her that if she (the friend) hit her, she (the kid) would call 911, my friend was just taken aback with astonishment.

There is a reason why asians and south asians desire to succeed and want their kids to succeed in life. It stems from insecurities that are passed down the generations to people belonging from these regions, since these regions are mainly poor countries. Failure in these countries (traditionally), meant, being completely at the bottom of the social chain, struggling to make ends meet, and even struggling for basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. Western countries, have come a long way from facing such insecurities straight in the face, with facilities like free healthcare (in some countries, not the US...yet) and unemployment allowance, and other facilities from the government, failure becomes a life which is less lavish, but takes care of one's basic necessities well, and allows one to take more risks. This is primarily the factor, that forms the parenting styles of these two parts of the world .

I am not aware of the academic methods followed in other asian countries, but I have seen the methods of India and the US. Indian schools, by and large even to this day follow, a rote learning method, which is basically just mugging stuff up before the exams, and then regurgitating it all on the exam paper, to the best of their ability. Very few academic institutions allow for a practical and creative process of learning, in which the student actually gets indepth knowledge of the subject he's supposed to be studying . It's a method that doesn't allow for much of out-of-the-box type of creative and innovative thinking, this could be a factor in why India does not produce too many inventors, researchers, creative thinkers, etc.
 In the US education method, I see a lot more emphasis on basics, more detail oriented and practical approach towards subjects, allowing for a lot of creative and innovative thinking, which is why we see many of the great scientists, innovators, creative thinkers, etc coming out of the US. Most recently we've seen the Facebook guy Mark Zuckerberg, and how at an early age he was able to create something so big and be successful. The flip side to this method is that an average child might find it difficult to adapt and master this type of a method, and might do better in the Indian rote learning method. So while the method is good for the top 10-20% of the population, I believe it's challenging for the remaining 80% of the population , which might be average, which is seen in the high number of high-school drop outs in the US, and also those who do not pursue education beyond a high school diploma. Another flip side is that it may not prepare you well enough to enter a high pressure type of learning environment later (for eg medical school) . I know of many desi kids' cases, who after moving to India found it extremely difficult to adjust to the schools there, the method and the volume of syllabus was way too much for them, and a student with good grades in the US, was lagging far behind in the Indian schools .

It's certainly not all good results from such stringent parenting. There can be undesirable side effects of such a method as the children could rebel, and try and do the exact opposite of what you'd like to achieve by the parenting method, especially in teenage, when rebellion is at it's peak, there's a very real possibility of something like that happening, also another possibility is that of some children experiencing depression, due to being unable to cope with the pressure being put on them, ofcourse smart parents will identify these issues early and back off some or modify their methods to some extent, but in extreme cases even issues like suicide could happen. Every year in India after the 10th and 12th grade board (state and national level) exam results are announced, one hears of such suicide cases, because some failed students find it difficult to face the realities of their performance .
Indians have terrible competition going on in India, right from the school level,  mainly due to huge population they have. College seats are limited, and so are jobs, so it's a rat race all around . This results in parents putting incredible pressure on the children to outperform the next guy, and grades and merit rankings are of huge significance. So a poor performance in these key exams are a major setback for some kids, and some find it difficult to face failure.
This phenomenon of extraordinary competition has been documented to some extent in recent bollywood films like 'Taare Zameen Par' and '3 Idiots'. The movies, were hard hitting and raised important question marks on the Indian obsession with academic excellence and success.

 I've rambled on far too long on this topic, but the varying parenting styles in different parts of the world, is a fascinating topic to me . A favorite tv show of mine, which also partly deals with this topic is 'wife-swap', where we see moms who have polar opposite parenting styles, swap places, and see the way other's parent, and sometimes they walk away with a deeper appreciation for their own style, and at other times, they take a second look at their parenting skills and try to achieve a healthy balance.
This is what I believe that discussions on such sensitive topics can bring about, we hope we take what's good from each parenting style we come across and be the kind of tigress our own cubs need.
Just to end on a funny note, I have included two videos below, which are related to the topic, hope you enjoy them .

1. This is a hilarious video from one of my favorite comedians Russell Peters, on different parenting styles :

2. This is a video from a british tv show 'Goodness Gracious me', about typical Indian parents :


  1. What is you say is more about urban middle class homes. Achievers from villages make it because they have the hunger to show it to the world that they can.

    Personally, I consider myself fortunate that I didn't have my mom sitting on head to make me study. I made all my choices and decisions myself! :)

    I used to pity my friends who had really pushy parents, breathing down their necks all the time. I don't think that success in life and happiness in life are linked only to how well we do in school. However, I know that among desi parents I will be part of a small minority.

  2. Yes, I agree, when I refer to Indian parents in the post, it actually means the urban middle class educated Indian parent. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, I shall include the disclaimer in the post, and welcome to the blog, thanks for adding your valuable comments.

  3. I definitely have mixed feelings about the "Tiger Mom" thing, and I appreciate your comments on it. As a child, I found that my mom's "all I care is that you do your best" (paired with a Look that made me feel like she could see my soul) was far for effective for me than my dad's "no child of mine will get less than an A in math" approach. My mom's approach made me feel responsible for my actions; my dad's approach made me feel stifled and overwhelmed. With my mom, I knew I wasn't actually doing my best yet, and I didn't feel intimidated by the task anymore because I knew a C was ok as long as I really worked on it. With my dad, I felt like I couldn't measure up and I just wanted to quit. My mom's words still ring helpfully in my ears when I'm frustrated with a project, but I think my dad's words still contribute to my procrastination (I avoid a task because I don't think I know how to do it). Of course, this is also just my experience -- even my brother may have experienced those styles differently from me.

    It seems like A's parents put more pressure on his sister (who probably showed more GAT-type tendencies as a child) than on him. Part of it was being in an educational system they didn't understand. He went to college still not having study skills or being invested in his education, and it took being put on academic probation for him to really think about what he wanted in life and how to get it. He changed majors (from an Indian to a non-Indian field -- breaking his parents' hearts, of course) and carried almost a 4.0 from then on, and is now working on his PhD. He found his way (in a system that, as you point out, makes lots of room for second chances and average performers), but he acknowledges that he could've done more and had an easier time if his parents had realized that he was goofing off throughout school.

    When we talk about parenting, we think about how to balance our messages to our kids. I was raised with a "if you join the team, you finish the season, no matter what" mentality, and took a long time to learn that it was ok to quit jobs I didn't like or to stop activities when I was overextended! However, I do think follow-through is important, and I'm grateful for that lesson. So we talk about how to teach our children balance -- you don't take quitting lightly, but there are times that it's ok to quit.

    I think that things like helping with homework, knowing what's going on in your kids' classrooms, and setting boundaries is good parenting for any style. My mom helped with countless school assignments and 4-H projects, and when I joined a recreational co-ed softball team this year, I was shocked at how my father's voice came back to me! I was a mess of emotions but a rule-follower and a pleaser who loved learning, so I'm not sure how my parents would have been different if I lagged in school. I remember it was notable when my brother got a C in high school English, but it was also acknowledged that writing was not his strength like math and leadership were (he now has an engineering degree and is career military, but still hates to read). As a parent, I hope to recognize true strengths and weaknesses, to foster strengths and build up weaknesses, to not pass my perfectionism on, and to convince my child that I can see his or her soul (my BFF and husband tell me I'm well on my way to that one).

  4. I read the article a long time back, I think her view is a bit extreme, but not insane, I grew up in a family that was in between liberal parenting and her Tiger Mom approach, we had to have extracurricular activities, and at least one of these HAD to be physical, but we had the choice of what we wanted to do, and had to stick to it for the whole duration of the course before changing our mind again.
    Weekends we family, and no friends allowed, board games, cycling, sailing, hiking and skiing were pretty much what we grew up on as Sunday was also a no tv day.
    My parents weren't fooling themselves into thinking school was the only tool of knowledge, so they made every dinner, open discussion, and we could talk about anything, sex, bombs, war, drugs, science, travels, parents believed there was no taboo topics, only age appropriate ways to explain something, they never lied about these topics too, they believed that it was their duty to equip us with honest knowledge of the world around us, because a few years after the graduation cap came off that might actually be that general knowledge and these discussion at the dinning table that would remain in our mind and put to good use...they were right...of course!

    My mom had a poem in her pre-school's lobby, titled "Our kids aren't ours" it was all about how as parents we can only be guides in our children's life, and how our job is to be the bow guiding the arrow on target. But that the target is not of our choosing, each child is different, and nuturing them to find their personnal best.

  5. I am blessed that my parent's believed in holistic approaches to education, pushing us to study but also to take part in arts, music and sports. Of course if we didn't like it they wouldn't push us. For example they signed my brother up for several sports when he was young but after a few years he wasn't very good and wasn't enjoying it so he could quit.

    I do wish they pushed me to study more though.

  6. I apologize for the delay in response.
    @ sara : what a lovely post. I too like you hope I can see through my children's soul and know what I'm supposed to do, I dunno how successful I will be at it though...parenting is one tough task I tell you....I think there is no parent in this world, who doesn't have any regrets no matter what their style of parenting is.

    @ Cyn : I loved your comment ! I really loved the end part, about us not owing our kids, and this is actually what I disagreed with most in the tiger mom's book (I have read the book after I wrote this piece), she seemed to thrust her ideas and preferences on her child, and I just couldn't understand that, wanting your child to do their best, and motivating them, and holding them to a high bar is one thing, but completely forcing your ideas on the child is over the top I felt. Like the poem, I completely agree that parents can only be the bow in their children's life, and guide the arrow, but where it ultimately lands is out of their hands, and this is something I feel many parents find difficult to digest.
    Your parents sound so cool cyn, I can only hope to do half as good a job as them, really..:).

    @ Julia : Like you I too feel that if my mom had just pushed me some more (even though she already was rather tough about academics), then maybe I would've become a doctor, as I regret not becoming now. I think no matter what parents do, children will hold them responsible somehow, for the problems in their life, or blame them for something, it's the curse of being a parent, I think.
    Thanks for all the lovely comments ladies...:-)


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