Sunday, 9 January 2011

how much parenting is enough?

I"D never heard of so-called Tiger Mothers before yesterday, but I suspect we'll be hearing the phrase again when Amy Chua's book comes out next month. (For those unwilling to pay for a subscription to read her essay in the Sunday Times, there's a non-paywalled summary here).
A Chinese-born mother of two daughters, both of whom were musical prodigies, Chua's basic argument is that there is no great mystery about why research constantly shows Chinese kids outperforming not only than other ethnic minorities but often white children at school. Producing a genius, she suggests, is easy: it just means no playdates, no sleepovers, no games, no acceptance of anything other than A grades (when she came second in a history contest as a child her father told her to 'never never disgrace me like that again') and intensive coaching at piano and violin that borders on the terrifying. (She readily admits telling her own daughter that if she didn't master a piano piece all her stuffed animals would be burned, and offering her recalcitrant three year old a choice between standing shivering outside in an icy Connecticut winter or learning the piano).
Your first thought on reading it is for the children: when do they play, relax or have fun in this regime? But my second was for the mother. When on earth does she do the same?
I initially assumed, reading about how she supervised piano practice for 90 minutes minimum a day and attended every one of the music lessons personally, that she must be a stay at home mother devoting her life to the zealous pursuit of perfection. Then I realised that she's a Yale law professor, which means she was presumably finding the time for all this frenetic uber-parenting on top of working.
Not many parents do it quite like Chua (although she says this is normal in Chinese immigrant families). But on a far lesser scale, many of us parent now more intensely and competitively than we were parented ourselves: more one-on-one time, more extra-curricular activities, more coaching and tuition on top of school (because everyone else seems to be doing it), more frantic competition although it's debatable how much good it ultimately does. And I also wonder how much that contributes to the pressure working parents feel themselves to be under.
It's arguable that a heavily diluted version of Chua's regime - limiting television, say, and encouraging kids to aim high - might be beneficial. But are tiger mothers the timely rebuke to lazy Western parents one suspects she feels herself to be? Or would some of us be better lowering, rather than raising, the parenting bar?


  1. Interesting post, as always. I'm of the 'lowering the bar' persuasion myself. But I was struck by the title, as I recently posted along similar lines on my own blog - only mine is about living with (and coming to terms with, and adjusting to) a severely disabled child. For a child who can do so little, the pressure on parents is a different kind of intense - there's an endless nagging fear that if you don't do enough, you'll miss some vital opportunity. And it drives you insane. Here's the link if you're interested:

  2. The methods that Chua uses are horrifying and abusive. Certainly there is emotional abuse, and with the story of threatening to make her three year old stand out in the snow, we could add physical abuse to that.

    It is so sad to see that she is raising her child in the same manner that she was raised.

    Children should be encouraged and supported to develop to their fullest potential, without fear of failure.

    A happy medium is needed. A child should be allowed to run, play and laugh as well as taught discipline and manners.

  3. By a happy co-incidence, I read this yesterday then watched C4 news about the Chinese PM's visit to Britain this evening. Turns out the Chinese need technology. Hothousing will produce perfect automatons, either for the factory floor or concert hall - take your pick. Excellent technicians yes but that approach doesn't produce innovators before you even begin to think about the ethics of parenting this way. Play based learning takes place at school up to age 6, but after that, extra-curricular play is even more important. 60% of the jobs our 5 year olds will do have not even been invented yet. Guess which country's education systems produce the best research scientists, innovators, creators? This lady will get some publicity and sell a lot of books but there's a reason why China despite it's population advantage and demonstrable ambition is not leading on innovation. Go figure.

  4. My feeling is that it's all very well, but if everyone raised their kids like this - well, we'd all be equally high-achieving (grade-wise, music exam wise, I mean). And equally miserable.

    What good does it do in the long run? I mean, how many of these kids will go on to be professional musicians after all those hours of practice? And presumably all those A Grades mean they will go on to work in a law firm or bank - along with the clever Western kids who have just taken a different route to get there. Great.

  5. @Bermondsey mum, my partner who works a lot in China said exactly what you say, where's the room for innovation, it's totally stifling. Stopped my moaning 14-year old in her tracks though when I forced her (only joking!) to read it.