Where the Tiger Mothers are
Since Amy Chua’s book on tiger parenting exposed the prevalent Chinese ethos in parenting, life has been hard. It’s impossible for a Chinese parent to have a child play well at a music concert without arched eyebrows from other parents thinking “Well, she must make them practice till all hours” and a good class report cannot go by without mutterings of “Well, her children must be tutored beyond belief”. Indeed, parents have come up to me in the school playground specifically to ask my advice about tutors, when anyone who reads my blog knows, I am anti professional tuition and am resisting the pressure to get a tutor and certainly know no tutors (although I reserve the right to crumble to the tutor fad closer to 11+!). Come parents evening, I generally nod obediently and keep my mouth shut, cowering behind Banker and poke him into action to ask the questions that we want answered lest the teacher labels me as “That typical Chinese tiger mother”. Banker, being Caucasian is allowed to ask questions about the children’s education without prejudice.
It was a surprise then that I recently encountered where the Caucasian Tiger Mothers are.
Big Sis recently sat a ballet exam. I am ambivalent on the issue of ballet. I have to confess that I did arrange for Big Sis to start ballet at age 3 years as who can resist the cuteness of little dumpling girls toddling about in pink tutus? I presumed that by age 7 years, she would have grown out of it as the discipline, the classical music and the strictness, didn’t seem to me to be overtly appealing to children. I thought she may have asked to change to drama or street dance, which are probably my preferences and were alternative options that I have muted each year. But no, Madam loves ballet. So I dutifully send her each week and give her due encouragement, and I attend the ballet shows and clap enthusiastically, but all the while thinking to myself: when will she get fed up of this as I don’t want her pursuing ballet seriously and developing an eating disorder in adolescence. It’s a prejudice I know, but for me ballet and eating disorders are just linked in my brain, and given a preference I’d like to think that Big Sis would’ve said “yes” to rocking out with the Skater Boy rather than ruefully going to his concert in years to come.
Big Sis and I ran like a pair of insane loons to this ballet exam, as typically we were LATE. Big Sis had her hair in a pony-tail, only by now, it was all tumbling out and her face was sweating like a pig from having been told to run like a madman or face a telling off by a stern Russian for tardiness. Big Sis was wearing white school socks instead of tights as it was a baking hot day and who wants to wear tights in the heat? Big Sis and I had just stuffed our faces with chocolate digestives because we were a bit peckish and crumbs tumbled from pink taffeta as we barreled in through the doors huffing and puffing.
When we arrived, we were met by the other girls and parents. 90% of the girls were tall, blond and with thigh girth smaller than my arms. Every girl without exception had their hair neatly pulled back into a perfect bun. Gel, wax and constellations of Kirby grips took a vice like hold on hair lest a strand fall out of place. Most of the girls had a full face of make-up on; they all wore tights not crumbs. Oops, was there a memo I missed about a dress code or were we to have intuited this? Parents fussed about and guided the girls as they dutifully underwent elaborate warm up stretches in the corridor. Meanwhile Big Sis stood in the corner fanning her sweaty nose.
“Phew” I said. “They’re running late so we haven’t missed it. We were running, now we are sweating like pigs.” I attempted to explain to another parent.
Arched eyebrows at my disorganization and pitying smiles from other parents, and I got the sense that I had not correctly judged the seriousness of this ballet exam. Then, what I hadn’t anticipated. The Spanish inquisition:
“So when did Big Sis move into this ballet class?”
“Are you sure she is at the correct exam? Some of her class mates were being examined in the earlier exam.”
“My daughter is doing ballet 3 times a week. How many times a week is Big Sis doing ballet?”
And so on.
As I muttered “I dunno. We came at the time we were told”, I started to feel perplexed about this excessive interest into what I felt to be an irrelevant extra-curricular activity that I was forced to enthuse about because my kid found it fun. Then I began to feel a strange sense of familiarity at the questions I was being asked. These questions were recognizable and I and others I know have asked these questions before. They were just like the questions Chinese parents ask each other about maths and English exams!
“So how long has your child been at Kumon?”
“Which grade piano is your child taking this year?”
“How many times a week do you set them extra maths homework?”
If and when my kids are required to sit for academic exams, you can bet that we would be early, sitting outside the exam hall probably swotting up on home-made exam cards of some description.
So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.
It’s sort of cool to feel vindication and that it is not just the Chinese that are a tad pushy after all. It’s just that for the Chinese the focus of achievement is on academics and music, whilst for Westerners it’s sport. Banker recalls similar parents at swim meets when he swam in junior national swim teams in South Africa. Many of his team mates rebelled against their ambitious parents and refused to continue swimming in adolescence because of it. It’s funny that I am sure that Judy Murray (and any parent of a top athlete) did her fair share of threatening, cajoling and bribing her sons to get out of bed and get to training for long hours when they didn’t want to, yet she is a national treasure, whilst a parent that used similar parenting practices to target academic achievement would be vilified.
Having initially felt intimidated and antagonized, I felt serenely at one with these other parents. Still, as a Chinese parent I can’t for the life of me understand why ballet should be the target of such efforts. At least with academics, half-hearted success at maths will still land your child a decent job, whilst even the top students in a ballet (or any sports) class are unlikely to make a career of it…
Each to their own I guess.
great article! I actually think the academic tiger mums are far more common than you may think. The issue is that being competitive in sports is socially acceptable here, whereas pushing your children academically is more frowned upon. So in my observation, English parents push their children a lot academically as well, but they all do it secretly and are very hypocritical about it. They will always say “we did nothing but she is so bright, that’s why she is doing so well!”, whereas Asian parents are far more honest and say “she did well because we worked hard, and it is my achievement as a parent that I made my child work hard”. I remember when my kids did well in exams, Western parents would say “oh, your kid is so clever!”, whereas Asian parents would congratulate me and say “well done for working hard with your child and make this happen!”
Believe you me, there’s no shortage of academically-minded white tiger parents, they just tend to talk a lot more about nerd pride too.
Have you seen http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/ ?
Interesting read, thanks for the link!
“At least with academics, half-hearted success at maths will still land your child a decent job, whilst even the top students in a ballet (or any sports) class are unlikely to make a career of it…”
Half-hearted success at maths WITH enough success at people skills to pass a job interview, stay employed in an office with coworkers, not drive clients and customers away, etc. will still land your child a decent living. 🙂
The problem with tiger parenting isn’t what they do encourage their kids to learn at all, it’s what they DISCOURAGE their kids from learning.
You’re right to compare the pushy academic parents to the pushy ballet parents! To take your point a step further, remember that the labor market doesn’t have room for millions of Misty Copelands AND it doesn’t have room for millions of Temple Grandins either (I don’t have autism and the stereotypes of high-functioning autism look an awful lot like the mold my own tiger parents tried to bend and break me into fitting).
Pressuring one’s kid to excel at ballet or excel at being unsocial is a lot like the stage parenting yet other people do. The labor market doesn’t have room for millions of Angelina Jolies either.
In all three cases, the pushy parent’s childrearing is investing in *lottery tickets*. There’s a tiny chance of success (being the next Misty Copeland, Temple Grandin, or Angelina Jolie) and a big chance of the child reaching adulthood left with nothing (far less than half-hearted success at all of the other necessities for a decent life in the outside world).