Dissecting the hype over the ‘Tiger Mother’

This week’s column is a response to a reader’s request and an incessant number of articles in foreign and Chinese newspapers and magazines.

In the 1970 and 80s, when Japan’s manufacturing and financial might was peaking; Quality Circles, Total Quality Management, Kaizen and other ideas, influenced in part by W. Edwards Deming, whose ideas had been previously rejected in the United States, were the manias of the moment.

Japanese schools, educational systems and students were studied and lauded. Later, during its glory days, prior to absorbing its eastern sibling, Germany attracted some of the same attention for its gymnasiums and trade school systems.

It is a story that is older than the Romans and Greeks. One culture borrows what it admires about another culture. Today, it is the “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Cua, a book which paints the Chinese mother as the archetypal progenitor of the master race.

As they say, the only thing we seem to learn from studying history is that it always repeats itself.

At a time when China has just inked more than $45 billion in trade deals with the United States, we are naturally curious about how a country that didn’t have an economy to speak of, or a financial system, 30 years ago, is now our economic competitor and banker.

The question is good, but putting it down to a “secret sauce Tiger Mother” recipe or stereotypes, is just a knee-jerk simplification.

It is ironic that a book like this appears in the United States just as the Hurun Report (a Chinese cross between Forbes and Wealth magazines) is reporting that most wealthy Chinese are sending their children to Western schools to avoid the tyranny of an education system which emphasizes knowledge but not how to use it.

When we ascribe to Dr. Spock, Confucius, Plato, Mencius or the Paper Chase, we are responding to our times, culture, education and personal experiences. As parents, we have at our core a set of beliefs about life and how it works, which we try to pass on to our children.

The problem is that cultures and individuals differ, and what works for one does not work for another. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is an illustrated example of this; one child seemingly thrives while the other seemingly does not. It would be interesting to see how her two daughters approach their children’s education, assuming they have any.

There is a Chinese story that tells the tale of a man who found a horse. When people heard about it, they told him he was very lucky. He replied, “We will see”. A week later, his son fell off the horse and broke his leg. When people heard about this, they told him he was very unlucky. He replied, “We shall see.” A week later, the emperor’s soldiers came and took all the young men except the boy whose leg was broken. When the people heard about this, they said, “You are very lucky.” He replied, “We shall see.” As finite beings, we struggle to come to terms with and act in an infinite and often seemingly arbitrary universe. The ability to question defines us as human beings, but our beliefs and actions define us as individuals; Education is the process of passing those beliefs on to the next generation; given the wide spectrum of cultures and individuals and our different assumptions. It is doubtful there will ever be one approach to education, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

In terms of “Asian mothers,” if this was the simple recipe for producing superior offspring, then given there have been 5,000 recorded years of Chinese mothers, shouldn’t China have ruled the world for most of that time? Unfortunately, the success and buzz of this book will initiate imitators and debates about issues which matter, but which, like questions of faith, are difficult to resolve.

Anecdotally, 11 years ago you rarely saw a fat person or child in China. Today, you rarely see a child who is not. Walk by any McDonald’s or KFC after 4 p.m. or on the weekends, and you will see doting grandparents rewarding their chubby offspring’s superior grade with an edible treat. Go to one of the thousands of Internet cafes and see hundreds of plump students huddled in front of video screens, drinking sodas and munching on snacks. Diabetes is exploding as are heart issues, asthma and high blood pressure.

Since most families have only one child, let’s assume that every mother and father is trying, as best they can, to give their child what they need to be competitive and successful, while juggling their home and work lives. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is one person’s story, but is not representative of a nation or a race.

Ironically, the attitudes and efforts attributed to a “Chinese Mother” were, and for some still are, a part of the American way of life; reflected in the countless stories of self-made people who used education, hard work and determination to improve their and their children’s lives.

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