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February 25, 2011

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'Cat father' rears Harvard student

CHANG Zhitao's 19-year-old daughter Chang Shuai was admitted to Harvard University last year and she had to persuade her parents to let her go. They had wanted her to go to Hong Kong or stay on the mainland and later study overseas.

But the girl is very independent and persistent and finally won out. Although she has discussed university majors with her family, the final decision will be her own.

What did it take, in addition to her own talent and hard work? What kind of parenting made her Harvard material?

In her case, the father Chang Zhitao played the dominant role in disciplining and overseeing her education through Shanghai Qibao Middle School.

Chang, asked about tiger moms and parenting, strongly disagreed with Amy Chua's approach and likened his own to that of a cat. Since everyone is talking about "tiger mothers" these days, people have nicknamed Chang a "cat father," and it fits.

"Educating children is just like dancing waltz with them, and the steps are as gentle as cat's," dad says. "Soft and tender" are how he describes it, but with reasonable discipline.

Chang works at a Chinese magazine, and his wife Zhang Yihong works in a law office. Chang says she is even more relaxed about parenting than he is - so he became the disciplinarian.

The style of parenting should be adjusted as a child goes through various stages of development, says Chang.

"I preferred a relatively stricter way of education before my daughter was 10 years old because her characteristics had yet to be formed and parental guidance was essential for future development."

When Chang Shuai was a child, her parents read to her every night. At first the family shared a one-room apartment. Chang was taking an MBA course and his wife was pursuing a doctoral degree, so reading and learning were natural; the household was one of study.

Chang required his daughter to do homework as soon as she got home and to develop good habits, like being on time for meals.

"If she was late, we wouldn't prepare meals for her or allow her to eat snacks as meals," Chang says.

He and his wife didn't set many other rules for her and didn't object to regular social activities.

"Her mother and I welcomed her classmates to our apartment, we hosted birthday parties and we didn't mind our daughter staying overnight at a classmate's house."

Confidence, kindness, honesty and independence are the most important qualities to develop in a child, Chang says.

"We invested a lot of time and energies in her education. Guidance and encouragement are both important."

After the girl was 10 years old, she had more freedom to make decisions.

"What she needed was more space of her own as her self-awareness awakened," her father says. But there was always guidance and study was a priority. He promised more freedom if she performed well.

"Giving children the right to make decisions can increase their confidence, as well the feeling of being trusted and admired, and so they will demand more of themselves and handle things better."

After she was 10, Chang Shuai was allowed to decide what to do first when she got home from school - she could read, watch TV cartoons or do her homework - in any order, as long as she got her homework done and did well in school.

She wasn't forced to study more, as long as she remembered that learning was the most important goal. She started playing the erhu, a two-string Chinese musical instrument, and developed an interest in modern dance.

Chang and his daughter would always discuss various topics about school and life, as well as what she wanted to do, what he thought she should do, and so on.

When she entered high school she wasn't so interested in discussions with her parents, she became more assertive and independent.

There were adolescent "obstacles," Chang says.

"Youngsters at that stage tend to be unwilling to listen to their parents and I decided to follow the pace of her own growth."

Chang would take his daughter to concerts, to shops to buy clothes, and even read fashion magazines with her.

Conflicts erupted.

When the family was awaiting word from universities where Chang Shuai had applied, there was a lot of tension and pressure in the house. Chang Shuai "acted impolitely" toward her parents but disputes were settled by talking things out.

"Extroverted, optimistic and independent" are how he describes his daughter.

She went to the United States on a student exchange program that meant she would not take China's National College Entrance Exam that year.

Afterward she was determined to study in the US, saying she could learn more overseas than in China and that she was confident of being admitted to the top US schools. She invited a student, who had gone to the US a year earlier, to discuss the experience with her parents.

"It was an eye-opening experience, which helped us make up our mind to let her go," Chang says.

Chang disagrees with tiger mother Amy Chua. "She imposes parents' ideas on children, ignores their demands and views kids as those being educated and shaped," he says, adding that parents can learn a lot from their children.

"She only seems to cultivates children's skills, while ignoring their personality and characteristics.

"Respect should be the core of family education," Chang concludes.


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