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February 25, 2011

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The uproar over tiger moms

Fierce "tiger mothering" has been around in China but when children are driven to excel, the tigress techniques have triggered a debate over effectiveness and cruelty. Wang Jie and Yao Minji report.

There's a lot of talk about parenting these days, especially since Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" shocked many parents in the West with her boot camp-like discipline.

The furious discussion - involving some children who say they have been psychologically maimed by tiger moms (hu ma) - has reached China.

The Chinese translation of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" has generated heated discussion in China, especially online, and the pro-tigers outnumber the tiger bashers.

"Being a Mother in America," the Chinese title, was released in mid-January, only a few days after its English publication in America. The controversial best-seller in States sold more than 100,000 copies in less than a month, a lot in China.

The book made a stir on weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, even before its China release.

Some Chinese celebrities re-tweeted American critics of the book and were upset about Chua seeming to represent Chinese mothers and Oriental values. Numerous netizens then criticized the critics of Chinese-style education without having read the book.

"The book is not all about her children and domestic affairs. She also has very interesting reflections on the distinction between Chinese and Western education, based on her experience as a Chinese American," Wang Feifei, editor of the book's Chinese edition from Citic Press Corp, tells Shanghai Daily.

Wang started the project last March, long before the book was published in States. She was impressed by Chua's vivid description of family education as well as her reflections on Chinese and Western values in general.

She recommends Chinese readers to view the book as an encouraging biography rather than a guide to child education.

After it was published, the book was ranked among the top 10 best-sellers on China's major book sales sites, and

"Judging from comments on sales websites, it seems that 70-80 percent of Chinese readers agree with Chua's methods or at least consider her story useful. Most teachers also agree with her while education experts have rather divergent ideas," Wang says.

Many self-reporting surveys on major sites including weibo also show more followers than critics. One of Chua's fans is Michelle Zhang, a 29-year-old communications manager at an advertising firm, who has a three-year-old son.

"My foreign colleagues are so shocked by some details of the book, especially where Chua would call her daughters idiots and threaten to burn their dolls. But this seems natural to me and many other Chinese, who grew up in an even stricter environment. And our ancestors have been like that for thousands of years," Zhang says.

She still remembers how her mother, even stricter than Chua, smacked her palms with a wooden stick when she violated house rules or got bad grades.

And her father played the nice guy to balance it out, as her parents had agreed before she was even born.

Zhang's parents swear by the ancient Chinese (and universal) saying, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," and so does Zhang.

"Of course, I don't plan to hit my son physically as my parents hit me," she says. "But strictness is essential. I must train and discipline him when he is little."

On the other hand, readers like Zhu Ling, a 33-year-old entrepreneur, vow not to treat their children the way their parents treated them.

"Maybe I have to thank my mom for what she made me do to achieve who I am now. But I still think it was much too painful. I don't want my two-year-old daughter to experience the same pressure and unpleasant feelings," she says.

The common admonition among parents is "Don't let your child lose at the starting line of life's race." Even if they want a happy childhood for their child, the pressure is too great.

Today children are always on their way to class, in class, taking after-school classes, doing homework, and taking enrichment and advanced classes on weekends and on holidays.

It is common to see children on the back of a bicycle or in a car going to after-school classes in English, "Olympic" mathematics, Chinese, swimming, tennis, piano and many other subjects.

Parents put all their hopes and unfulfilled dreams on the shoulders of their only child.

Shanghai Daily spoke with three mothers - an extreme tiger, an ambivalent tiger and a pussycat.

Tiger mom

"I don't think there is anything wrong with this kind of education," says Sherry Li, who has a 10-year-old daughter.

Li is married to a Japanese engineer who mostly works in Japan. Li works for a Japanese company in Shanghai.

Her daughter's schedule is packed, terribly packed.

"Besides homework, she now studies English, mathematics, Japanese, tennis and piano in her spare time," says her mother. Training started when she was only three.

"Don't talk to me about the freedom of a child," Li says.

"If I leave her with free time, it would be a waste. She would play computer games or watch television, and that would be no good for her future. So I take over all her spare time," she explains.

"I bet the competition in the future will be much more ferocious than we expect. It's better to be prepared. The more skills and knowledge she grasps, the more likely she will be able to get opportunities ahead of her peers."

Her approach is a sharp contrast with the Chinese saying, "raising a son in a tough way while raising a daughter gently."

Most Chinese believe that men undertake more social and family responsibilities than women, so boys need to be trained to be tough and that methods should be stricter.

"I don't agree, since there will be no gender differences in the future," says Li.

"I don't want my daughter to find a man to rely on when she grows up. She should be independent and strong. Some of my friends joke that I am grooming my daughter to marry a rich man's son or the son of a powerful leader. They are totally wrong. I am not training a perfect wife for others."

Li firmly believes that the excellence achieved by children by the age of 12 is the direct result of their parents' effort.

"I can tell you, the IQ of each child is almost the same," she asserts.

"It is better to spoon-feed them the information and knowledge as early as possible."

Now she feels vindicated.

Her daughter is studying at the Shanghai Experimental Primary School in Pudong New Area, one of the city's top schools and famous for cramming 12 years of education into 10 years.

Ambivalent tiger

Rebecca Shi, who has a 12-year-old son, is overwhelmed by the amount of work Li demands of her daughter.

"I cannot sacrifice my time the way she has sacrificed hers," Shi says. "I doubt this approach is good for every child."

Her son goes to a school that supports "happy education," meaning less homework and more fun. "But when I see some of his peers learning lots of extra things, I get a bit concerned," she confesses.

"Maybe I'm not a devoted mother, but I can't convince myself to waste my spare time sending or taking him to different classes after school."

But her son is still studying English, mathematics and chess after school.

"I used to tell myself I would give my boy a childhood, but now I don't have the nerve to continue when I see what other parents are doing. I would be ashamed in front of my son's classmate who can play good tennis, play the flute well and speak perfect English."

She does know a few parents who let their children enjoy their spare time, but these people have guanxi, or social connections, so the child doesn't have to perform well.

"These parents have incredibly strong family background, which means they can control the future of their children. They can arrange the best schools, high schools and universities, and then an excellent job after graduation.

"But what about me? I'm a nobody. Actually, I'm rather upset and often get angry at my husband who often reminds me that our son is missing a happy childhood."

In China, scores have become virtually the only standard by which to determine a child's value and deciding which schools he or she will attend - and hence, his or her future.

Therefore, parents drive their children to succeed, and this leads to tiger parenting.

Normally, a quality primary school guarantees enrollment in a quality high school, which leads to a prestigious university. People tend to believe that a diploma from a prestigious university provides more and better job opportunities than one from a less well-known school.

No tiger

American John and Pat Wilson are much more relaxed than Chinese parents, when it comes to rearing their three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

The couple are running a small consulting business in Shanghai.

"We respect our children. We try to communicate with them and be fair. As parents we should respect their choices and decisions and by doing so teach them that they should respect their parents and other people," says John Wilson.

They believe it is more important to inspire and encourage children to do things they are interested in, so they have the passion to motivate themselves through the learning process.

Of course, there must be discipline. For instance, he says, if a child wants to learn dancing, the family will pay for it but the child must finish their sessions.

"It's very hard for us to believe what that tiger mother (Amy Chua) did to her two daughters and even harder to believe how proud she is of describing the terrible things she did to her own kids.

"We have been hearing stories about Chinese kids committing suicide due to the pressure from their parents to excel in school."


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