I came across the ‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua in a previous WSJ article earlier this year when I was still working in Melbourne. It seems as if the article nearly caused a collective heart attack across most of the Western parenting world. As soon as I saw a copy in a bookstore, I grabbed it and read it cover to cover in a few hours (it’s an easy read).
In a nutshell, Amy explains to her readers how Chinese mothers bring up their children, the traditional strict Chinese way – and how this in turn makes them develop into high performers better than the loving, individualism-nurturing Western method.
I believe any mother with school-going children (including pre-school going children like mine) would be interested to debate on this topic. Is the Tiger Mom method the best at producing the best adults? For sure, it results in children with significant classical music abilities (I still don’t really understand why the Chinese emphasize classical music – surely other areas can also distill excellence?) and straight As without fail (Amy is careful, though, not to bring up her girls into the robotic student types who “kill themselves as soon as they get an A-“ – Umm, that’s very considerate, Amy).
On the other hand, we are indeed seeing the beginning of the decline of Western civilization. You only have to read handful of the recent tweets on Twitter to understand this. American teenagers of this generation seem to have an innate inability to spell (confusing ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, for example) and lack basic discipline (get this: a t-shirt at JC Penney that reads ‘I’m too pretty for homework’.. ??!!).
I ponder over my own childhood and upbringing, which I consider to be in line with the middle-class Malay two-earner families in urban cities of Malaysia. Roughly categorizing it would put it in between the Chinese and Western model. My parents constantly put high expectations on grades and an all-rounded performance (co-curriculum, social skills, etc) but were pretty laid-back about how we went about achieving them. Just like most people, my mother was undoubtedly the biggest influence, advising us from which clubs to join, how to dress and walk (she still corrects our posture to this day) to the type of degree to read at university.
Alhamdulillah, all of us turned out well, although far from perfect and after we have acquired more than a few bumps on the road. All of us are working, all married, some with kids and are held up as decent people (only we know how much of this is true :P). However we definitely are not musical prodigies, lawyers/doctors (Amy seems to think only those types of professions would do for her family), and were not even straight-A types in school. Would we be counted as “the losers”, as she constantly warned her children not to be? And what about people who don’t fit the traditional success definition – hardworking, decent people who are firefighters, cops, fishermen or even normal executives? Are they losers, too? I think not.
I also detect some things missing from her way of life (as she depicted in her book). There was no mention of any spirituality – perhaps as she hinted, she was not much of a believer in God. She did not talk about any domestic help, other than hiring a nurse for her mother in law when she was dying of leukemia. Was she somehow a superwoman who managed to lecture, give talks, teach her students, fly home to pick up her kids to and fro music lessons, and yet magically produce a clean home, laundry and food on the table?
In my opinion, there are both rights and wrongs in both the Chinese and Western model. Amy dismissed the kids who killed themselves over grade ‘failures’ – yet we all know this happens constantly in China as well as overseas Chinese (as well as other races, but I’m betting it’s a lower probability). The western world has more hugs and love to offer their kids relatively, but do indeed produce distracted kids in an increasingly Snooki-fied world.
With my lack of experience and wisdom at this moment, I still believe that the Malay/Muslim upbringing is good and sound as it provides a spiritual base for kids to develop into good, God-fearing adults. Yet the challenge is also to harness the other points of Islam such as excellence, cleanliness and discipline. That much, we Muslims still have to work on.