I sat in our suburban home in Shanghai and read online the excerpt from Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. My reaction to it was straightforward: Maybe a little over the top, but, yeah, that's about right. My wife's reaction: "I guess I'm not the toughest Chinese mother after all."
Our daughter, age 6, is in first grade. She's bilingual (Mandarin and English). She takes violin and ballet lessons. And she does two to three hours of homework a night, seven days a week. She is not Superkid. The fluency in English excepted ("An accident of birth," I remind her every time she comes home boasting about acing her latest English quiz), she's a normal kid. Pretty much every other child in her class at her Chinese school does the same stuff.
American-passport holder Abby Cui-Powell, in other words, is living a typical Shanghai childhood. That doesn't mean all work and no fun. She goes out to play with the kids in our neighborhood. And she watches movies. In fact, one of the reasons Abby's English is so good is that she spends time watching The Lion King and Toy Story. That's more freedom than Chua's kids were allowed, according to her book.
Chua may be extreme in the discipline she tries to impose, even by Chinese standards. But where she is not extreme is in the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of why she does what she does. The most important assertion she makes in the piece, in my view, is this: "Chinese parents assume strength, not fragility."
This is exactly right. The assumption undergirding my wife's attitude toward Abby's education at home is that life is tough, you have to be educated to get through it, and what we're doing is aimed toward that end. You may not like it very much now, but it'll be worth it.
So she takes the lead. My role is pretty much limited to English; I read to Abby often and help correct her spelling mistakes. Joyce does the heavy lifting. Each night, she drills Abby relentlessly in math and Chinese. (Joyce and I both were lousy in math as kids, so we're assuming that Abby's gene pool is missing a few chromosomes when it comes to numbers.) Sometimes Abby cries and mopes. But every single night, she does the work. If she gets it wrong, she does it over until she gets it right. And I see no evidence that she's turning into a tortured, malfunctioning kid.
Mind you, this is only first grade. The competitive pressure of the Shanghai school system intensifies as students get older and closer to the fateful collegeentrance exam that determines which university they can attend. We had lunch recently with friends whose daughter, a 10th-grader in an elite high school here, is frequently up until midnight doing homework. "It's too much," her father said. "Something has to change." This attitude is growing among middle-class Chinese parents, and the government is looking at ways to foster more creative thinking in schools.
But what you'll never see here is an adoption of what Chua calls the obsessive concern in the U.S. with a kid's self-esteem, which from my expatriate viewpoint has practically become a form of dementia among some parents: the Little Leagues in which they don't keep score, for example, lest the kids on the losing team get their feelings hurt.
There are things that are not quite right with Chua's piece. "What Chinese parents understand," she asserts, "is that nothing is fun until you're good at it." That's not only wrong, it's ridiculous. Kids even Chinese kids! enjoy sports at all levels, not just the Olympics. Abby, unprompted, loved to draw from an early age, and like everyone else, she started with stick figures.
But the bottom line, to me, is the studies Chua cites reporting that Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day as Western parents "drilling academic activities." Even if it's only three times as long, that's still a lot. Whatever Chua's excesses and don't worry, we don't call Abby "garbage" if she flubs a math problem when it comes to a child's education, having a Chinese mother is a big advantage; I'm very glad my daughter has one.