Not Asian enough: Jan Wong on the phenomenon of “Tiger Mom” parenting

Not Asian enough: Jan Wong on the phenomenon of “Tiger Mom” parenting

The furor over Tiger Mom parenting ignores one awkward fact: academic success doesn’t guarantee a sparkling future. Confessions of a delinquent mother

(Image: Peter Arkle) 

I freely admit that I’m a bad Chinese mom. I do not whack my sons with chopsticks; neither of them speaks Chinese; and a couple of years ago, I was thrilled when one of them doubled his math mark (at summer school—don’t ask). Which is why I’m bemused by all the angst, outrage and uproar over super-achieving Asian kids and their Genghis Moms.

Culture and competition make for a volatile mix, especially in Toronto, where we come from every part of the world, and especially during uncertain economic times, when people are worried about job security and who’s outperforming whom. It’s at moments like these that politicians and the media, consciously or unconsciously, tend to exploit the West’s simmering insecurities about The Other. They hint, for instance, that we are losing ground to China and even to our own Chinese-Canadian population.

It’s all so tiresome. As we prepare the next generation for survival in a global economy, these folks keep wanting you to think that someone else, right beside you, is about to eat your lunch. Rob Ford is guilty of it. “I’m telling you, Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over,” he infamously said back in 2008. “[They] work like dogs.… They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they are successful in life.”

The outburst is worth repeating only because he now runs a city that is 11 per cent ethnic Chinese. Last fall, Maclean’s echoed the Yellow Peril theme. “Too Asian?” queried its inflammatory headline. The article led with complaints from two anonymous Havergal graduates about how “Asians” at the University of Toronto work too hard, making it difficult for “non-Asians” to compete. That story was itself a reprise of a dusty old 1979 CTV documentary, “Campus Giveaway,” which portrayed Chinese-Canadian students as “foreigners” and accused them of usurping university spots in engineering, pharmacy and medicine.

Most recently, Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, jolted the chatterati with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it, she slams weak-willed parenting by Westerners—she uses the term loosely to include wussy parents of any ethnicity—and contends that Chinese parents rightly “assume strength, not fragility” in their children. She also shares this rather un-Hallmark moment. At age four, her daughter Lulu gave her a crayoned, happy-face birthday card. Tiger Mom scrawled “I reject this” along with a sour face on the back of the card, saying she “deserved” better because she spent “half her salary” on balloons, clowns and party favours for her daughters’ birthdays.

Chua’s parenting philosophy went viral after the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her book, headlined, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The most quoted bit was this: “Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than an A; not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; play any instrument other than the piano or violin; not play the piano or violin.”

Initially I assumed this had to be a spoof, like those dumb Internet jokes. “Chinese parent to child: ‘Your blood type is B+! Why not A?’ ” Chua has since insisted she was trying to be funny, in a deadpan sort of way. Here’s my take: Chua’s not funny; she’s a nutter and a narcissist.

The claim to superior parenting plays on prevailing stereotypes. Students in Shanghai did recently come first in reading, math and science, outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, according to results released in December by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But Shanghai, a city of nearly 20 million, also happens to be a magnet for overachievers.

The truth is, in China, slacker parents have produced a generation of disobedient, self-centred only-children. Authorities there have just announced, for instance, that they are considering a law to force adult children to visit their aging parents—this, in the land that invented filial piety. And while North American Tiger Moms like Chua are busy trying to instill the so-called Asian work ethic in their kids, in China there is growing concern about a creativity deficit in an educational system that emphasizes rote learning. Growing, a Chinese state-published magazine distributed to 30 elite schools in Beijing, even advocated that kids not study during the recent Lunar New Year break, a time when students typically shut themselves away with homework. “It’s a holiday, let the children play to their heart’s content.”

If Tiger Moms everywhere had less Far-East wisdom and more common sense, they would realize that success in school does not equal success in life. Or, for that matter, in the workplace. Numerous studies show that EQ, not IQ, is a far better indicator of success. EQ, or emotional quotient—also known as EI, emotional intelligence—is the ability to tune in to the world, to read situations and connect with others while taking charge of your own life. In short, it’s the difference between braininess and savviness. It’s a signalling system, first recognized by Darwin in 1870, that’s key to evolutionary survival and adaptation.

One of the leading experts on EQ is the clinical psychologist Steven J. Stein, CEO of Multi-Health Systems Inc., a psychological-test publishing company in Toronto. His books include Emotional Intelligence for Dummies and (as co-author) EQ Edge, Emotional Intelligence and Your Success. “EQ is about perceiving and managing your emotions,” he says. “For instance, calming others, not losing it, not saying something stupid.”

Unlike Tiger Moms, businesses caught on to the link between EQ and performance more than a decade ago. Back in 1999, Stein conducted research for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were looking at the role of EQ in the selection of draft picks. “We found that the lower the EQ in hockey players, the more time they tend to spend in the penalty box,” says Stein, who then offers the memorable example of the time Tie Domi drew a penalty for a head hit, leading to his suspension and the end of the Leafs’ playoff run that season.

More recently, Stein helped to screen potential contenders for the Donald Trump television series The Apprentice. “In every case, the eventual winner of the show had higher EQ than IQ,” says Stein. That data inspired a segment on the show called “School Smarts vs. Street Smarts,” in which entrepreneurs without degrees trounced Ivy League MBAs.

One standard EQ test involves asking subjects to identify emotions displayed in photos of faces—the better we are at discerning the correct emotion, the higher our EQ. “In all occupation groups that we have tested, from bank employees to airline pilots to engineers, lawyers and physicians, those with a high EQ tend to be better performers than those with a high IQ,” says Stein. “As for children,” he adds, “to be number one in your class in math may not amount to a whole lot in the long run if you can’t communicate or get your ideas across to others.”

That’s heartening for someone like me who has chosen not to be an Attila the Mom. Of course, the choice wasn’t entirely voluntary: whatever math imperative my progenitors might have had when they arrived in Canada 131 years ago was lost by the time it got to me (and to my son—hence summer school). That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the other extreme—indulgent, permissive, supposedly self-esteem-boosting helicopter parenting. I’ve never let my kids kick the back of someone else’s seat at a movie theatre. They’ve helped cook and clean since they were toddlers. When they were 10 or 11, I let them navigate the TTC alone. And when my younger son, a goalie, loses a hockey game, I don’t say, “Good effort.” I just keep my mouth shut.

Still, it’s hard to completely escape one’s upbringing. As a kid, when I refused to practise the piano, my mother would chase me around the house, brandishing chopsticks. After one chopstick whack too many, I quit the piano. OK, I had no talent. But in high school I started the flute, which I still play today. To pass on my love of music to my boys, I sent them to piano lessons (but hardly ever made them practise). A few years later, they dropped piano when their teacher went deaf.

Chua, who was raised in the U.S., got whacked with chopsticks for every English word she spoke at home. As far as I know, she hasn’t pulled out the chopsticks on her own kids, though she unabashedly shares some other Ancient Chinese Secrets for raising prodigies. She says, for instance, that “Westerners” don’t make their kids practise enough: “For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.” While supervising Sophia, her older daughter, at the piano, Chua threatened: “If the next time’s not perfect, I’m going to take your stuffed animals and burn them.” Sophia performed in competition at Carnegie Hall when she was 14. She also left bite marks on the family piano. As Stein puts it: “You can demand excellence from your children, as long as you’re willing to sacrifice happiness along the way.”

Tiger Moms like Chua assume that personal achievement is the key to a fulfilling life—or, put more simply, that success leads to happiness. But I think it’s the other way around: happiness is the litmus test of a successful life. My boys have never played at Carnegie Hall. I don’t care. If I did—and if I were one of those self-esteem-boosting Western parents—I might rent it for them (it costs $1,525 for a weekday afternoon). One of my sons did eventually ask for violin lessons—both classical and Cape Breton fiddling. The other chimed in with a request for a cello. I happily obliged, though this time I insisted that they couldn’t quit until they finished high school. I figured it would give them an added incentive to graduate.