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
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.
23 thoughts on “Not Asian enough: Jan Wong on the phenomenon of “Tiger Mom” parenting”
I worked in China for several years and I have to agree that Shanghai truly is a magnet for overachievers from all over the world. Toronto is referred to as the most multicultural city but Shanghai competes for this position because of the sheer numbers of North Americans, Europeans and non-Chinese Asians that move there to live, work and study.
I really enjoyed this article because it is a more accurate depiction of my Asian friends in Toronto than anything uttered by the awful Amy Chua. Wong’s assertion that the government plays on our insecurities in the “Other” during times of financial instability is absolutely true (I recently crossed the border into the U.S. with my issued-in-Shanghai Canadian passport and was told by the customs agent that I made a mistake in going overseas and consorting with the enemy). It’s insane paranoia.
If Amy Chua wants to be a dysfunctional parent, let her. I’ve seen young Asian students in China who were raised in similar situations as Chua promotes and let me tell you, successful they are not (unless you consider them crying to teachers regularly about their deep emotional troubles or overall misery in their chosen-by-their-parents field success).
I’ll be content if my kids grow up wanting at least to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall.
As a mother of two and grandmother of five- I find this topic interesting since I have been there and now I am a Grandmother of five. Times haven’t changed that much because we all want successful, happy well-adjusted children but we need to take time out and really look at this issue. I have tried the Amy Chua’s method — to force my children to do what I want. Instead I learned something from them – that they are strong willed individuals, much stronger than me. I tried to find their interests and their strong points and encourage them to pursue their own path – In the end I was lucky because they turned out to be great human beings – children I could be proud of — Isn’t that what parenting all about?
As a psychotherapist in private practice for 30 years and the author of a book on parenting, I”m not surprised that American parents are considering a memoir as a guide for child rearing. American children are more depressed, anxious, entitled and unmotivated than they have been in many years. Parents are over-indulging children in most areas – material goods, bad behavior, and praise for the most mundane of accomplishments. Being an authoritative, yet loving parent produces the most well-adjusted and happy children. It’s not that hard. American parents need to educate themselves.
I have posted a video parody of tiger mom, for those who want a smile. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zrdoOPOGp8
Sheri Noga – Author of “Have the Guts to Do it Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence”
Jan makes an important point – if parents only concentrate on their children’s academic achievement, who will help them cultivate their emotional intelligence and street smarts? I have tended to leave the academic aspect to the teachers – that’s what they’re trained to do. My emotional energy goes into encouraging and trusting them to try new things, with the ever-present possibility of failure.
The implication in this article is that all Chinese moms whack their kids with Chopsticks, raise low EQ adults and run the family like Genghis Khan.
If this author was white she would be branded a racist.
I agree with Sheri that:
“Parents are over-indulging children in most areas – material goods, bad behavior, and praise for the most mundane of accomplishments. Being an authoritative, yet loving parent produces the most well-adjusted and happy children.”
Handling children with “kid gloves” (no pun intended) and completely acquiescing to their demands is not the best way to approach things. Amy Chua’s position is a bit too extreme but I do believe that you must expect more from your children and hold them to a higher standard of behaviour and success.
I grew up with strict Chinese parents who would yell at me if I didn’t know my multiplication tables or didn’t finish my dinner. They also instilled discipline and I get that after all my years of schooling. However…I have a pretty good EQ and I understand the value of being well-rounded and having balance in my life. I was allowed to play video games, hang out with friends and watch TV, but only in moderation…no matter how much I objected. But that mentality gets into you and it stays with you forever. I consider myself better adjusted than a lot of non-Asian people…so the argument that strict discipline doesn’t develop EQ is crap. It is a stereotype developed by parents who themselves, could not control their own kids only to see other children outperforming theirs…and needed a defence mechanism to cope. That’s what it is.
Jan Wong…wrong once again.
“I’m a bad Chinese mom” — Actually Jan, you are a white mom who only looks Chinese. Because you look Asian, you feel you have the right the rain down on them.
Do you have any pride in your culture at all?
Please look in the mirror once in a while.
Actually, anonymous, in reply to Jan, your implication that just because she criticizes Chinese culture, that must make her white and a racist? Or is one to believe that instilling pride in one’s culture means that above all, all aspects of the Chinese culture must be praised?
“I’m a bad Chinese mom” – Actually, you’re not. Because you’ve pretty much deprived your kids of what is central to being a Chinese mom – a Chinese dad.
I heartily agree with this article. I’m just writing a book addressing the fact that many employers in the UK are complaining that the school leavers (and some graduates too) aren’t fit for purpose. The school’s have focussed on achieving exam grades to the detriment of the pupils learning interpersonal and soft skills – but it turns out that the soft skills = hard cash. It’s back to that maxim of the hard skills getting you the cv, but the soft skills landing you the job. I now TEACH soft skills, not only to school leavers but to academics and professionals because they’re realising that all the brains and degrees in the world, don’t amount to much if you can’t relate to and convey your value well to others. And the soft skill that seems hardest to learn of all? Listening! Hmm.
I like this article. It’s the reason we import intelligence every year to fulfill the nation’s educational shortcomings… At least the kids will be good people :-)
MORE SOFT REPORTING by TL and Ms. Wong. Ms. Wong fell into the trap that other reporters on this story did by latching on to a sensational headline and excerpt, by taking the EASY way out of JUST criticizing, without doing proper research. If she did, Ms. Wong would have realized that she is in agreement with Chua, who came to the same conclusion at the end of her book: that being a Tiger mom will not necessarily result in a happy successful child. Ms. Wong’s arguments are valid, but she put herself in the wrong corner. Bad reporting. I’ve really had enough of Ms. Wong’s racializing stories behind a veneer of how “Canadian” she is. Maybe she is compensating for her own feelings of insecurity that she may have with her race. I feel that being a Canadian born Chinese is interesting and complex, which Ms. Wong shamefully over-simplifies in order to fish for compliments.
Thoughtful article. I think the thing is that none of us knows whether we are good parents or not–and self criticism is important. The aspect of Chua that makes me most suspicious is that she is so certain her methods produce the “best” children.
How can someone believe that and parenting style can achieve that?
I find Jan’s article interesting and more objective than Amy’s. Amy is a Yale professor and should be more cognizant of the fact that such credential adds credibility as well as responsibility. Unfortunately Amy’s article is biased with way too much generalization of the “Chinese” culture, that even myself a Chinese, not sure what Amy refers to. A Canadian-Chinese born in Hong Kong, and educated in Canada and worked in Canada, China and throughout Asia, I have many ethnic Chinese friends of different “nationalities”. To generalize any culture the way Amy does is beyond my comprehension.
If it works then great? If it doesn’t then try again. As parents we want the best for our child. So why is she wrong for what she does. On the other hand I know people who have killed themselves under the same pressure… Maybe there is some middle ground
excellent viewpoint on the Tiger mom issue. I completely agree with you.
At the same time, balance is important, and I think you’re doing everything I will probably do (no kids yet).
I love the viewpoint about how Chinese govt’ is promoting more creativity and leisure time, a complete 180 of what we try to do here (or in Chinese culture).
Jan wong needs to check her facts. School smarts (Magna) trounced street smarts (Net Worth) on The Apprentice. What does that inaccuracy do to Ms. Wong’s entire theory?
Wong is so cought up in her ego and her ethno-centricities that she has actually lost herself in trying to make a point. While you may look Chinese on the outside, realize that you are little more than the ‘banana’ that you are. Sad, very sad indeed.
“I freely admit that I’m a bad Chinese mom. I do not whack my sons with chopsticks.”
I was born and raised in Scarborough but am of Afghan nationality and am now in my mid-twenties. I have had a few Chinese friends growing up and trust me, chopsticks weren’t used to beat them. What my Chinese friends were whacked with was similar to what my Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and many other cultured friends were whacked with.
I’ll get to the point…I just hope you read the comments written by Toronto Life readers at the bottom of your articles. Maybe it will help you to learn a few things about the way you think.
Children are individuals and they all respond differently to a degree to any stimulus or lack off. Consider that students are subjected to twelve years of being told to line up and walk on the right but adults walk all over the place like a herd of cattle, so much for education and discipline.Most people live very ordered lives, they go to school graduate then get a job then eventually they marry and have a family and considerer themselves adventurous if they climb Kilamanjaro. Parenting combined with the subtle pressures of society to often beat the spontanaity out of people. Tiger moms are little different than helicopter moms and the attitudes seem to cross racial and cultural boundaries. Often I find Ms. Wongs writing annoying but this article is pretty good and creates discussion. I hope she enjoys fredericton, tom hickie fredericton
this article itself is a total garbage, jan wong should read the whole book and understand the whole idea and write something to publish. substract any sentence that is irelavate and comment for the whole book that is subjective and misleading… I read the whole book, and really inspired by the passion of live and love this tiger mother have.
I am a chinese mother, living in germany.. the sucess in acdemic doesn’t mean you have to be unhappy for life and low EQ, that is very narrowminded thinking.
Does anyone ‘get’ satire these days?
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