By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent
It’s been four years since Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and the book still sparks strong debate.
Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age from Maya Thiagarajan takes a more measured approach, looking at the best of educational practices from both the Asian and Western points of view.
Thiagarajan takes a global experience, having lived in India, Singapore and the United States. She did her undergraduate work at Middlebury College in Vermont before getting her Masters in education at Harvard.
She’s launched her teaching career with Teach for America based out of a public school in Baltimore. She’s also taught at some of America’s most prestigious private schools, as well as English at the United World College of Southeast Asia in Singapore.
Below is a question and answer with Thiagarajan about education in the Eastern and Western world.
What is your opinion of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom?
To start with, I want to say that my book is very different from Amy’s in multiple ways. Her book was essentially a memoir about her own personal parenting style. In contrast, my book is written largely from the perspective of an educator who has taught in the East (Singapore) and the West (the US); in my book, I synthesize lots of educational research and tell the stories of numerous Chinese and Indian parents who live in Singapore. The thesis of my book is that both East and West have vastly different strengths, and a global parent can blend the best of both approaches to raise successful kids.
My own response to Amy’s book was mixed. I think that many of her observations about Asian parenting styles are fairly close to what I found when I interviewed parents here in Singapore. However, there were some parts of her book where her strategies seemed quite extreme – even by Singapore standards! I also thought that part of the book was satirical and self-deprecating, and that too many readers missed the humor in the book. Personally, I thought it was an enjoyable read!
In your opinion, what is it about parenting in America that is holding
back our children’s education?
Firstly, it’s impossible to generalize about American parenting or about American education. The country is too big, and there are too many different kinds of schools and homes to make any kind of sweeping statement about “American parents.” I started my teaching career with Teach For America, where I spent two years teaching at a very tough middle school in Baltimore City. The problems with parenting and education in that context were very complex, and they were highly influenced by external factors like poverty and violence. In contrast, later in my career, I taught at very elite and competitive private schools in Boston and New York. In these elite contexts, students worked very hard but often struggled with anxiety; sometimes they were too entitled and not connected enough to their families.
In my book, I examine some of the education rhetoric in the US, and one thing I found interesting is that most education and parenting literature in the US portrays children as “victims” of poor teaching, poorly designed curriculum, or insensitive adults. Instead of holding kids accountable for their own learning (as Asian systems do), American education rhetoric typically blames the adults in the community, along with external factors like curriculum. I think that this is actually a disservice to kids. They need to be held accountable for their own learning far more. If a child is underperforming in school, instead of making excuses for the child by blaming teachers or parents or curriculum or external circumstances, the adults in charge need to help the child see that he or she needs to work harder.
How does this differ from Asian parenting?
One of the mothers I interviewed for my book was a Chinese Singaporean mom married to an American man. She told me that when their daughter misbehaves, her American husband’s instinct is to “make excuses” for the daughter by saying that “she’s tired/hungry/upset etc.” In contrast, she believes that her daughter must take responsibility for her actions and she scolds her daughter. Her rationale was that it doesn’t matter if her daughter is hungry or tired, she still has to learn to behave herself. I think that this difference between seeing a child as a victim of external circumstances versus as a person who must take responsibility for her actions seems to be a distinctive difference between American and Asian approaches. Again, one can’t generalize about all American or all Asian parents, but in my conversations and work, I have noticed this difference on many occasions.
I also think that Asian parents do push their children harder, but this pushing happens in the context of a “team effort,” where parents and children see themselves as a combined unit, not as separate individuals. In other words, since Asia is a much more collectivist society than the US, the line between parent and child is very blurred. Asian kids are often told that their behavior and their academic performance is a reflection of the family, and if they fail, then the whole family loses face. Given this kind of societal context, most kids here in Singapore don’t resent the pressure that is placed on them, but rather feel as though they should work hard not just for themselves but also for their families.
How do you distinguish between parenting by parents in Asia and Asian
I think that Asian American immigrant parents face far more cultural dissonance than their counterparts in Singapore. In Singapore, most parents find that their values and parenting style are largely endorsed and reinforced by mainstream society and by the schools. In contrast, Asian immigrants who parent using Asian approaches may find themselves constantly encountering censure and criticism from mainstream society, and their kids too might find themselves caught between two worlds – the world of their home and the world of school/mainstream American. So Asian American parents have to adapt more to a Western context.
What are the disadvantages of Asian parenting?
In my book, I spend quite a bit of time examining some of the issues that plague parents and kids in Singapore. For example, 90% of Singaporean teens are myopic, and doctors on the island think that this is because most kids spend all their time indoors studying. Kids here need a lot more time outside in nature, and they need more free unstructured time to play.
Sometimes, the high-pressure approach to education in Singapore can cause extreme anxiety amongst kids, and it can also prevent kids from asking questions, thinking independently, and being creative. Mothers on the island also feel a lot of pressure from society and they often feel judged when their kids don’t do well, so parenting can be difficult.
What are the advantages?
Singapore is a very family-oriented society – as are most Asian societies. I think that the presence of extended family and the emphasis on family relationships helps kids to grow up with a strong feeling of belonging and a sense of security. This is, I think, one of the biggest advantages of Asian culture.
Additionally, kids learn to work hard and deal with pressure early on. Their skill sets are strong.
What danger are you in in painting broad strokes about Asian parenting?
I was very worried about making large generalizations about Asian or American parenting. In my book, I tell individual stories and use specific research studies to make my points, and I very emphatically state that one can’t make broad generalizations about huge populations.
Look for an excerpt from Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age tomorrow in AsAmNews.
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