Thoughts from a Chinese Gen-Y TCK: Tiger Mothers and Freedom

January 22, 2011 / Culture, Opinion, Psychology / 7 Comments

Amy Chua‘s article on Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior is causing quite a ruckus in the blogosphere. I feel compelled to respond because I’ve grown up seeing the difference in children who are brought-up the strict, unforgiving “Chinese-style” and the more liberal “Western-style”.

While I am mostly Chinese by descent, my mother isn’t quite the same breed of tiger as Amy — perhaps more like a domesticated cat. I would be coerced into staying up to memorize the occasional difficult Chinese character or learn some impossible math equation, but I was never forced into taking up classes that I didn’t enjoy or banned from playing my Super Nintendo. I was given the freedom to explore and decide what I wanted to do outside of school.

Some of my friends were not so lucky. They had different variants of tiger mothers (or fathers) ranging from ruthless, overbearing sabertooths to man-eating bengals. And while these friends were all shades of brilliant in school, the negative consequences of being tiger cubs are starting to show itself. Now that they are in their 20s, there is no one to force them to excel at work. No one to force them to do things that don’t want to do.

So these all shades of brilliant children have become all shades of confused adults. While some do go on to become extraordinary people because they learned the importance of hard work, others become impotent in making decisions because they were never given the opportunity to decide for themselves. Still others justify their existence by being rebels because they feel like they’re life-long prisoners of war who have been finally granted freedom.

For me, I think I could’ve fared much better in school were I subjected to more coercion. I am fairly laid-back, so there’s no doubt that some punishment to scare the crap out of me would’ve done some good.

But for all the A+s I didn’t get, I learned things that far more valuable in the adult world. I learned that with freedom comes great responsibility — that I gain from my own good decisions, and suffer from my own bad decisions. I learned the art of decision-making and troubleshooting my bad decisions. I learned to initiate; I don’t need no tiger mother breathing down my back to make sure I do everything “right”. I use my own judgment and do what I think is best. (Of course, being young means my judgment isn’t always great but I try and I learn from it).

As for the debate of praise vs punishment that everyone is talking about? I think it’s largely irrelevant. There is a different optimal point for each person. As a parent, you just need to find that point to get your kids to perform at their maximum ability. It’s no different from managing employees, I would assume.

The problem I have with tiger mothers is with the lack of freedom. As a 25-year old still trying to find her own place in the world, I can vouch that it is this sudden, chaotic freedom that we Gen-Y or Gen-AL are struggling with most. And tiger mothers have done a major disservice by clipping the very wings — their decision-making abilities — the children need to survive when they become adults.

I’m sure my tigered friends will find their own bearings and learn the burdens that come with freedom over the next few years. But it is very sad to watch them struggle. Struggle with their own will and the guilt of undoing their mothers’ autocratic parenting style.

Update: This is one of the best responses to Amy Chua’s book.

Dear Readers, what are your thoughts? How were you brought up? How do you think your upbringing has affected you?

  • Hey! So glad you wrote something like this. I moved a post I did on my tumblr to my blog and thought it would actually bring another perspective as well:

    ~ Joelyn Alexandra

  • I was pretty much left to figure out how to study and manage my time on my own. I was never punished past the age of maybe five or six? I wasn’t extraordinary, but it was enough to get good grades to get into a good school that got me a good job. But I think most of that had to do with my personality.

  • I hope parents will bring their children in a completely different way than Amy promotes in her book because forcing your children into doing something they don’t like will definitely have a number of damaging impacts once they grow older. In my opinion her only goal is to earn a lot of money so she can now call herself a strict and rich mother.

  • Everyone raises their children differently. Especially in different cultures. That’s what culture is all about. Now do I agree with how certain cultures do it? No. But it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. You got some cultures out there that don’t think women should experience sexual pleasure. People are crazy out there.

  • Coming from an international school, I have witnessed the manifestations of both the “Chinese-style” upbringing and the Western style upbringing in one melting pot of an educational system. In order to attend my secondary school, an entrance exam had to be taken to order to be admitted, so it was relatively given that I was part of an ethnically diverse student body with substantial intellect. The Asian student population did well academically, true, but didn’t paint entire picture. I also knew of students with Western upbringing who were also accomplished in musical instruments, were active in extra-curricular organisations, and over-achieved academically. Heck, our high school graduating class’ valedictorian is white!

    With that said, I think David Brooks’ response to Amy Chua is brilliant.

    Brooks makes a wonderful point when he mentions that there are things that are better learnt in a weekend sleep-over rather than hunched over an accounting textbook at one in the morning. I know people with Tiger mothers who still cannot grasp basic unspoken social norms when interacting with the world at large. They’re owners of brilliant minds and often have wonderful jobs, but they are lacking at reading cues in social situations. I hurt for them, because they have no idea! It was as though they only learnt it after being released from the Tiger’s claw and into the independence (of sorts) of university life.

    If you strip it of the ethnic nuances, it is a question of bringing up a good kid, one that isn’t an under-achiever, but also someone who is disciplined, knows the value of hard (and smart) work, isn’t confused, and isn’t afraid to live. It’s a great pity that Amy Chua cannot bring herself to expose her children to an environment beyond the control of militant parenting and threatening to take away toys. I hope that one day, Chua and her daughters wouldn’t be so scared.

    (On a personal note, you know, I also have a Tiger mother. I had my parts of my life chosen for me but I still made sure that I fought for my choice. No regrets. But the Tiger mostly manifests when it comes to fostering and developing Catholic values in the home. Oh, and by “Tiger” mother, I mean of the Sabre-toothed variety… because the Chupacabra isn’t real, right?)

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  • Lynette

    Good stuff! Keep it coming ..!!