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?