Because we live in China. And I will tell you what, there are a lot of Tiger Mothers here. It makes me think so much about Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother…a book by Amy Chua I read way back when (thoughts on that back HERE).
Now, I have to preface what I say with the acknowledgement that of course I’m generalizing. We all know that not all Chinese mothers are one way and Western mothers are another. But there have been a few instances in particular lately that have made me ponder how I mother, and what I want to take and leave from what I have observed here.
Most of my “tiger mother” pondering has come because of the school our kids attend and a few specific experiences we’ve had there. There are a couple other Western kids at the school, but I’d say 95% of the kids are of Asian descent. And it has been fascinating as well as pretty rough sometimes to try to help my American kids maneuver their way through it all.
I have found it so interesting that although the kids have American textbooks and are taught in English in the English Track, their education is very “Chinese.” Obviously not quite as Chinese as the Chinese Track kids who do their “exercises” every morning outside in perfectly straight lines:
…but very Chinese just the same. I don’t know how to explain why. It’s just different.
First of all, the teachers expect a ton from the kids. I know there are a lot of American schools that expect the best. But they push in a different way that I can’t explain. Perhaps the best way to describe it is through an email I received from Grace’s math teacher in response to my email where I was trying to figure out how to help Grace. Grace is a total honors student back in the states and does great in school. But somehow the way they do things here is so tricky to her. Her math and science teachers are Chinese and I love them both. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is going to reference back to them and the excellence they demand over and over in her life. But right now in this little moment of time she is struggling.
Here’s the math teacher email (my thoughts italicized in gray):
Grace is a sweet and nice student even though she is not very good at math [she is an honors student who gets A’s back at home in the States]. I appreciate her study attitude and her hard work. She turns in all her homework assignments on time, pays attention in class, and often asks questions in class. I noticed that she is struggling from her work in her homework and tests. I think that is because her foundation is weak and her methods are not efficient [I’ve heard this said in many different ways…it is often implied that American education is very sub-par…not in a mean way, just totally matter-of-fact]. The good thing is she listens very carefully in class.
The reason why we teach a little harder math is because many of our students are Asians. Students and their parents want us to teach more. Most students in this class performance well. The overall class average of this quarter so far is close to 88%. I believe the solid foundation will help these students to student math well in the future.
The parents, as he said, definitely do want more. I attended my first “Principal’s Tea” last month at our elementary school. We are not going to be here long enough to get super in depth involved with the school, but I want to do all I can to be educated on how they do things here. I sat there amidst those parents loving how in tune and educationally proactive they are, but definitely not fitting in. They wanted to know exactly how their kids rank in school. How they are tested. How they compare to other students. One parent asked if he could be given the materials and homework a week ahead of time so he could keep his first-grader ahead of the rest. Again, I know this happens in the states, but somehow it is heightened here.
And because the parents want more, the kids want more to please those parents of theirs. And you better believe they want good grades because they know they’ll be in double dutch if they don’t do well. (Grace and Elle both have kids in their classes who have burst into tears when they were returned homework or tests with low grades.) And sometimes, because they are so distraught about a poor grade and whatever punishment is waiting at home the teachers will let the lowest scores re-test. And when they grade on a curve, where in the world does that put my poor kids who are trying their darnedest in a foreign land competing against the smartest and the best? It puts them in double dutch themselves. Ha. Is that usage of “double dutch” even a thing? Because I use it all the time and now it suddenly sounds so weird to me.
Anyway, I digress…much like these Chinese students would not do.
But I think that on top of the one-child thing, expecting excellence is just part of the culture (as we learn from Amy Chua).
Because those parents (and I guess some kids) want “more,” the school gives more.
I’ve never seen so much homework in all my life. Even Lucy has hours of homework every day. We have hired a tutor to come help her with her Chinese work, and another one to come help Grace with her math and science, but boy oh boy, these kids are being pushed in different ways than they ever have in the States. Here’s Lucy with her tutor:
I Love that she is working so hard on Chinese.
So what do I take from the abundance of “Tiger Mother” examples surrounding me? I’m trying more than ever to assume strength, just like the Chinese do.
Here’s Amy Chua’s observation in her book:
“I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. [check] In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. [check, click here for an example from me] Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.
Without realizing it, I have really adopted that last sentence as my mantra here: “[Chinese parents] assume strength, not fragility.”
As much as kids need unconditional love (which I give my kids in as heavy doses as possible, especially here…which isn’t necessarily at the top of the list in the “Tiger Mother” mentality), we must assume strength. Kids are like sponges. They believe what their parents believe. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy. As parents we set the pace for our kids. These kids need all the love they can get as they maneuver through this unique adventure. But they also need someone who believes in them that they can do it.
And that they can do it well. (Not the competing with their classmates part, but the doing the best they personally can do part.)
I made the mistake a couple weeks ago of delving into Grace’s emotions…pandering to how confused she is and reaching my heart out to her to help. I was this mother:
Of course we want to protect our kids from many things and I love that picture, but when kids grow older, some shielding and protecting hinders growth. My coddling only made Grace feel weak. It made her complain more. It made her think I agreed with her that she couldn’t do it. When we try to protect our kids from everything around them they can’t grow. They can’t gain confidence.
So I changed my attitude and told her that sure it’s tough, but I have no doubt that she can do it, she brightened right up. And guess what?
She believed me. There is much truth in one of my favorite quotes from my Dad, “whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”
And at the end of our discussions our bottom line is always the same: give them the tools they need, then let them bloom. Let them make mistakes. Praise them for specific things they do well. Let them learn from things they don’t. SO much easier said than done, but over and over again we have come to the realization that this is the answer.
I love a comment “Ruth H.” made a long time ago on one of those posts:
“I have a very distinct memory from my childhood, of my father. I remember him taking me into our empty chapel late one weekday afternoon [to practice for the upcoming primary program]. As the sun streamed in through the windows, he walked me up to the podium, and showed me how the microphone worked. I can recall him explaining how my voice would sound muffled or too loud, depending on how I used the microphone. Then, I remember him sitting in different places in the chapel, as I said my part for the primary program over and over again, until my father was reassured that even the older people who sat on the very back bench with their hearing aids would be able to hear and understand me.
“That experience has stayed with me all these years. As a child, I thought it slightly embarrassing that I was the only child who had to do that…as an adult, I am so grateful for my father’s concern and wisdom. He understood that it did no good to have expectations of his child, if he didn’t provide clear instructions about what those expectations were and how I could fulfill them. He expected me to speak clearly and confidently, so he showed me how and patiently practiced with me until I could. I have realized that not every child is blessed with that kind of parenting, but I’m so grateful that I was.”
How I hope Dave and I can be like so many of the “Tiger Mother” parents I’m surrounded by here, and expect strength. But that we can balance out those expectations like Ruth’s wise Dad and teach them how to gain those strengths in a loving way.
As I look around in this world these kids are growing up in, I know they will need both the strength and the training as to how to get that way…to be strong and stand up for what’s right.
That’s my musing on Tiger Motherhood this month. We’ll see what next month brings.
*** Post edit note: thank you for all the feedback…love it. I feel like I kind of led people to believe that Dave and I are agreeing with the Chinese mentality here that we want our kids to conform. But really, we’re just trying to help them “assume strength” to learn as much as they can while they’re here. From their teachers, from other students, from how they do things here. Yes, they have a ton of homework and they are on a steep learning curve which has positives and negatives, but we hope they can take advantage of learning from being pushed in a different way for these short months. I have a whole lot more to say about that, but that’s a post for another day.