Life Lessons from My Tiger Mother: A Reflection on Chinese Child Rearing

Where does Chua's book address the ethical self? How is she teaching her children to deal with other people? Have we missed something vital in defining success in child rearing?
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There has been much public debate swirling around Amy Chua and her "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It is a book that resonates strongly with me, as I too grew up with a demanding and exacting Chinese mother. Yes, it was a different generation, but many of the same principles apply today. My mother was extremely strict and disciplined, and the list of things I was not allowed to do was long -- definitely longer than that of any of my friends. Etiquette and manners were paramount -- staying out over night, chewing gum in public, putting my feet on the coffee table, answering back and slouching while sitting were all strictly forbidden -- but my mother believed that there were other valuable lessons to be learnt regarding my approach to daily life, competition, positivity and sharing; these are equally imperative when raising today's children.

When Amy Chua relates the anecdote about forcing her younger daughter to play "Little White Donkey" perfectly on the piano, we gain the best insight into just how powerfully dedicated Asian mothers can be -- mine included. Despite her mother's punishing schedule, Chua's little daughter finally feels proud of herself and understands that hard work and perseverance pay off. Surely this is a lesson we all want our children to learn? The question is: What lengths we are prepared to go to, as mothers, to achieve this?

I have a strikingly similar story to tell about how my mother also taught me to never give up, how only my very best was good enough. One summer when I was a high school student, my mother decided that I should be spending my holiday time more productively, not just having fun. So each week I was expected to submit an essay to her. The first I wrote about my school. She wasn't happy with the result and told me to go away and rewrite it. She wasn't much happier with the second attempt, and I remember feeling very disappointed and frustrated. But I decided to show her just how good I could be; I did additional research and spent a couple of days rewriting the essay until I felt that I had done my best and I was satisfied. So was my mother, finally, and she said to me, "This is exactly what I want from you, your best. You are finally giving it to me, and that is what matters." She was always insistent that we do our best and compete with ourselves. She would say, "Always strive to be better than yourself."

As a young woman, I often found my mother's lessons suffocating, but it was she who helped me realize who I am, what I want and what I should and should not do. Her lessons had such an influence on me that I wrote a book about her: "Life Recipes from My Mother: Timeless Lessons for Living a Contented Life." It illustrates how she was as focused and dedicated to my moral well-being as she was to making sure that I always did my very best -- and whether this meant being first or fifth in the class, it was fine with her. This is where my mother and Amy Chua's philosophies diverge. For Chua, it is mandatory not only to get an A in every subject, but also to be the undisputed top of the class. Her book mainly highlights quantifiable ways to achieve success, such as winning a coveted spot in a program or beating another family academically. But where does Chua's book address the ethical self? How is she teaching her children to deal with other people? Have we missed something vital in defining success in child-rearing?

We cannot ignore the development of the whole child by focusing purely on quantifiable achievements -- particularly in today's world, where ethical practices are more often forgotten than not. Take, for example, the global financial crisis, in which greed for wealth meant that there was a marked lack of awareness or concern for the well-being of others. The ethical self must combine with the social self. After all, we are social beings and must learn to live and work together -- something the Chinese culture places great emphasis on. It is this combination of factors that make a balanced and whole person. My book chronicles my mother's child-rearing practices, but in contrast to Ms. Chua's book, I chose to focus on long-term reflections on the principles, values and ethics that my mother imparted with pragmatic examples and anecdotes -- values pertaining to the ethical self and social self. In my opinion, this approach, which modern American parenting often lacks, is the only way to create a successful, driven, balanced, happy and fulfilled adult.

When considering your child's ethical self, question their honesty (not just to others but to themselves), their approach to charity and their attitude toward greed -- remind them that life is a series of trade-offs, and one cannot have everything. For their social self, think about their consideration and respect for others and their thankfulness and appreciation for what they have. Remind them not to take everything for granted. Urge them to make only promises they can keep.

Without a doubt, my mother was a complicated woman and, like Chua, a Tiger Mother of her generation. She was a mixture of the traditional Chinese values of piety, sense of duty and integrity on the one hand, and on the other, the modern (or even Western) values of independent thinking, standing up for one's beliefs and defying tradition where necessary. She was financially independent, the first girl in her family to attend regular school and attain a university degree. She married for love rather than settling for the man chosen for her. At the end of the day, yes, she pushed me as hard as she could to reach my potential. She understood that success is a good thing but not at the expense of other moral values; she focused on more than just schoolwork, music and grades. She showed me the importance of being a well-rounded person. Armed with her lessons and a true knowledge of myself, I have been able to face many challenges during my life. Can today's Tiger Mothers claim to be equipping their children in the same way?

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