to be or not to be a Tiger Mom

race-to-nowhereRecently, the Tiger Mom approach to child raising has been the topic of many a discussion in my town. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s an approach outlined in a bestselling book by Asian mom, Amy Chua, in which she articulates the philosophy behind the stereotypical Asian child’s achievements. (A disclaimer: I haven’t read it.)

I live in a town with high ranking schools and lots of high performing kids. Many of our students begin taking AP classes as freshman and sophomores and spend hours a night on homework. 75% of the families have parents with college degrees and many homes have parents with graduate degrees. (My home fits the latter model—my husband is a physician and I have a Masters degree.) So, when Ms. Chua’s book came out—along with the documentary “Race to Nowhere” which presents the polar opposite approach to kids and their education–, it made me think again (OK, worry again) about what is the best thing I can do—and American society can do—for our college bound kids.

Let me say, off the bat, I realize these issues may seem petty to compared to the struggles of those who are hungry, unable to even consider college, or languish at poorly performing inner city schools. That said, more and more Americans are going to college, taking AP classes, and striving to create the sorts of lives that look good on college applications. The pressure on young people can be overwhelming. And trying to figure out how much to push a child, especially in high school, is a challenge many parents struggle with.

When I think about what I want for my kids academically, I do want them to be able to attend colleges that will challenge them. But it’s much harder to get into competitive colleges and universities than it was when I was growing up.  I graduated from high school in 1979, did lots of fun extra-curricular activities, spent much of 9th and 10th grades misbehaving and goofing off, and was still accepted at competitive schools.

My high school experience is not an option if you want to be in the top tiers at many American high schools today. College admissions counselors say an applicant should have great grades, high test scores, excel in at least one outside activity, show leadership, and have been working on saving the world. Wasting time having fun and doing nothing can literally hurt one’s chances at many schools.

This strikes me as a bummer. I’ve watched my kids and their peers take four A.P. courses in their senior year—not because they so loved learning but rather because, in my state, A.P. classes add two full points to your grade. (So an A, rather than being worth a 4.0, is worth a 6.0.) The college application process is so stressful I swear I’d rather potty train my kids again than go through it. Many parents push their children—and the kids push themselves as well—to be superstars on the athletic field or in the realm of the arts so they will have more to offer a prospective school. Sometimes I feel like the answer we give to teens when they ask what they need to do to succeed is “More. More. More. More.”

I have tried to find a balance. I tell my four kids A’s and B’s are fine—C’s and D’s, baring extreme circumstances, are not. I push casual sports and encourage reading for fun. I let them watch TV and play video games although I limit it. I tend to stress sleep over perfect homework. My goal is to have kids I and others will value and enjoy when they become adults. I want my children to enjoy learning. Most of all, I hope my children will grow up to be happy, well-balanced people who can support themselves doing something that, in some way, appeals to them. A college degree from a good—and there are lots of good schools—will help them with the latter. So I do push them to do well, but, compared to a Tiger Mom, I am a total wimp. When their homework is done, I let them goof off.

Thus far, for our family, it’s working out OK.  My older two will have graduated from high school with nothing lower than a B, but they’ve both gotten lots of B’s. (Our state has a seven point scale, so an A is a 93-100; a B, 85-92.) They’ve both gotten into schools they are excited about although both were rejected at their first choices.  I’ll see how it goes with my younger two both of whom are in 9th grade. They are already talking about where they think they’d like to go to college and the places they name are places with very high standards.

How about you? What’s the right balance with children and academic achievement? Do you think we push kids too hard or not hard enough?

4 thoughts on “to be or not to be a Tiger Mom

  1. dick

    Sure do! And I think we push too hard from the moment they enter kindergarten. I had difficulty to keep from laughing when my son’s kindergarten teacher told me he would flunk “sitting in the circle” if he didn’t soon agree to get out of his chair and sit in a circle on the floor. The implication was that I should insist he do it.

    When I was in elementary school, I started at 9am, got an hour off at noon (so I could go home for lunch if I chose to), got out no later than 3pm…and I did pretty well at all educational levels thereafter. Those more relaxed hours didn’t change much in junior high school and high school was even more relaxed.

    One of my children was a brilliant student, without pushing; the other was not, even though I “encouraged” often, at one time refusing to pay for college, because his grades were execrable. Eventually, he went back on his own and did quite well. Both have been equally successful.

  2. Jean

    Can’t speak as a parent. But I can speak as a second-generation Chinese Canadian. Several random-but-slightly-connected things I’ve noticed in the course of my relatively short life:

    1. Success is relative. It totally depends on what people want, and what they do with what they’ve got. I’ve met lawnmowers who are more contented, balanced, smarter, and way nicer than high-paying professionals. I’ve also met the reverse, and both across a range of ethnicities. So I’m inclined to take Tiger Mom’s definition of success with enough salt to fill the Dead Sea.

    2. I’ve had students who needed to be pushed harder, and students who needed to relax. It takes a wise parent to know the balance between challenge, and over-stimulus. That being said, my main impression is that much of the current generation of students needs to be sent to boot camp. Or something.

    3. The high school I attended is often cited as one of the best in the country; when I graduated, 50% of my class was of East Asian descent, with a strong lean towards Chinese. Some were of the lead-everything-save-the-world type, and their continued accomplishments still dazzle me. I also have classmates who are absolutely nowhere because they were dissatisfied and unhappy with their academic choices, and now simply plod through life. A few months ago I met an Asian pre-med student who came from a Tiger Mom household, and who dropped out in the middle of second year to go to chef’s school. Apparently he’s doing very well.

    4. From pure anecdotal observations: The most unfailingly polite and courteous kids I encounter are East Asian. Let me repeat: Purely anecdotal observation.

    5. I learned the hard way that the schools with the best names may not necessarily be the best ones for you; it may not even be the best one, period. It’s just a shame that the name counts for so much in our society.

  3. LeeB.

    High school valedictorians with straight A’s are being rejected at the University of Washington because the administration has to admit less in-state students in favor of out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. So even if you do everything right from birth through grade 12, you still may not get into your first choice of school.

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