When I was growing up in Korea during the 60’s, the tough, strict teachers were known as ``tiger teachers,” and those mothers who exercised absolute authority over their children were known as ``tiger mothers.” Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I never had a tiger teacher or a tiger mother.
So I was intrigued to see this same expression being used in the title of a recent book, ``Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which has been generating ongoing debates and bickering in the U.S. media.
The Chinese-American author of this book, Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor, tells the story of her super-authoritarian approach to child-rearing, and portrays herself as a tiger mother. It is very unlikely that I will read the whole book as I determined from reading excerpts and numerous reviews and discussions that it is not one that I would enjoy. It would just irritate me to witness a mother driven to produce top grade kids at the expense of raising well-rounded persons and cultivating all aspects of human development. What kind of a mother denies bathroom visits, sleepovers, birthday parties, even glasses of water to her young kids in her lopsided, distorted idea of super-parenting?
Years ago I met a Norwegian doctor on a tour of China’s Yunnan Province. Speaking of our childhoods, I happened to ask, ``What would you undo from your past?” She promptly responded that it was when her mother made her skip two grades when she was twelve thinking she was academically advanced and would be bored with her own age group. She was thrown into a class with 14-year-olds as a result. Girls in her class were developing breasts and starting to have their periods while she didn’t have any of those developments. She was excluded from their activities and was treated as a nerd. ``It was horrible.
“I would have been better off being with kids my own age to learn the ropes among peers who were developing physically at the same pace. My mother was focusing on my academic standing alone. She was clueless about my mental growth process. It has scarred me for life. In a way, I am still suffering the consequences of those two years lost from my childhood.”
The other night we bumped into an old colleague of my husband at a restaurant in Miami Beach. When we told him what our daughters were doing to update him about our family (we hadn’t seen him for at least 7 or 8 years), he immediately said, ``You must be very proud of them. Were you a ‘tiger mother?’” I couldn’t deny it. Yes, looking back on my parenting approach, I must confess that I had some aspects of a ``tiger mother.”
Even to this day, our two daughters never fail to mention how tough I was about reading and writing and doing math exercises when they were little. I insisted that they practice addition, subtraction, and multiplication and division tables over and over again until they could recite those numbers in their sleep. This was because I was horrified to discover that these tables were not being memorized in their classrooms. My thought was that if these basic things are not in their brains automatically as a foundation, they cannot possibly go any further in the study of mathematics. (In my defense, I did let them have sleepovers and birthday parties.)
What about all the other Korean mothers? I suspect that the situation of the ``goose fathers,” living alone in Korea and seeing their families only occasionally, is created because of tiger mothers who risk the family unit to pursue a better education for their children abroad. All this seems appropriate and even admirable on the surface, but there is a danger that a child may be raised to focus only on academic excellence without learning how to be a whole person. This may turn out to be a liability to society and to the children themselves later on.
Ignoring and neglecting the formation of the total person and concentrating only on achieving the best grades, attending the best schools and securing the best credentials at all costs will produce ``handicapped” persons. Where do children learn to be flexible? Where will they learn that they are not the center of the world? That they need to continue to be mindful of group dynamics and learn the subtlety of negotiating a vast ocean of interpersonal dilemmas and conflicts? Where will the children encounter situations in which they can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their characters? How will they acquire the sound values that can factor into their on-going choices living in the world? How do they receive guidance in life itself, if these questions are not raised and wrestled with?
There are so many questions to think about as we seek to achieve a balanced middle ground in parenting.
Hyon O'Brien is a former reference librarian now living in the United States. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.