There is no one perfect way to raise model children

I must admit I am terribly scared of leaving my one-year-old daughter alone with my wife. And I blame Yale Law School professor Amy Chua for my paranoia.

My little one was born barely three months after Chua horrified the Western world with her parenting memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, which unapologetically presumed the superior efficacy of harsh, traditional Chinese parenting. In the bestselling book, Chua listed all the fun things she denied her daughters, which many in the West consider to be essential ingredients of childhood.

She also proudly mentioned subjecting her daughters to hours of academic and music drills with no water, dinner or bathroom breaks, and lashings of public shame — including calling her daughter “garbage” in front of many at a dinner party.

Harried mums around the Western world were soon threatening their children with making “Aunt Amy” adopt them if they did not listen to their mummies.

I neither share Chua’s Chinese parenting methods nor the Western world’s outraged reaction. I am an Indian. But what left me — a self-confessed cuddly, teddy-bear dad — worried about my daughter’s growing years was Chua’s recent remark that India’s tiger mums may outnumber China’s.

Hold on, I do not hear anything from the other room. Let me check what my wife and baby are doing.

All is fine; they are both sleeping. Phew!

Anyway, if Chua’s belief is accurate, it would mark a tectonic shift in the make-up of an Indian mother, eternally glorified by Bollywood films as a doting, protective and weepy mortal who makes a living out of begging her husband to forgive her child for all the mistakes that the little one may or may not have committed.

It has historically been the job of an Indian father to be the tough taskmaster, to instill discipline into children and make sure that they adhere to familial hierarchy and societal order.

The general belief in India is that ‘the arrangement’ has worked out just fine for Indian families.

But that does not stop most Indian mums from believing that every single Indian dad does cross the line of ‘healthy control’ at least once in his lifetime — especially when it comes to his daughter’s marriage or son’s career.

So this February, despite knowing me for about a decade, my wife started getting suspicious all over again about my parenting instincts when she saw a video of a Chinese businessman forcing his four-year-old to run nearly naked and do pushups in the New York snow. The boy’s crying pleas to stop did nothing to melt his dad’s heart.

“When the old eagle teaches its young, it takes the young eagles to the cliffside, beats them, and pushes them to teach them to use their wings,” the father told a Chinese newspaper.

As I said, I am not that kind of father. But whoever said escaping a stereotype is easy, especially if it gets reinforced by a global sensation — which, these days, seems to mean everything Chinese.

So there we are — an Indian household where both partners suspect the other one of being a tough Chinese parent beneath the brown skin. At times it gets to a point where our baby almost begins to get confused about her roots.

Putting my strange little world aside however, normally it is the confusion in parents’ minds that gives birth to most parenting-related debates — confusion about the best method to enable children to evolve into culturally well-groomed, financially self-reliant and socially well-respected adults.

In her book, Chua tries to distinguish Asian parenting from that in the West by highlighting the difference between the ‘degree of strictness’ that the two sets of parents make use of. She says that her Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day, or an hour at most. “For a Chinese mother,” she writes, “the first hour is the easy part. It’s the second and the third hours that get tough.”

Alan Paul, author of “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing”, believes the approach stems from the historical structure of the Chinese society.

“It’s easy to understand a traditional Chinese drive for perfection in children: it is a huge nation with a long history of people thriving at the top and scraping by at the bottom without much in between.”

In India, it is science textbooks instead of instruments. Parents often ask their children to immerse themselves in equations and theories, especially around the times of numerous weekly and monthly tests. The pitch gets raised just prior to the big annual examination, leading to an embargo on sports and television.

But while Indian parents (generally) indeed go harder at their children than their Western counterparts, they do not tend to match up to the Tiger Mum or Eagle Dad stereotypes of Chinese parents.

Part of the reason behind the approach can be explained again in the historical context. India has a well-entrenched caste system, which for many centuries decided the future of every child born. So worrying too much about the child’s predetermined place in society as an adult did not make much sense.

“Let her (or him) be; it’s the age to enjoy” is one of the most common responses across India whenever questions are raised about less-than-perfect conduct of a young adult.

That particular aspect, interestingly, brings Indian parenting slightly closer to Western parenting attitudes than the Chinese model. Myth of a common Asian parenting style, anyone?

Clearly, most parenting styles, if not all, draw heavily from socio-historical context. The outward manifestations may not necessarily reflect the latent intent of the method.

In her book, Chua writes, “Many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”

And therein lay the crux of parenting for me: Good advice can be found in various styles of parenting. No parenting style — neither Western nor Asian, if there is any such monolith after all — is perfect. And there is therefore no such thing as the perfect parent.

For now, my wife and I have made a pact. To begin with, we will trust each other with the baby. And then work towards coming up with our own style of parenting for the best of our child.

Would that be an Asian style of parenting? Who cares!   AR


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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1 Comment on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Farhaan June 9, 2012 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    Michael,I couldn’t help but henirag a little bit of hidden jealousy in your argument that basically said, Just because these Asian kids are good at maths, doesn’t mean they are good at other things like creativity, here are some TED talk examples of creative thinkers, and THEY didn’t have tiger moms. It didn’t seem a very scientific approach.The example of the child doing homework at the Chinese restaurant is a typical migrant story. The 1st generation will have a corner shop or a restaurant and work hard to give the 2nd generation the best start in life. These businesses work on a number of levels. Firstly they require low skills, they can generally get by with only one or two members of the family knowing the language of the new country and the low skill base means all members of the family can help out. Secondly, since it is a family business, when the kids finished school for the day they don’t go to an empty home, they go to the business where they are surrounded by a support network who can help them out. The strong sense of family among Asian communities further contribute to the worth of this support network.These kids work hard because of this support and succeed not just in maths, but many subjects. As a result the top scorers in the Higher School Certificate (the high school graduation certificate) have an over representation of children of migrant and particularly Asian migrants compared to the population. One of the selective schools in Sydney is almost exclusively Asian, not because of racist policies but because they are the kids getting the high scores required to be able to go to the school.To throw in my own anecdotal examples I will use Ahn Do and Khoa Do. These brother wear born in Vietnam and came to Australia in the ’70s on a refugee boat with their parents. They were brought up in the traditional Asian tiger parent way and about from high school marks what have they achieved? Ahn Do who originally studied law is an actor, stand up comedian and recently won several awards for his book The Happiest Refugee . His brother Khoa is an award winning film director, award winning playwright, and was awarded Young Australian of the Year in 2005 for his philanthropic work. So this type of parenting didn’t impede the creativity of either of these men, and far from being kids who are just really good at maths’ they are valuable and well respected members of society.Taken out of the context of its cultural origins and strong family network, the tiger mom approach will probably not translate to a WASP nuclear family, but they is not sufficient to dismiss it entirely,

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