• There has long been criticism about the so-called Asian tiger mum model and the emergence of a generation of overscheduled, academically overworked children. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Are we seeing the rise of the Asian tiger mum counterpart – the “white tiger” parent who prizes only the connection between hard work and athletic achievement?
By
Sharon Verghis

29 Jan 2020 - 8:44 AM  UPDATED 21 May 2021 - 12:48 PM

At her predominantly white, western Sydney school in the 1980s, Elvira Sassano was bullied for being smart. A studious child of immigrant Italian parents, she had grown up in a household where education and achievement, not sport, were prized. Not so at the new primary school she moved to in Year Six.

“I was the nerdy ethnic, the only one in the whole school. I had sandwiches thrown at me, I was spat on. It was the worst experience of my life.”

“I was the nerdy ethnic, the only one in the whole school. I had sandwiches thrown at me, I was spat on. It was the worst experience of my life.”

Sassano would go on to achieve professional success in finance and raise two high-achieving daughters.

Resilience, discipline and an ethos of reward for effort was drilled into them. To her dismay, her older daughter, who is now doing a PhD in English Literature, struggled with the same double standard she herself once experienced: a prizing of sporting prowess over academic effort and achievement.

At one point, faced by the pressure to be a “team player” and embrace her private school’s much prized sporting culture, her daughter was so stressed she threw up.

“She was so upset and distraught. A lot of parents would ask, what’s wrong, why doesn’t she like sports? She just didn’t. She preferred to read and that made her weird amongst the girls. So we focused on her studies, but the environment at school isolated her for that.”

Fed up, her daughter ended up moving schools in Year 12.

Fed up, her daughter ended up moving schools in Year 12. To Sassano, her clever, curious daughter was a victim of the same anti-intellectual culture she herself experienced – and one that still flourishes in Australia today, she believes.

“To me, it’s been a generational perpetration of the same cultural biases. Nothing has changed.”

Fellow parent Nicola O’Brien concurs. A New Zealand native now raising three children in North Sydney, she hails from a family which prizes intellectual effort and achievement, particularly in science and technology.

O’Brien herself works in STEM and is passionate about encouraging her children to achieve intellectually.

She, too, has noticed, a double standard at play - a certain cultural reluctance amongst a white, Anglo, middle-class cohort to openly celebrate academic success compared to sporting prowess.

It’s evident, she says, in everything from a general disengagement with education (“it’s like, my kid is at school for seven hours a day and that’s enough bookwork, out-of-school time is for sport”), to the downplaying of academic awards at school speech nights.

We are quick to see the connection between a child waking early and going to swim squad three times a week, and a harvest of medals at the school swimming carnival, she points out. Not so in academic activities.

We are quick to see the connection between a child waking early and going to swim squad three times a week, and a harvest of medals at the school swimming carnival, she points out. Not so in academic activities.

While most parents in her cohort are happy for their kids to do reasonably well academically, she suspects that too much classroom effort is seen as essentially unnecessary. Do enough to attain concrete, material markers like a high-paying job or nice house in later life rather than be intellectually curious for its own sake.

For parents like Sassano and O’Brien, there is growing awareness – and unease – about the way we value achievement.

There has long been criticism about the so-called Asian tiger mum model and the emergence of a generation of overscheduled, academically overworked children.

But what about parents - predominantly white, Anglo and middle-class - who overschedule their kids with extracurricular activities, particularly sport, they ask?

But what about parents - predominantly white, Anglo and middle-class - who overschedule their kids with extracurricular activities, particularly sport, they ask?

Where is the criticism around the rise of a hyper-competitive youth sporting culture of year-round competition, training and coaching worth over $US15 billion in countries like the US; the emergence of overly emotionally and financially invested families spending thousands on skill instruction camps and personal trainers; an epidemic of burnout, overuse injuries and parental aggression and abuse on playing grounds?

Why is it not okay for a child to attend academic coaching after school but acceptable to ferry them to sports training, competition and classes that can cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of time a year?

Are we seeing the rise of the Asian tiger mum counterpart – the “white tiger” parent who prizes only the connection between hard work and athletic achievement?

Dr Rochelle Eime, Professor of Sport Participation at the Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University, says her research does bear out the emergence in Australia of a hyper-competitive, pushy cohort of sporting parents who push their children to excess despite little likelihood of professional careers or even athletic scholarships, as US figures bear out.

“Some children and parents have very, very unrealistic expectations that they will have a professional career, when the statistics of that happening are very low.”

“Some children and parents have very, very unrealistic expectations that they will have a professional career, when the statistics of that happening are very low.”

Like O’Brien, she thinks its fed by cultural double standards influenced by the traditional prizing of sport in our national mythology.

“I agree that sport is prized in Australia and perhaps not equal to intellectual effort.

“There are many school assemblies, newsletters highlighting sports results weekly on who won and halls lined with sports trophies but very few academic highlights in comparison.

“Perhaps it also relates to our sporting culture of spectating and celebrating sport.

“We don’t watch academia on television each week, nor barrack for an academic team. We have sporting role models and in the media sports professionals (males) have a very established platform. Each weekly news night has maybe 25% dedicated to sports news.”

This academic/sporting prowess dichotomy is attracting growing interest among social commentators and academics

To Dr Christina Ho, Associate Professor, Social and Political Sciences Program at UTS’s faculty of arts and social sciences, these binary parenting models are influenced by a complex mix of social, cultural and historical factors.

Traditionally, Asian immigrants to Australia placed more emphasis on academic success as it was most often their primary insurance in securing future prosperity.

Those who benefitted from white middle-class privilege traditionally didn’t need to be concerned about securing their place in society, and thus, sport and other leisure and activities had a greater focus and value in Australian culture.

But things are changing, says Ho.

While white Anglo middle-class parents may think they are relatively relaxed and laissez-faire in their ‘let kids be kids’ parenting style compared to their “aggressive, authoritarian Asian tiger mum” counterparts, it’s a myth.

While white Anglo middle-class parents may think they are relatively relaxed and laissez-faire in their ‘let kids be kids’ parenting style compared to their “aggressive, authoritarian Asian tiger mum” counterparts, it’s a myth.

Amongst this cohort, Ho sees growing anxiety over the rise of an increasingly competitive education culture, heightened by immigration changes.

Fed by longstanding suspicions towards so-called ‘tiger parenting’, there is growing resentment among that their own children are being displaced by newcomers who “game” the system by coaching – themes which Ho explores in her upcoming book, Aspirations and Anxieties: Asian Migrants and Australian Schooling.

Parenting today has become a competitive sport right across the spectrum, she says, and it manifests itself in different ways: whether it is overscheduling your child with endless after-school activities or enrolling them in academic coaching.

For Elvira Sassano, it all comes down to valuing every child’s strength equally.

“We should allow kids to be kids without imposing judgements of who they are…it’s a matter of understanding what they want to do, whether its academics or sports.”

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