How do Asian parents make their kids so smart they outperform their western peers? Amy Chua, with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother blew us all away with her formula. Her kids weren’t allowed to have sleepovers, play dates or watch TV, she said. They weren’t allowed to choose their own extracurricular activities or play computer games. They were told to achieve nothing less than a grade A, and to choose either the piano or violin – and practice until their fingers fell off.
And it wasn’t just Chinese parents, she said. Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, they all had the same mindset.
International studies show children from Asian backgrounds do indeed consistently outperform their western peers, and cultural background is a significant factor. An Australian study by Monash university academics says: “Anglo-celtic Australian parents seem to put less emphasis on academic achievement while having more flexible expectations when compared to Chinese or Vietnamese Australian parents”. In Britain government figures show black and Asian school-leavers are more likely to go to university than their white peers.
International studies show children from Asian backgrounds do indeed consistently outperform their western peers.
Needless to say, Chua was heartily condemned for what are considered to be harsh methods. For many western parents “Tiger Mom” is a negative stereotype: Asian parents are authoritarian and heartless. They de-emphasise social engagement and force their kids to rote learn instead of thinking critically.
To some extent this is true. I remember my (Indian) dad plonking me in a chair with long division sums and giving me 30 minutes to get them all right. He then switched on the TV and turned my chair around to face the wall. “Discipline your mind to cut out the sound of the TV so you can focus on the sums,” he said, as he walked out of the room. I was ten years old.
Years later when I came bouncing into the house to show him a grade A, he simply said “make sure you get the same grade next year.” We can argue about whether these types of methods are good for children, but to understand the nature of Asian cultural values in the educational context, we have to look deeper.
Behind harsh teaching methods lies a complex and subtle message of the innate value of education. It’s not just about excelling in a particular topic but understanding that education itself is priceless.
It’s not just about excelling in a particular topic but understanding that education itself is priceless.
In my youth I was consistently reminded not to put books on the floor, not to step on them, not to put my feet anywhere near them. Books contained knowledge and so they were to be revered. It’s not harsh to teach that. It instills an automatic and life-long approach to books that acts as a constant reminder of the innate value of education.
My parents constantly lauded a cousin here or a friend there who had worked hard and was now about to go to into medicine. It’s not harsh to applaud success, it provides kids with role models and a standard to aim for.
Countless times my dad pointed out the ruddy complexion of a road worker, the boredom suffered by the checkout chick, the reasons behind the war on the evening news, the stoop of the old man who had spent a lifetime leaning over a factory conveyor belt. These aren’t harsh lessons, they are just a daily drip-feed reminder that a good education can lift you up.
Time and again, dad would say: “Get a good education, because once you have it, no one can take it away from you.” Other times, he would say: “They can take away your citizenship, or even your freedom, but they can’t take away your education.” Only migrants say things like that.
A good education is a passport out of poverty through upward social mobility.
For Asians, migrants or not, the sight, experience or memory of poverty is a powerful motivational factor. A good education is a passport out of poverty through upward social mobility. It is a passport out of a life of hard physical labour. It is a passport out of servitude. Ultimately, it’s a passport to a life better than the one lived by your parents.
So when children, naturally, complain about doing their homework, or the amount of time they have to spend practicing the piano, or the tedium of learning their times tables, they are quickly slapped down (metaphorically) and told to “study hard”. Parents, in all their wisdom, know that their children’s suffering today is nothing compared to their suffering tomorrow if they don’t achieve success through education.
Asian cultural values are not simply about a harsh and uncompromising parenting style, they are about inculcating children to be aware of the need for a good education. Asians don’t worry too much about their kids’ complaints today, for they play the long game.
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: @sushidas1