Source: The Sunday Times, 23 January 2011
Some children benefit from being pushed hard, while others need more nurturing
The excerpt from Yale law professor Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother – first published in The Wall Street Journal and reprinted in The Straits Times last week – has created quite a sensation.
Though I do not agree with some of her ideas, there are a few gems in her piece that I find interesting.
I studied at a Chinese school for 13 years, including kindergarten. When I was in secondary school, I had to memorise – and later, reproduce in writing – classical Chinese essays and poems. This exercise was termed moxie in Mandarin.
Each Chinese character written wrongly was penalised by a deduction of five marks. Those were the days when we had to use the old, complex form of characters, so the chance of committing an error was higher than if we had used simplified Chinese characters.
Still, I never received less than 80 marks, and often I would get full marks. Little wonder, then, that I enjoyed memorising the poems and essays. Moxie helped to hone my concentration.
My experience confirms Chua’s theory that whatever one does is never fun until one is good at it. To become good at anything, one has to work at it. Most children will resist working at something that they are not particularly good at. Without external pressure, usually exerted by parents, they would never get to the stage where they can perform the task well – and thus enjoy it.
Chinese students today are no longer subjected to moxie. As it is, they have difficulties memorising chengyu (aphorisms), which are much shorter and simpler than the poems and essays I had to memorise. I am glad I was put through a tougher system.
But my home environment was not tough. My mother was a wise woman but most untiger-like. She understood me. I was, and still am, a determined and intense person. My mother knew I had made up my mind to do well academically. I was so intent on succeeding that I would study for a test long before it was on the horizon; and on the day of the exam or test, I would wake up at 5am to go through my work one last time.
As a result, my parents did not find it necessary to pressure or urge me to get better academic results. Instead, they encouraged me to take up hobbies and not study so hard. Indeed, concerned that I would stress myself out, they urged me to relax. They would not have worried if I did not excel. After all, I was a girl.
My older brother Hsien Loong did exceptionally well in school. He had a calmer temperament than I did and did not need any advice to ‘take it easy’.
My younger brother Hsien Yang was playful and did not study too hard. He knew how much effort he had to put in to do well enough that my parents would not be disappointed with him. He also spent a good deal of time pursuing extra-curricular activities – canoeing, rowing, playing squash, swimming, running and so on.
I rather envied Yang. He did not take his academic work too seriously. He was not disappointed when he obtained a first but not a starred first at Cambridge University, where he studied engineering. He matured faster than I did and knew how to put academic qualifications in proper perspective.
Till I was about 30 years old, I was fiercely competitive in many things. Hsien Yang, while also competitive, had a calmer temperament that helped him respond better to the challenges of life, while I was full of angst.
Then, I picked up Buddhist philosophy when I found a book on the teachings of Buddha in the drawer of a Japanese hotel room.
Most religious books turn me off because of their proselytising. But this merely wrote about Buddha’s teachings and how we should live our lives. Denying that he was a god, and merely claiming to be a teacher, the truth of his teachings seemed immediately evident to me. I am still intense but perhaps calmer as a result.
My brothers and I did not need a Tiger Mother. Mama knew that, so she did not treat us as her tiger cubs.
Good academic results were desirable, but they were not the be all and end all of life.
But there are many Tiger Mothers in Singapore. One of my friends, a Chinese immigrant who is now a Singapore citizen, pins all her hopes for the future on her only child. She is determined that he will rise high in society. Every evening, she tutors the five-year-old for 90 minutes, after which her husband tutors the boy for another 30 minutes.
I do not think many native Singaporean families would nurture their children as intensely. If my friend’s son does better than the children of native Singaporeans, he deserves to do so. No Singaporean has a right to complain when such individuals do better in university or get ahead of them in their careers.
I have a special interest in how children learn. As a neurologist, I often see patients who are not doing well academically. Some have learning disabilities, like dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others simply have a low IQ.
It is important to analyse why a child is not thriving academically. Some can do better by studying harder.
These are the children who would benefit from having a Tiger Mother who makes them repeat lessons over and over again till they have mastered them – as Chua did in forcing her daughter to master a piano piece.
Other children may benefit from more nurturing and individualised education plans.
It is worth remembering that, occasionally, a Tiger Mother can give birth to a kitten rather than a tiger cub.
Then, the Tiger Mother obviously cannot and should not use teaching methods better suited for a tiger cub.
Whether or not they are tigers, the best mothers – and fathers – are, above all, wise. There is no one approach to child-rearing that fits all children.