Tiger v Sloth

This article by Amy Chua, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior – cannily published in The Wall Street Journal ahead of the release of her book on the same topic – has been causing an uproar across the Hong Kong blogs I read, and the parents I cross paths with here.

(Actually the uproar has mostly died down by now but it’s my style to address issues when their moment of currency is at least two weeks prior. Strike while the iron is warm, else you get a burnt fucking finger. Der!)

From that statement, if it wasn’t already clear from the overwhelming evidence this journal contains, you can tell that I am not a Tiger Mother. Other more suitable zodiac mothers include Rabbit Mother (“sometimes seen as a pushover”), Monkey Mother (“morals are weak”), and Dog Mother (“prone to mood swings”); and if I allow myself a bit of astro-anima-logical leeway, which I do since someone apparently shifted the coordinates of the entire zodiac this week anyway, then I’m actually Sloth Mother.

I don’t know how Sloth Mother is going to stack up against the thousands of Tiger Mothers here, beating their children with slippers in their piano- and tutor-filled lairs, but I think she’ll come off second-best. My son has not been offered even an interview with our primary school of first choice, even though the selection process was allegedly random. And it’s an English-medium school. Is it because his only extra-curricular activity is art, and not even proper art, just a place he goes to to stick broken corks onto old cardboard boxes for an hour every week? Is it because if he wants to wear his pyjamas until midday on the weekend, we let him? And he’s allowed to put tomato sauce on everything, including vegetables and sandwiches? We only have two more schools on the list, and if he isn’t offered a position there, we’ll have to seriously consider doing what needs to be done.


I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly outraged as I read the article. We all make our assumptions about the factors behind Chinese students’ seeming (and usually demonstrated, not just seeming) academic superiority in Australian schools, based on nothing but hearsay and probably jealousy-motivated comments from adults. I had only one close Chinese friend in early high school, and I witnessed the pressure she was under, though I’m not suggesting one student in one Australian school satisfies the burden of proof in this case. But the article perhaps gives credence to what we all secretly thought anyway (though I did think, and Amy Chua has also stated, that in large part it was exaggerated, at times to a farcical degree.)

Having lived in Hong Kong, which admittedly isn’t China (well it is, but it also SO isn’t), we can nonetheless see the truth in our unvoiced suspicions. We want our kids to go to English-medium schools because of the reputation (vouched for by my dad’s partner, who works in the system) of local primary schools allocating up to three hours’ homework a night. For preps. We see the little kids going to school six days a week, coming home after 6pm. The city is swarming, every day of the week, with exhausted frail little bespectacled kids carrying laptops and tubas. It’s no wonder adults here can and do sleep anywhere and everywhere. It is a remarkable experience to step into a train carriage of 25 people and everyone except yourself is in a deep, slack-jawed, snoring sleep. Every single time, on every train in the joint. And every bus, park bench, and spare bit of wall. It’s because the fuckers have a sleep debt of 700,000 hours from their primary school days.

Even at my son’s kinder, which all kids attend for at least three hours a day, five days a week (and most attend for six hours), they follow an extremely rigorous school-like curriculum. They have teddy-bear picnics and cooking and dancing and that sort of stuff, but it fits in around 45 minutes a day of Mandarin, an hour of intensive writing drills, and half an hour of reading. They’re mostly 3 years old. And this is a British-run kinder.

In literacy and numeracy, my son is particularly adept, so I’m not concerned about that. However, he has never had music lessons beyond Kindermusik (if that counts; and I know here it certainly doesn’t), nor any tutoring. Neither of those is on his immediate horizon. Or they weren’t until I read the article.

Of course I found parts of the article distasteful. And of course I realise Ms Chua doesn’t speak for every Chinese mother in this mould (though personal observation would suggest she represents a significant majority). But I was surprised to find myself agreeing with her on quite a few points.

I don’t know how living here will affect our parenting. I wouldn’t have thought at all, before we came here. What happens at home stays at home etc. I’m starting to realise that if we intend to stay here for a lengthy period of time, we are going to have to either adopt or directly combat a lot of the parental characteristics Chua mentions in order to just get the kids through – into! – primary school.

Anyway, give it a read. Feel better about your parenting!


7 Comments Add yours

  1. cinova says:

    Good luck with all that! From ‘helicopter parents’ to those who micro-manage every last second of their child’s life…scary world conceived by the Baby Boomers, nurtured by Gen X and now your generation is left with raising the inevitable products of the past 3 decades. Your post was so damn funny in parts, while raising some very crucial and concerning issues. I watched an interesting doco called ‘Lost Adventures of Childhood’, which lamented the loss of ‘free play’ time for kids, suggesting that today’s parents were obsessed with organising schdules for their children and monitoring their every movement, with a subsequent loss of independence, imagination and collaborative problem solving. I also think the emphasis on standardisation in education has lead to loss of the creative impulse. So what’s the answer? Give Rufus and Zadie an empty box to play with for an afternoon. Keep fighting the good fight and once again, good luck with it all.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      The older Rufus gets, the more stressful this parenting thing is – and not because of anything we do/don’t do, but through observing other parents and then querying ourselves. Another difficulty is that the parents Rufus’ and Zadie’s friends are always about 10 years older than us. In fact I can’t think of one who isn’t, both here and in Australia. This means that we’re parenting from different perspectives – not to mention not really relating to each other in terms of life experiences. Eh. It’s tough.
      An empty cardboard box would entertain Rufus and Zadie for about 8 minutes. But that’s about the same time they’d be entertained by a computer game or a tea party with their teddies or a puzzle. It’s definitely in the repertoire 😉

  2. Thanks for that one.. a good read.
    Lots to think about.
    I think I will be happy with slothy happy ourdoorsy, sleep-over kids, but I can definitely see their point. There must be a balance somewhere in there..

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Forget the deprivations of a real childhood; I’m just personally far too lazy to be that sort of parent! Long live the sloths! (parents and children…)

  3. Hi, Thanks for the link up to your Tiger Mom posts after reading my own take on it. It certainly sounds like you are in the thick of it there in HK! Duck for cover from the extremists and let your little guy flourish in his own way (I too enjoy pj’s til midday and hopefully I turned out ok?!)

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