First published in Harper’s Bazaar Junior Magazine Singapore.
Amy Chua’s latest book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which extols the virtues of Chinese versus western parenting methods, has unleashed a storm of heated controversy and has generated shock waves and intense debate on what is the best parenting style. In her contentious book, Ms Chua implies, in more ways than one, that Chinese parents are better at raising children than are western ones because of the more strict and uncompromising Chinese values, which she says are different from the indulgent and permissive western methods. Chinese parents, she believes, instill respect for authority, stress academic performance above all else, never accept a mediocre grade and insist on drilling and practicing until the child achieves the desired result. Needless to say, this topic has given rise to strong reactions amongst parents and education specialists around the globe.
Knowing that we are all products of our own cultural upbringing, education and childhood experiences, is it right to say that there is in fact a superior approach to rearing successful children? The answer to this loaded question depends on the criteria one uses to define success. High academic achievement doesn’t automatically equate to a brilliant career, and being wealthy and successful doesn’t guarantee happiness and stability. So, the issue is a complex one, requiring an open mind and an inquisitive spirit.
The subject of what makes up the different kinds of parenting styles has been researched in depth by experts, and despite our squeamishness about stereotypes, there is an abundance of studies showing marked and quantifiable differences between Asians and westerners when it comes to parenting priorities. In one study of 50 American mothers and 48 Asian immigrant mothers in the US, almost 70 per cent of the western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, a very small number of the Asian mothers felt the same. Indeed, the vast majority said that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting” and that if children did not excel at school, the parents “were not doing their job.”
It is no surprise, then, that according to research, Asian parents, as compared to western parents, spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. Western children, on the other hand, are more likely to join sports teams or drama classes, and their parents will be more concerned about their children’s self-esteem rather than academic performance. But for Asian parents, often guided by beliefs of self perfection and constant improvement, one of the worst things you can do for your children’s self-esteem is to let them give up, believing that there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
Of course, these cultural stereotypes, while sometimes true, must not be taken too literally. There are many conflicting theories within both Asian and western cultures on the best ways to rear children. According to one of the best-known theories of parenting, developed by Diana Baumrind, parenting styles generally fall into three main categories: authoritarian, indulgent or authoritative. Traditional Asian childrearing practices are often described as authoritarian, characterized by strictness, with little open dialogue between parent and child. Indulgent parenting, on the other hand, a permissive or lenient style, is characterised by nurturing parents who are very involved with their children yet have few behavioural expectations and impose few controls. An authoritative parenting style, the third category and ostensibly ideal, encourages children to be independent, thus helping them develop autonomy, but still imposes behavioural limits and controls.
Having been brought up by an Asian mother and a western father myself, I am fortunate to recognise many of these authoritative parenting traits in the manner my parents chose to bring me up. And in some ways, combining Asian and western parenting styles seems to come very close to the recommended authoritative method. An expression comes to mind— “A hand of steel in a velvet glove.”
In the end, and despite our cultural differences, most parents want what is best for their children. And while it is inappropriate to say that either an Asian or a western parenting style is better, the greatest gift we can give our children is to remain open minded about improving our own parenting method. As I like to remember, there is no handbook on being a perfect parent. We can only pledge to do our very best and strive to keep learning as we go.