The Quandary of the Wannabe Tiger Mother

Okay, before anyone starts getting upset, I don’t really want to be Amy Chua. But, to be honest, I would like to be half a Chua. Not the crazy, Mommy Dearest half, but the half that stresses education, maintains high standards and requires commitment and hard work from her children.

Of course, to some degree I do. I’m not letting my kids fail out of elementary school or anything, and I make sure they do their homework every night, but I think I could and should be doing more. Or, rather, I think my kids are capable of more. But to get them to put forth more than the absolute minimum of effort means I would need to both raise the bar on them and hold them to it.

Let’s face it my daughter’s certainly not going to pick up the violin and beg to practice it until she’s proficient. (We already know what happened with the trumpet.) Likewise, my son is never going to ask me if he can please not watch T.V. so he can study some more.

Kids are kids. That’s understandable. But it’s the adults and the culture and the society that make the rules and set the standards. I must admit I long for higher ones.

I’m sure my husband – along with some others – would say I have fairly high standards for my children (not the threatening-to-burn-the-beloved-stuffed-animals standards), but I require slightly more homework than the school does. If the school’s rule is to read for 15 minutes a night, I up it to 25. The school also does not require homework on the weekends. I do (another 25 minutes of reading and about a half hour of math games on the computer). That’s not exactly Chuaesque. And, I do let them have playdates and sleepovers, but I wish I didn’t – not because I think they should be filling out the entrance exam to Harvard instead – simply for selfish reasons. I can’t stand them.

Still, I feel my kids could use their time a lot more productively. And I think much of their youth is being squandered on television rather than learning or even creating. But the real quandary that brought my desire for more rigorous academic standards into focus was the letter sent home in my daughter’s backpack last month.

One rather ordinary day Lily returned home from school and handed me a note. The paper informed me to select one of three languages offered next year for my child to study and send the form back promptly so the school could start making preparations. Next year Lily will enter 5th grade. She will move to the middle school and be offered the choice of learning Spanish, French or Mandarin. Since first grade, though, the kids in her elementary school haven’t had a choice. They have all studied Mandarin.

I was all set to check off Mandarin when Lily told me she wanted to take Spanish. Spanish? That made no sense. She already had the foundation in Mandarin, and I was bent on her continuing with it. Why waste this wonderful opportunity we were given to learn a complex second language at such a young age? (See the recent study, which has shown children who learn a second language early on have an edge). Plus, 12 years and the fluency I hoped went with it would look pretty darn good on a college application. I was also contemplating Lily’s future beyond that – in the global marketplace. I was doing my best to prep her for success in this uncertain world.

My husband, though, took a different approach. He was all for letting her take Spanish. And since I can only take on so many battles at once, I gave up the fight.

This week I finally checked the box that said “Spanish” and returned the form to school. I don’t think I made the right decision, but considering I can barely get my kids to do a half hour of homework, Mandarin seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Was I wrong? What would you do? (It’s not too late to get the form back!)

(Photo: Flickr/woodleywonderworks)
(Excerpt photo: Flickr/Kommando Kraus)

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  1. Hello, Stacey.

    I have a daughter who is finishing college in a few months. She speaks, reads and writes four languages, two of which we do not speak at home, and she only learned in school.

    I struggled with the issue of languages while raising her.

    As a high school graduation present, I wrote a collection of essays on my experiences as a mother, and one of them is about learning languages.

    “Relax, Mom” is on my blog. Hope it helps you.

  2. “And I think much of their youth is being squandered on television rather than learning or even creating.”

    This one’s easy: throw out your TV. We did.

  3. Oh, please do not throw the television out. Used properly, it could be a very effective tool for parenting.

    I could not get my daughter to read fifteen minutes a day in one of her languages.I gave up trying. It was one battle I chose not to fight. I did try to maintain her connection with the language though through television.

  4. Thank you, Good Chinese Mother. I’ll check out your blog. And, throwing out the TV is not an option. My husband could not survive without it.

  5. 4 languages? What a useless endeavor. Is this where you tell us she had lots of friends and had fun too?

    But then, perhaps she’ll end up working for the CIA.

    This Chinese mom stuff is hilarious. Kinda like the stepford kids of suburbia. Little automatons diligently doing whatever Mom says is best (Russian in the 60’s-early 80’s, Japanese in the late 80’s-90’s, Chinese now— DESPITE China having a 5-10k per capita income.)

    However, I still love an American where one is able to be creative while following their bliss and develop into their own selves. Rather than some Chinese Mom’s kid working in a sweatshop, doing what the boss says– reciting all the “facts” they learned (like those perfect scales and perfect copies of the music others created).

    Nah, I want a self-thinking, creative kid who has no problem spending the day doing nothing or everything. (Tell me again the great modern invention that the Chinese created… Any modern world-wide cultural movements…. Perhaps there’s some, I guess.)

    Funny though, our current President, only speaks ONE language- and he does it well. Unlike, dumb George Bush who could speak Spanish and some Chinese, having lived there.

  6. With all due respects, profwilliams, do we only learn the things that are useful?

    My daughter is currently a history concentrator, a fact that is much disparaged by our Asian acquaintances who are always initially impressed by her Ivy League credential. They envision her as being an unemployable historian who speaks four languages.

    She will be graduating in May, and no need to worry about her. She did manage to find a job right after her junior year. And no, it is not with the CIA.


  7. Goodchinesemother, wonderful blog. Could you do me a favor and write a book combining all of the books you suggested? I’m so happy to hear someone defending Chinese mothers. The prof has been joking about them for weeks now (as though all Chinese mothers are the same and like Chua). It is offensive. Enough already.

    As far as your daughter speaking four languages….bravo to her!!! That is fantastic. She will go far in life. I met the Prof at a party this fall and the issue of children learning languages came up. I mentioned that my husband spoke more than two languages. He basically told me it was just a parlor trick. I can’t tell you how many clients my husband has brought in because of this “parlor trick”.

    I just wish he would start using all of his hot air to melt the snow. That would be a parlor trick that would be worth having.

  8. Goodchinesemother, sorry I just went back to your blog and realized those are not books but your essays. Lovely.

    And my statement above was not to say my husband was full of hot air. I was talking about the good Prof.

  9. Stacey –

    You asked, so here’s the answer. You’re wrong on 2 counts.

    1) It’s not adults, culture, and society that set standards for our kids. We do. Yes, other adults and culture and society they create certainly have a lot of influence over OUR choices and our children’s wishes, but we make the rules and enforce them. Grow some back-bone.

    2) Yes, you should’ve made her stick w/ Mandarin. It is a much harder language than Spanish and she already has a very good base for it. She could end up entirely fluent, whereas Spanish will always be a second language at this point.

    Also, a few studies have proven that languages with very different structures from our own, like Mandarin, stimulate a child’s mind in ways that have life-long benefits beyond just fluency.

    I’d reclaim the form and switch her to Mandarin.

  10. Bloomingmom, thanks for the most helpful advice. It probably would have been even more helpful had you not insulted me. I suppose everyone else aside from me raises their kids in a bubble, where there are no outside influences. And I am not the only one who makes the decisions for my children. They have a father as well. They also have a very inadequate school district that I have to struggle against to get them to educate my children properly. This in a county with the highest property taxes, oh, and, the taxes we are told are so high because of the stellar educational system. Enough already.

  11. Yea, sure Stacey. Our education system is in trouble because of me. Right. I teach kids to be creative by finding inspiration from within and all that is around them, far from the Chinese Mom that drills rote memorization down the kids throat. But I am strong and have no problem shouldering your blame.

    And holly, forgive me if I have no memory whatsoever of you. Sorry. But I LOVE that you had to clarify that it was me and not your husband who was full of hot air. Obviously, your mom was not Chinese as she would have drilled proper sequential use of the ‘ol pronoun into you so you wouldn’t have to make such a hilarious correction.

    Moreover, that you even felt the need to write something as odd as: “I can’t tell you how many clients my husband has brought in…” leaves me ROFLMAO.

    To that though, I’m sure even a card player showing his parlor trick might get work. Who cares?

    And bloomingmom, please give me a cite for these “Studies.” Your statement reads like something out of Baby Einstein. Because if so, tell me why China is STILL a Communist Country? Still a developing Country? With all those stimulated minds, I’d imagine someone would offer an alternative. Instead, those stimulated minds created that ONE CHILD rule.

    Finally, don’t blame me for all this Chinese Mom stuff. I didn’t make it acceptable to label a (mean spirited) child-rearing philosophy after an ethnic group. But because it is– and you continue it with the constant plug of your blog– I will happily, without fear of offense, continue to write about my objection to the Chinese Mom’s way to raise her kids. Moreover, I will continue to label ANY parenting style that is more drill sergeant than loving parent as Chinese Mom style.

  12. Dear hollykorusjenkins,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    As for my daughter going “far in life”, only time will tell. I have no doubt though that no matter what, she will find a way to make things work.

    In her own words…

    “Whenever I got the ball, it did not matter what the game was, I just ran as fast as I could!”

    Obviously, the game was never volleyball. : )

  13. Dear Stacey,

    I am Chinese, and I am a mother, but I am not a tiger mother. I wanted to be a better mother than my mother, and in my quest to be one, I read parenting books. I sought advice from parenting experts. I talked to other parents.

    Everyone had something to say to me about parenting, the Asian way to parent, the Western way to parent, the right way to parent, the better way to parent, the best way to parent, the only way to parent.

    It has been more than two decades since I read my first book on parenting. And now looking back, I see that I had the best teacher in my daughter. From the minute she was born, she was telling me how I could be the right mother for her…the best mother for her…

    And I learned…by listening to her…by watching her…and by knowing her…

    I am quite sure you will be fine.

  14. profwilliams, do we really have to defend learning a foreign language? As a multi-lingual person, I can say that knowing more than one’s native language is an amazing passport into different cultures and histories. Language is the best way to understand the psyche of a whole different group of people (if a certain level of fluency is reached). At worst, even a limited knowledge of a different language allows you to travel with much more ease and flexibility.

    Stacy, with respect, I think bloomingmom does have a point. Don’t underestimate your authority. My parents were super-strict Tiger Mother types, and while I certainly won’t be replicating their methods with my son, I do understand now that the strength of a parent’s will makes all the difference. Good luck to you!

  15. goodchinesemother,

    Forgive me, but this was directed at you and your permalink:

    “… But because it is– and you continue it with the constant plug of your blog– I will happily, without fear of offense, continue to write about my objection to the Chinese Mom’s way to raise her kids…”

  16. Oh, and witchy, explain to me how having a limited knowledge of, say Chinese, will help me as I travel in djibouti? Or even Mexico?

    Your response seems to hinge on a Euro-centric believe that if you speak any of the European languages, you may find someone who also speaks it. BUT when you consider how many other Countries there are, that speak language that have NOTHING in common with one another, your argument quickly fails.

    I would also argue that studying the art, politics and literature (translated, of course) of another Country can provide just as much- if not more- of a cultural understanding.

    To be clear: my issue is when the study of language in schools is that it often comes at the expense of other, more important things (which for me is most anything else).

  17. Dear profwilliams,

    Thank you for the clarification. You did not answer this question of mine though…

    “Do we only learn the things that are useful?”

    Also, there are many Chinese mothers, by which I mean mothers who are Chinese, and I am quite sure they all parent in many different ways.

  18. The only problem with Prof.’s position is that languages become harder to learn as we get older. Its simply another way to exercise the brain, actually, just as physical exercise, music, or math stimulate and exercise the brain.

    I wish we had better language programs in Montclair, but Stacey: I wouldn’t worry at all about which language your daughter learns – just that she learns, because with once that muscle is activated, subsequent languages are that much easier to acquire.

  19. nomo,

    What you wrote is not true. If so, I would imagine that kids can learn to do anything better than an adult. Is that true? Law, Medicine, music, art? Hell, most can’t speak or write well in their native language. Other than a few freak kid prodigies, adults can do most things that require a high order of the brain better than kids. Because the brain gets better as it ages (Did you watch the Charlie Rose specials on the Brain? This was addressed.)

    So why do you (and others) persist in the myth of kids being “sponges” who can learn anything, while adults cannot, when we have clear examples that refute this b/s all around us?

    Further, ALL of your examples prove my point as kids cannot excel over adults in ANY of those you listed. (Other than freak prodigies like LaBron James.)

    In truth, much of learning becomes EASIER as you age because you have greater control over your body, your understanding of WHY you’re learning and the value of the thing you are learning. (Adults may have a hard time NOT because learning is hard, but because frequently they are loathe to commit the time and effort to learn, NOT because they cannot– that’s a big difference.)

    But judging from this, I’m sure you still play Bach to your child because it “stimulates” their brain, huh?

    (I won’t even get into the oddity of learning a language– like Chinese– and never having any chance to use it- the parlor trick. A better argument, as Nick Krisof in the Times made, is learning Spanish, because at least you may have a chance to use it in America. But Spanish ain’t cool….)

  20. Prof, I am sorry you’re taking such a beating on this. I still love you!
    If there were more educators like you and Mrs Prof, the world would be a better place. (yes, I speak from experience here, people.) I wish the two of you could take over the Montclair School District. And Little Prof is an engaging, well-rounded child. Little surprise, coming from two great parents.

    Please say hi to the missus and give the lil’ guy a hug from me!

  21. Hi Stacey! I have to admit I felt basically the same as you: Crazy as a factory-farmed cow, but…she’s onto something there.

    I recently had a similar crackdown as you describe about my daughter whining/huffing/sighing when I required more of her at homework time. Another crack at spelling her challenge words (spelling is memorization and reading, and I can help with the one at least). Adding small sums even when her teacher asked them to count the dots on the dominoes. (I’m sorry, she should be beyond counting, everyday math-that-entails-dancing-to-your-addition be darned). Or pretty much anything else I asked.

    “Listen,” I said, doing an honest-to-god chin chuck. “You’re lucky to have parents who a) care about how you do in school and b) can help you with it. Act appreciative or I’ll stop.”

    It was only partly a bluff.

    I hope that the Tiger Mother in me would’ve come out if she’d whined again.

    But so far at least, it’s working.

    PS: I think you were 100% right about the Spanish. If your daughter has a genuine interest in something–that’s to be celebrated, right?

    And truthfully I find the whole Mandarin thing, um, misguided. It’s a hard language to tackle as a non-native.

  22. And Jenny, most will have ZERO opportunity to speak Mandarin vs. Spanish. But then again, parents are WAY MORE likely to scream: “My kid knows Chinese!!” vs. “My kid knows Spanish.”

    Kay, thanks for the kind words. But a beating? You must be reading a difference thread. No matter. I have a strong back, personality and a willingness to admit to being wrong, failing and listening, sadly, nothing here yet has given me pause.

    Oh and chinesemom: You asked: “do we only learn the things that are useful?” Obviously the answer is NO, but thinking further, YES. We have a limited amount of time to teach kids, and I think the study of languages occurs OVER other things that are of a GREATER benefit, or dare I say UTILITY. Such as gym, English (including penmanship, grammar and reading), Art, Music. These, an easy argument is made, are life skills/joys that make a well rounded citizen OVER learning Mandarin.

    (I won’t even touch the idea that by the time kids in elementary school graduate HS there will be a real language app that makes knowing a language- “conversationally”- obsolete.)

    It’s the choice of the language OVER other things. I’d rather the little prof have more time in gym- learning to work with others, teamwork, following rules, etc. Or art/music- which I value more than language, if given the choice.

    To be clear, I’m also against colleges require 2 or 3 semesters of a language. IF you believe that learning a language is important, require proficiency in it.

  23. Dear profwilliams,

    Thank you for your reply. Yes, the amount of time children spend in school is indeed limited, and I do agree with you that if the choice is between a language and gym, I would opt for gym just because it is truly important for children to learn to be fit, a lesson they will need for the rest of their lives no matter what career they choose to have.

    Stacey, however, does not have to choose between Mandarin or gym. Her quandary lies in choosing between Mandarin and Spanish. She, or her daughter Lily has to choose one over the other. And unless the curriculum changes, I am afraid she will have to choose a language class.


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