Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
What binds Asia together isn’t trade or religion as much as the Tiger Mom. The result of crazed competition engendered by enormous populations and limited opportunities, the Asian Tiger Mom has claws that she uses to ensure her offspring’s success untrammeled by misery.
My first encounter with this infamous figure was in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. My son, Ishaan, had just started at a school founded by one of Indonesia’s wealthy Chinese families. It was the hunting grounds of diamond-dripping Asian mothers with big ambitions for their children. The founder’s daughter, a moon-faced child, was Ishaan’s classmate.
This four-year-old began her mornings an hour earlier than the other children with a wushu lesson - by the time she was five, she was competing in international martial arts competitions. In a corridor conversation, her mother told me that she was training her daughter to kowtow to her in traditional Chinese style. “I think it instills respect. Don’t you?” she asked me mildly, leaving my head spinning in a million directions as I thought of Ishaan’s epic sassiness.
Just the other day he’d asked why I could watch TV every evening when he was only allowed to on the weekends. “Because I'm your mother and I can do whatever I want," I had declared sternly. "Oh?" Ishaan had countered, unfazed. "Can you climb a tree with no branches? Or cut down a coconut?”
As it happened, a few days after this exchange I began reading Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. By the time I was through the first couple of chapters it was as if the third eye of Shiva had awoken within me. Some dormant genetic strain of Asian mom roared into gear.
Amy Chua had ensured that her daughter was an accomplished pianist by the age of six, obediently practicing her scales for hours every day. Her children were “polite, interesting, helpful and well-spoken.” They did not go on playdates because they spent their “free” time perfecting various intricate competencies.
She explained that she didn’t let tears or tantrums deter her, because children always oppose learning a difficult new skill at the beginning when they are not very good at it. Chua pointed out that this was where “western” parents tend to give up. But by persisting even in the face of vehement opposition from the child, “Asian” parents create a virtuous circle wherein eventually a child begins to excel at the task at hand and therefore to enjoy it.
I was mortified. I had been a terrible mother to Ishaan: lax and laissez faire. While his wushu master classmate was already adept at calligraphy, Ishaan’s writings were scarcely more than squiggles. I needed to find my stripes.
Amy Chua had kept her daughters up until midnight perfecting their Chinese characters, but I heaped Ishaan with praise if he merely managed to distinguish his “b” from a “d”. The first time my son had put his head underwater at swimming class, I had leapt up and down clapping in encouragement and later bought him a vanilla milkshake in reward. Amy Chua would have refused to feed him at all until he had mastered the butterfly stroke.
When I looked at it with Tiger-eyes, it became clear that Ishaan was basically useless. He often coloured outside the margins in drawing class. By the time he managed to do up the buttons of his shirt, Amy Chua’s daughter would have performed a dazzling Mozart concerto.
I diagnosed the problem as lying in me. I had been weak and craven in not insisting on perfection. I had let Ishaan down by doing up his buttons for him when he was late for school instead of waking up half an hour earlier to make sure he had enough time to re-do the buttons again, and again, if necessary.
For the next month I sat down with Ishaan at a desk for hours after school forcing him to write perfect ABCs. When he failed, I told him to try again, repeating that I believed he could do it if he only tried harder. I kept calm. For the first hour, or so. But eventually I would lose it and start yelling. “Why can’t you just write the damn ‘p’?” I shouted and gnashed my teeth at his incompetence.After he failed to write a word with even-sized letters over the course of an entire afternoon, I gripped his shoulder so hard he winced and announced we would not get up until he produced results.
“Why do birds fly?” Ishaan asked me one Saturday morning, a few weeks into my Tiger mania. “Because they have wings," I replied perfunctorily. "I have wings too," he said. I looked up, interested. "Really? I can't see them. Where are they?" "Oh, they're just resting, folded in my belly," he smiled, mischief dancing in his eyes.And just like that, my horrible, misguided, Tiger Mom phase was over. My son was a curious, imaginative and confident young person whom I had in effect been undermining. He was not Amy Chua’s child. He was not the kowtowing-enthusiast's son. He was mine. And he was a rockstar who danced to his own tune.
***When stripped down, parenting sounds so simple. It is only about avoiding excess and developing the confidence to listen to one’s intuition. You merely have to encourage and leave alone; to restraint and indulge; to add a bit of this and take away a dash of that; to be open to altering the recipe according to the personality of the child. But it is not simple. Sometimes, it is harder than walking on hot coals.