Tuesday 21 November 2017

In my opinion: 'The tiger mother almost never praises a child; praising children makes them soft'

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Who are the cleverest youngsters in the world? The OECD ratings, released in December, were unambiguous. In maths and the sciences, the Chinese are top of the league tables. Ireland came 21st. Even in literacy, the Irish had slipped from a previous fifth place to a current 17th.

Must try harder!

So, is the Chinese way of raising children the template for the future? The impact of Amy Chua's book, 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', indicates that Chinese methods are a hot talking point. The young mothers I know are certainly talking about it -- and resolving to put some of its theories into practice. I hear them saying that in the western world, we are too indulgent to children, too anxious to please them and make their lives easy.

"Remember a birthday card I painted for you when I was about six?" I heard a young mum say to her own father. Yes, he remembered. "It was laughably bad. You should have handed it right back to me and said, 'You can do much better than that'. Instead you said, 'Darling, that's lovely!'"

"I was only trying to be encouraging," said the dad. "That's what you should do for children -- encourage them!"

"No!" said the daughter. "You should be strict with them, and demand high standards from them. That's what the Chinese do. Haven't you read about 'Tiger Mother'?"

The Tiger Mother cult -- describing the Chinese way of parenting -- says that only by being strict and demanding can parents raise successful children.

Amy Chua, a Chinese immigrant to the United States (and a professor), invokes this 'extreme parenting' which is the Chinese tradition. A Chinese mother will say to an overweight daughter, "Hey, fatty, lose some weight!" They will disparage their children by calling them "garbage" and accuse their kids of laziness. "Why is the rest of the class getting ahead of you?" They lambaste youngsters for losing at anything competitive and ban them from watching TV, from sleepovers or from messing around with recreational projects.

Music is a must for the Tiger Mother because the piano and violin mean practice, practice, practice, and that involves discipline -- the central plank of Chinese values. If a child does not achieve their music grades, the mother may throw out a toy, or has even been known to burn stuffed animals or give away a much-loved doll's house as a punishment.

The Tiger Mother almost never praises a child; praising children makes them soft. Seldom are the children allowed pets -- a pet might distract from the iron discipline that is deemed necessary to achieve.

To many western sensibilities, the Tiger Mother methods are cruel, mean-spirited and inhumane. But defenders of the Chinese tradition point out that their attitudes get results: thus are the Chinese consistently top of the world league in academic achievement, while many western nations are slipping down the ranks relentlessly (Britain is fast heading for 25th place in literacy, it seems.)

Some social analysts even say this is why the global future belongs to the Chinese -- because they raise their kids in a tough and disciplined way, not in the liberal and indulgent manner which fusses anxiously about 'self-esteem'.

But wait a minute. There is something familiar about this Tiger Mother approach to child development. Traditional Irish methods of child-rearing were not that dissimilar.

Discipline was greatly underlined as a principle of child-rearing, and the traditional lore of the Irish elders often reiterated the old adage 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. Chastisement that now constitutes physical abuse and legal assault was, in the not very distant past, regarded as part of character formation.

Children were never praised, for fear it would 'turn their heads'. There was a positive horror of spoiling a child, for fear of producing a 'ne'er-do-well'. I cannot remember a single episode in my own childhood when anyone in authority said anything encouraging to me. Teachers specialised in the sarcastic sneer and the flinty put-down. Self-esteem just didn't figure: the important issue was that you must be corrected from your wayward path.

You had to get permission to do anything and everything. Your friends and companions had to be scrutinised to ensure they were not a bad influence.

And indeed, I did have a doll's house taken away from me when I was about eight. It wasn't done as a punishment, but to make me practise Christian charity and not be selfish about personal possessions.

Tiger Mother parenting certainly had its own Irish version just a couple of generations ago. And was it a success? Well, it certainly prepared you to accept life's hardships and to absorb the message that you had to survive by your own efforts. But it could be cold and cruel on more delicate souls, and it could empower sadistic individuals to do their worst.

Yet the cleverer the Chinese nation -- and diaspora -- becomes, the more that we will examine Tiger Mother methods as a corrective to some of the over-liberal approaches to child-raising that have come to dominate western child psychology. It is the young mothers who are exploring Amy Chua's ideas and applying some of them, perhaps in more measured form, to the raising of the next generation.

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