7 Feb 2011

‘Tiger mothers’: the Chinese route to success?

What do the Chinese know about parenting that we don’t? And would their methods ever be acceptable over here? Katie Razzall meets the author of a controversial new book on “tiger mothers”.

What does she know? A mother and child in Beijing (Getty)

Just what is a tiger mother? Amy Chua’s a law professor at America’s Yale University and her book on the subject is making waves.

She’s been called “dangerous”, “outrageous”, even a “monster” for her descriptions of how she brought up her two daughters.

Her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” describes – with exaggeration surely – fighting with a daughter for hours at the piano to ensure the child gets a piece of music right, rejecting birthday cards made for her by her girls because she doesn’t think they’ve put in enough effort, comparing one child negatively with the other, threatening to burn their toys.

It’s a far cry from traditional western methods of parenting and, at some points in the book, Ms Chua appears almost deranged. Her rules include: schoolwork always comes first, an A-minus is a bad grade, your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in maths, no playdates with friends, no school plays – and playing the violin or the piano is a must.

It’s a far cry from traditional western methods of parenting and, at some points in the book, Ms Chua appears almost deranged.

In her first TV interview in Britain, Ms Chua told me the book’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, a “memoir” not a doctrine of parenting, but she stands by what she describes as the Chinese hard work ethic as a way of creating happy, successful children – at least in her case.

While she’s had huge amounts of flak for her theories, one thing can’t be refuted – the success of Chinese children in the education system.

In Britain, startling research shows that Chinese girls, for example, are out-performing all other ethnic groups at GCSE – 79 per cent getting 5 A-C Grades, compared with 58 per cent of white British girls. The comparison is even starker when it comes to pupils on free school meals – an indicator of poverty and usually seen as a driver of educational failure. 78 per cent of Chinese girls on free school meals got 5 A-Cs last year, compared with just 24 per cent of their white British counterparts.

So what is it about Chinese parenting that’s breeding high achievers? And how do Amy Chua’s theories play into that success?

She told me that if her daughter came back from school with 96/100 in a test, Chua would ask her what happened to the other 4 points. It’s about always knowing “you can do better” she told me.

Interestingly, in China, the natural habitat of the tiger mother, they’re moving away from traditional Chinese parenting. This emerging superpower knows it needs to breed innovators to create the high-end economy it wants to develop.

The fear is that the rote-learning and memorisation that’s been a key part of the education system actually stifles creativity. Don’t think, for a second, they’ll sacrifice success though – one Beijing mother we spoke to, who says she’s following more western parenting styles, still has incredibly high standards for her daughter…she wants her in the top 3 in class.