Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ambivalent Tiger Mom

The other day, at 99 Ranch Market, a local Asian grocery store, I spotted a flyer promoting a bilingual preschool program.

Written in Chinese, the only words in English were "AP", "SAT" and "Harvard". Intrigued, I set up a tour and took my four-year-old son to an open house event. Everyone, including the other parents attending, spoke Mandarin almost exclusively. It didn't feel like a bilingual program - it seemed pretty unilingual. Even though I had not decided whether or not to enroll, I was added to the school's mailing list and now receive several email messages a week that say things like this:
According to my trusty Google translator, it means this:
AP Chinese exam registration innovative comprehensive Training - required to take entrance exams

On another trip to 99 Ranch Market, I picked up another flyer, this one written in English. It was from the Asian American Parent Association and promoted their Parent Information Seminar Series. One of the events, "College Experiences," featured a panel discussion of college students and recent graduates from schools including Cornell, Harvard, MIT and Stanford.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand the importance of a great education, but the emphasis on AP exams, SATs, and college admission hurdles seems excessive. For my preschooler, especially, it's a little early to think about that.

Isn't it?

Maybe I'm being naive. My family recently moved across the country, from Ohio to California, and in trying to assimilate into our new community, I'm still finding my footing. For the past six months, I've been struggling to shape my new identity as a stay-at-home parent. For the first time in many years, instead of working outside the home, I've been spending my days mainly taking care of my four-year-old and shuttling my fourth-grader around.

Now that my "job" is taking care of the kids full time, I've focused my energy on their education and found it to be pretty challenging navigating a new school with different expectations. Our new community is a quiet, safe area of Silicon Valley with excellent public schools. Our neighborhood elementary school is predominantly Asian and even though I'm Taiwanese American (born in Canada and raised in the United States), it's been quite a culture shock, as the demographics are much different to what we were used to in Cleveland.

This summer, between packing and unpacking frenzies, I read Amy Chua's controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua was blasted with criticism for suggesting that "Chinese parenting" is superior to "Western parenting". The week the book came out last year, my email inbox just about exploded from the forwarded book reviews, media reports and commentary from friends and family. 

The Tiger Mom concept is one I know well, as the daughter of immigrant parents. My own parents were pretty mild compared to some parents I knew, but I am still very familiar with the style of parenting that celebrates academic and career achievement, where nothing short of perfection is acceptable.

Now that I'm a parent myself, I find myself conflicted about the best approach in parenting my hapa kids. There are certain things my parents emphasized that I agree with: I believe in surrounding my children with books and music, investing in educational activities and lessons, instilling a strong work ethic and expecting high achievement. I don't believe in valuing math and science above all, severely restricting social interaction with other students and denying affection to my children for efforts I find subpar.

Last year, I found myself leaning toward the Tiger Mom approach when my then third-grader participated in a school science fair. Flashbacks of visits to my dad's research lab and memories of my eighth grade science fair project ("The Effects of Color and Light on Mung Bean Growth") flooded my mind. I pushed Nico on the project and we had more than few tearful standoffs before the whole thing was over. There was so much conflict and tension in the house. I eased up for his spelling bee.

This year, I am still trying to find a balanced parenting approach when it comes to academics. Is it enough for me to be home to help with homework? Or should I enlist experienced education professionals to give my children more of a competitive edge?

At our new elementary school, when classes are dismissed, a parade of shuttle vans awaits to take students to a number of after-school programs. One I find particularly intriguing is a combination homework and martial arts program with the slogan "Our Goals are Black Belt Leadership Report Card A+ Manners & Etiquette!"

We live among many Tiger Families. Nico and I started running together this summer and on our evening runs, we often hear piano practice sessions (oh-so-familiar scales, arpeggios and sonatinas I remember from my own childhood) as we pass the houses in our neighborhood.

At the beginning of the school year, Nico asked to take band classes, but participation involved a lottery. My husband worried about the chances of being selected for the lottery. "Don't worry," I reassured my non-Asian husband. "Everyone else is already playing piano and/or violin." Sure enough, Nico got his first choice - alto saxophone. So far this year, Nico's extracurricular activities have been ones that typical Tiger Moms would not authorize: band, Boy Scouts, Little League.

Of course, it would be fantastic if my boys excelled in school, aced the SAT and went on to Harvard - but I wouldn't define success by that one narrow path.

I guess I'm an ambivalent Tiger Mom. Any others out there?


HapaMama said...

I can really relate to the ambivalence part! Having been raised in a very Tiger-ish way, I struggle with how much to push and how much to let my kids take the lead, and how my husband and I differ on philosophies. It's funny, I wrote a post about my son's science fair exhibit, too.

However, after a few years of having kids in elementary school, I'm leaning more and more away from the Tiger Mom style. In some instances, that means letting my kid quit Chinese school or pursue non-traditional interests. What's most important to me now is helping him find his own strengths and interests. Of course, once in a while I wake up in a sweaty panic that I'm ruining his life.

auntie linda said...

OMG. I totally remember your mung bean experiment. i thought it was so fascinating.

and your boys will turn out great. in whatever they end up being passionate about. don't be a tiger mom. of if you feel yourself leaning in that direction, let their auntie linda take them for a weekend and bring the fun back in their lives. ;)

Lisa said...

Thanks for your comments!

HapaMama, I'm glad I'm not alone in the ambivalence. I love that you also wrote about science fair angst! I've lost sleep over the Chinese School issue (I'll share the details in a future post) myself and it would be a lot easier to dismiss the Tiger Mom questions if I didn't live in an area where I am surrounded by high-achieving Asians/Asian Americans. I have only one child in grade school right now, with another starting this fall, and can only imagine what high school parenting will be like!

Auntie Linda, I'm not surprised you remember the mung bean experiment. Every night, after Mom and Dad went to bed, you insisted on getting up to check on the beans - as if we could see them grow before our eyes. :) The boys are great as they are, I know, but that's not going to stop me from second-guessing my parenting instincts all the time. BTW, Dad called last night and reminded me that Son #1 was reading by age four so I need to get it together with Son #2!