-Analysis-

BEIJING — There is a popular Chinese television series called "Tiger Mom: My Sweat, Your Success" that has prompted no shortage of debate in China. Indeed, discussion has even extended to Chinese people living in America, where the concept of Tiger Moms made waves after the publication of a book in by a hard-driving Chinese-American mother.

Many Chinese now share the view that middle-class families in America or Europe have actually begun to bring up their offspring in exactly the same way as China’s tiger moms.

In an article circulating on the Internet in China, a Chinese mother, who has lived in the United States for four years, offered her impression after watching the show that is broadcast back here in China. She declared herself grateful for the ruthless education she received in China: "It made me capable of enduring hardship, able to bear grievances and to see using my body to serve a man or to depend on a man as a source of shame. This is the root of my happiness.”

Yet I can’t agree with her. Because these same three characteristics are exactly what plagues the Chinese-style education, rather than it being “the root of happiness.” By no means is a wife “using her body” to serve her husband, because a couple’s intimate relations are not a trade for money. And to say all women must be in the labor market, so as not to rely on their husbands, is also denying that a woman can find self-worth in ways that are not driven by economics.

Education is about learning perseverance, not ruthlessness. Chinese families tend to demand that their children take on hardship and grievances unconditionally. Yet this is one of the very reasons why Chinese people often hit the “bamboo ceiling” for promotion when living in a foreign country.

Actress Zhao Wei and actor Tong Dawei, lead stars of the TV show Tiger Mom in Beijing, China — Photo: Tpg/ZUMA

In comparison, I have seen African-Americans be much more assertive and always denounce when they are victims of injustice. This can also help them stand out when an opportunity presents itself. We now know that it is not unusual for Chinese-American children to be refused by prestigious universities, such as Harvard, even though they are often much stronger candidates than others. Only very recently have America’s Chinese communities realized they must fight for their legitimate rights.

An American style of upbringing is about facing conflicts without being aggressive, neither passive nor duplicitous — it is about sticking to principles and being assertive. Only if one is capable of communicating with others can one win others’ respect in America’s workplace. And such communication skills start right from childhood.

A Chinese tiger mom, who constantly suppresses her offspring's autonomy, bending them to her will, is not serving her children's inner needs. In the long term, this will harm their development.

In effect, America’s discussion of education is much more sophisticated than just weighing hardship and happiness. It is not an either-or question. For example, American educators have always talked about “desirable difficulty” and “undesirable difficulty.” Parents and teachers should aim for for the former, where a pupil is willing to face up to challenges and tackle problems; while avoiding the situations (undesirable difficulty) where young people waste energy on an activity beyond their capacity or interests. 

The differences between Chinese and American education is not a question of who is better at instilling the endurance of hardship, but about setting goals. In appearance, America’s middle-class families also send their children to learn all kinds of things. But it tends to be with the objective of encouraging children to learn on their own, instead of being forced to do so. But another way: American parents strive above all to make their children autonomous, running on their own engine, while Chinese parents always pull the cart ahead of their children.

A mother changing the shoes of her daughter in a training centre in Ningxia Hui — Photo: Wang Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA

This morning my daughter was invited, along with two other girls, to play in musical trios in a church. When chatting with the father of the girl who plays viola, I found out that this girl also plays piano, tennis and is a black belt in taekwondo.

When I asked the father why he didn’t encourage his daughter to try out for the prestigious musical band at the high school, he told me: “I thought she would, but she wanted to spend more time playing tennis.”

A typical Chinese parent would have thought allowing that kind of freedom to a talented, headstrong girl like that may "make you miss the chance to create another Lang Lang.” Of course they all forget to ask, as vast as China is, how many Lang Langs have we actually produced?

I personally do not agree that the Chinese way of forcing and reprimanding is a source of pride for our country. Rather it’s an approach that is both backward and reckless, born out of a lack of pedagogic knowledge and modern psychology. Learning is related to one’s mind, and thus should be a fundamentally human experience.

When interviewed recently by Forbes magazine about his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, CNN host Fareed Zakaria noted that “what a liberal education at its best does, and it really does this much better, I believe, than … let’s just call it an Asian style of education for now, even though that is a simplification, is to allow people to range widely, to read widely, to explore their passions.” Born in India, Zakaria, who has a PhD from Harvard, can see particularly clearly that the Asian way of education, including that of the Chinese, has a long way to go to catch up with the American one.