I remember the time “tiger parenting” entered the Western consciousness. The phrase is used to describe the pursuit of high achievement and academic excellence that seems unique to Asian families.
It also became a phrase used to judge and shame such parents by people who disagree with raising children that way. It has many of the characteristics of a racist epithet because it is applied almost exclusively to Asians.
Whatever the meaning, I felt obliged not to be bound by the stereotype. All I want to do is the best I can for my children, and to me that means possessing the flexibility to pick and choose whatever I think will work best.
Fast-forward a few years, and my daughter has come home with her first report card. This happened a few weeks ago.
“How cute,” I thought, “She’s only six, and they’re already sending these things home.”
I didn’t have any great expectations. I mean, her world is all about Disney Princesses and she still believes in the Tooth Fairy.
But then I saw that she scored a B in mathematics.
B, as opposed to A.
There was a small part of me that was a little put off. Not by her, of course – she has no idea what’s going on.
But here she is, the daughter of two relatively high-achieving parents (one of whom did reasonably well in 4-unit math), with whom I routinely play word and number games when we’re walking down the road, counting up and down in multiples of different numbers, pointing out the basics of geometry and symmetry and numeric patterns… how hard could whatever she’s doing at school be for her to only score a B?
If she’s not a genuine talent at mathematics, then fair enough. But either way, I had to know.
“Only the top geniuses get an A. We only gave out one to this group,” declared the teacher proudly, as though she’d just discovered the next Stephen Hawking.
“So… which questions did she get wrong?”, we asked, “Are there any specific areas she can improve in?”
Again, I can’t believe I’m asking this about a six year-old.
“No,” she snapped, “It’s got nothing to do with that.”
She stopped to recompose herself, as though remembering her training that mere parents couldn’t possibly grasp the complexities of education. “Like I said, we don’t give out A’s to just anyone.”
I’ve heard this speech before. It’s the kind given by people who think intelligence is a divine gift bestowed upon a chosen few, as opposed to something that can be trained and learned with practice.
That’s hardly the example I’d want my daughter to follow, especially when it’s the attitudes she develops here that inform the attitudes she takes into high school and beyond.
I had a thousand suggestions to make, and I knew they’d all mean pushing shit uphill. I mean, let’s be realistic: one parent isn’t about to change the standards, procedures or curriculum of an entire school. Besides, while my goal is to ensure my child has the best chance at life, their goal is simply to follow a set of KPIs and ensure all children meet a minimum standard.
My choice, therefore, is a very simple one: I’m going to sit down and do her math exercises with her. I’m going to buy more textbooks and apps. I’m going to lead her through all the things I know she’s already capable of doing, and challenge her curiosity to beat longer, harder, more complex questions. I’m going to put her into tutoring classes. If she’s ready to take on questions from the upper grades, I won’t stop her.
I don’t need the school’s permission to do this.
If she excels, then she’ll get all the chances in life I want her to have. If she doesn’t, well at least I tried. The bottom line is that excellence is something to aspire and work towards – it isn’t something that just falls in your lap. As the saying goes, if you snooze, you lose.
If this makes me a tiger parent, then so be it. It’s how my dad did it, it’s how Asia does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
The ABCs of ABCs is a light-hearted attempt to explain the ins and outs of Australian-Born Chinese culture for Caucasians who can’t make any sense of it. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic behaviour I get asked the same questions about, so I’m doing my best to answer them. Call it my way of bridging the gap between cultures.