Pressures driving China's 'Tiger Mothers'
- 25 January 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
A book suggesting Chinese parents raise more successful children has caused a storm in the US and Europe - but would raise barely an eyebrow in China.
US law professor Amy Chua - the daughter of Chinese immigrants in America - says Chinese youngsters often do better because their parents are stricter.
Being strict with children about what they can and cannot do with their free time is a well-established and largely uncontroversial practice in China.
Many parents here believe that without such regimes their children could fail to get into a good university, which they see as vital to securing a well-paid job.
Not everyone believes being strict is the best way to raise children. Some Chinese parents are starting to take a different view.
It is is hard, however, to fight against a system that places so much faith in academic success.
"We have to adapt to the system, the system does not adapt to individuals," said Meng Xiangyi, mother of a seven-year-old son.
In many respects Mrs Meng resembles the Chinese parents described in Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
She gave up her job to oversee her son's education, and made it her mission to get Ni Tianhao, whose English name is Tom, into one of Beijing's top primary schools.
She succeeded, but only after a massive effort.
Mrs Meng had to move her family into the school's catchment area and cultivated contacts among the staff, who helped get her son in.
She also had to pay about 100,000 yuan (£9,500; $15,000) in extra fees.
Tianhao goes to Zhongguancun No 2 Primary School, located near to some of China's top universities and, importantly, some of the feeder schools that could help him get into one of them.
He is already taking extra English classes and is being taught how to swim by a renowned coach.
Mrs Meng said she was not as strict as some mothers - she does not force her son to learn a musical instrument - but he cannot fall too far behind at school.
"I don't make him get 100%. If he gets 90% or above I'm satisfied," she said. It seems a high standard for a mother who claims not to be too tough.
Professor Yang Dongping, of Beijing Institute of Technology, has spent years studying Chinese parenting methods.
He does not compare Chinese mothers to tigers, as the author Amy Chua does. He has another phrase: crazy mothers.
"The biggest problem in China is that parents are increasingly unwilling to allow their children to be children," said Prof Yang.
"They don't have a happy childhood - it's all about study and exams and after-school classes."
He said this style of parenting had developed partly because of China's traditional emphasis on academic learning.
The one-child policy has not helped either because it puts a lot of pressure on only children to succeed.
There are other problems too.
Prof Yang said that putting too much emphasis on academic success often produced children who achieved good grades, but who lacked creativity and imagination.
There is some disquiet in China about pushing children too hard.
Karen Zhou, who is married to an Australian, initially put her eight-year-old son Oliver into a Chinese school.
But she then switched to a Western one when she noticed he was often depressed and unhappy about his time at school.
"He's much happier now. Academically, he's slightly behind, but his social skills and his way of thinking are different to a year ago," she said.
Karen Zhou is perhaps an exception.
It is not hard to find young Chinese adults who describe their childhoods as being full of work and short on play which, along with sport, is sometimes seen as a waste of precious time.
Some have formed internet support groups - with thousands of members - that detail their difficult younger lives. One is called All Parents Are Disasters.
Li Xing, a columnist for the newspaper China Daily, spoke for many when she criticised this system.
"There is more to life than test scores," she wrote.
"The media and the education system should put more emphasis on an all-round education that produces conscientious future citizens who value teamwork, creativity, individuality and independence."
Fine words, but with a sense that competition for jobs is getting tougher in China, it takes a brave parent to fight against the prevailing system.