Getting Under My Skin: When "Tiger Mother" Meets "Race to Nowhere"

Frustrated kids and conflicting messages about education are leaving parents more confused than ever about how to handle our "achievement culture".

My 15-year-old daughter stopped talking to me last week. During a long car ride I suggested quizzing her on literature vocab words for her upcoming mid-terms, knowing that concentrated study time at home needs to go to her four AP classes. She reluctantly pulled out the flash cards she made for the test, and I asked her, “What is ‘arduous’?” “Um, is it like when, sort of, you…uggh…I don’t know.”

I lost it. “‘Arduous’—you take all these hard classes and you don’t know ‘arduous’? Are you kidding me?” Then it got worse, and as usual, I ended with, “I’m blocking your Facebook.”

Her response? “You’re acting like the Tiger Mother.”

Her backlash bothered me—because she was right; it was getting under my skin. Even my daughter was citing the Wall Street Journal’s excerpt “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which has a spurred a gazillion love or hate comments all over the internet.

The firestorm unleashed by Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, coincides with sold-out screenings of the documentary Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, questioning the soundness of our high stakes, high pressure school culture. Meanwhile, policy makers are wringing hands over recently-released global math and science test results showing Americans scoring significantly below industrialized nation averages, with the Chinese at the top. Despite a goal of becoming globally competitive, last year when my local school board faced a budget deficit, they joined legions of others around the United States, and voted to eliminate the elementary foreign language program.

With such schizophrenic news on education, of course parents are confused. We wonder: what are the Chinese (or Indian or Russian or ...) parents doing that we're not? It might start from a competitive perspective, but I think it stems from a deeper place: We want our children to thrive while the rules—in everything—seem to be changing.

Fueling the frenzy, there’s a message between the lines—that our children are like empty vessels that need to be filled with the "right" information and training, to attain "success" based on a fantasy of professional status. Universally, the wisdom of the ages contradicts any such presumption—accomplished parents can’t be the gods to mold their children in their image. If we try, the result is sadness and disconnection.

An antidote to filling the empty bucket of my children’s intellect has been to see them "as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom." This approach sees our children as our trust, like a mine full of gems, and our job as parents and educators is to bring out those brilliant gifts responsibly.

Seen this way, we might approach our task with greater respect, patience, humility, and appreciation for the diversity of each child’s inner gifts. We won’t treat them as empty and needing to be filled with distractions, achievements, or more stuff. And our purpose in all of this is for the benefit of mankind, not simply an advancement of one individual’s comforts or prestige.

This idea gained clarity when I spoke with Gayatri Sethi of Atlanta. Her parents were born in India, she was born in Tanzania, raised in Botswana, is married to an African-American, and holds a PhD from Stanford. She recently watched Race to Nowhere and has been contemplating the emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences of the achievement culture.

Embodying global citizenship, she is mindful of the need to raise balanced, connected children, while valuing “excellence in all things.” Her goal? “I hope they will be happy, healthy, honest and brave; and life-long learners.” This might mean no team sports that created anxiety in her first grade son, but pursuing the Tae Kwon Do that he loves. It also involves plenty of down time.

The debate on parenting best practices isn’t going away. But if we lurch from one sensational headline to the next, the frenzy will continue to be felt by our stressed-out, medicated, sleep-deprived kids. I want my daughter to start trusting me again to help her study—if she asks—and I hope to remain mindful of the wisdom of the sages, the bigger picture. A combination of some of the “Chinese” discipline is crucial, but more, for raising thriving global citizens, qualities like flexibility, responsibility, curiosity, generosity, cultivating genuine friendships with diverse people, compassion and independence will serve as my yardsticks, beyond straight-A’s. And it just so happens that universities look for this, employers prefer this approach, and our world can be made better place by them, too.

Homa Sabet Tavangar is the author of Growing up Global: Raising Children to Be at Home in the World (Ballantine/Random House), named a “Best New Parenting Book” and praised by Dr. Jane Goodall. She’s the mom of three girls ages 7 to 17, and a frequent speaker and advisor on global perspectives to corporations and K-12 communities.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user mcamcamca

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less

Climate change means our future is uncertain, but in the meantime, it's telling us a lot about our past. The Earth's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, but as the ice dwindles, ancient artifacts are being uncovered. The Secrets of the Ice project has been surveying the glaciers on Norway's highest mountains in Oppland since 2011. They have found a slew of treasures, frozen in time and ice, making glacier archeologists, as Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, put it when talking to CNN, the "unlikely beneficiaries of global warming."

Instead of digging, glacier archeologists survey the areas of melting ice, seeing which artifacts have been revealed by the thaw. "It's a very different world from regular archaeological sites," Pilø told National Geographic. "It's really rewarding work.

Keep Reading Show less

When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less