I have just finished reading “The Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua and feel overwhelmed by the emotions the book stirred within me. I could relate to so many things that are depicted in the book that I felt that the Chinese parenting method, the11 ambition and uncompromising attitude towards mediocrity are seen in differing doses in all Asian parents. By contrast the western method is more accommodative of children’s preference.
I am nowhere near Amy but there have been streaks of Tiger motherhood in me too. I would not know how my children felt and I never asked them simply because I never realized that they too might have had a preference that need not necessarily be the same as mine. Anyway, since all is well now I can pat my back and feel proud of my parenting method. Also because my days as a parent are over I can afford to do a little introspection and try to find out what might or might not have happened had they been given a choice.
My elder daughter was just eight years old when her story was published in Champak – a children’s magazine. She wrote out the story in an inland letter and addressed it to the editor and posted it to the address on the back cover of the magazine. I came to know of it only when it was published. I was very happy for her but never thought of helping or encouraging her develop the skill or explore the possibility of making it her career. Now this raises a question in my mind. By not pushing her forward I may be considered a western parent but in not accommodating her interest and assuming that my choice for her was the best I am very much Asian. Was I conveniently switching roles as per my convenience? Or was it the proper thing to do? I mean combining both methods the way I mix my mother tongue Tamil with Hindi and English?
I don’t think it mattered in the long run. It was not as if my older daughter wanted to take up Liberal Arts and I forced her to take up Science. With both parents being Science graduates I don’t think she ever thought of taking up Arts. She joined a course in Pharmaceutical science, much against her will, hoping that she would be able to slide up to a better subject later. She did not. She did some core papers in pharmacy but took up optional subjects of her choice and landed a software job. She later did her Masters in Film and Video and is now a technical writer. With her Science background, technical skills and a flair for writing she has an edge over many others. Where do I fit into all this? Nowhere, I must admit – except for contributing 50% of the genes she carries.
My second daughter was not inclined towards linguistics and in the primary section she came across as an average student. I let her be since I saw her work hard and I did not want to push her too much lest she developed an aversion for books. I had however failed to notice in her the desire to excel. She was not vocal and would stutter when flooded with too many questions. Having left her in my mother’s care for a year while still an infant I too was nursing some amount of guilt and felt responsible for her stammering that I assumed was the outcome of having left her in an alien environment just when she had begun to recognize me. I deliberately refrained from imposing my ambition on her and consoled myself that I would be happy with whatever she became in life and let her do things at her own pace.
Since I was being the liberal western parent she became her own Tiger Mother. She set goals for herself and strived hard to measure up to them. She identified her weaknesses and worked on her own improvement. There was a public speaking course that her school conducted and she asked to be allowed to enroll in it. She also went for a career counseling session to find out what her chances were. And finally when she reached High school and had a good amount of Science and Math to deal with, she proved her mettle and was among the toppers in her school. She is the one with a post doctoral degree to her credit in my own and possibly one among the two in our extended family. She has given a number of presentations requiring a good deal of scientific data, fully prepared to face the questions and clarifications posed by the scientific community.
I don’t even know whether she metamorphosed into a fighter or if she had it in her all along. But I do know that she has the potential to become an excellent researcher and is at the same time a good house keeper. She trained for and participated in half marathon and till date manages to go for an early morning run four days a week, learns Bharatanatyam along with her daughter and picked up music lessons after a gap of nearly 15 years. It is her own grit that sustains her and neither the Chinese nor the western method of parenting has been instrumental in her case. How did I miss her desire to excel? Well I was busy doing my Masters during her formative years and it was perhaps my non interference that allowed her to decide on the pace and rate of her growth.
Nothing worked with my son. Oh yes, I did put him in a coaching class to deal with the entrance exams for Engineering admissions. However he could not be coaxed to put in hours and hours of hard work required for admissions to the IITs or IIMs. Instead he developed a rounded personality that is required for a successful career. He was in the astronomy club at school and would cycle to school an hour and a quarter before time to use the single computer that students could access. That was 20 years back. If preparing for IIT entrance exams meant compromising on extra and co curricular activities he perhaps did not want it.
He too had a flair for creative writing and is doing pretty well for himself. More than anything else he knows his mind and gives no cause for complaint. I now understand that even if he had not done Engineering he would have had an equally successful career. In fact he has told me on many occasions that he would have preferred to take up Commerce to have time for extra curricular activities. He has proved that the college or course do not shape one’s career. It is clearly an individual’s effort that does it.
To be honest I do admit that we Asians are ambitious for our children. I do not know much about westerners but as Amy Chua rightly points out there are bound to be liberal parents among Asians and strict ones in the West. Generalization would not be fair. But I do know that parental ambition works only when the child wills it. My children were not coerced to submission nor were they given a choice. They went by what we had decided for them. On the face of it, it did appear that we had contributed to their success. However, I know that they found their own path and ended up exactly where they wanted to be. The Tiger Mother concept – that parents ought to help children’s realize their potential even if it means subjecting them to an overdose of discipline – may sound good theoretically but the practical aspects are bound to exhaust both parents and children. I would have loved to be a Tiger mother but my children did not give me a chance :-((. Very sad isn’t it that I should have become a docile cow instead!
Be it as it may, I enjoyed the book and as is my habit I am going to read and re – read portions of the book over and over again. Amy Chua has done a commendable job and deserves praise for it.
Pic credit: Haydee Almayer (Used under a Creative Commons license)