Chinese Parents: More Full House than Tiger Mother

The World

By Mary Kay Magistad

Amy Chua set off a raging discussion — in print and online — with her new memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The Yale Law professor’s book extols the virtues of a Chinese style of parenting — no sleepovers, no videogames and hours of studying — for raising successful kids.

But in China, many parents say that strict model is going out of fashion.

In their Beijing home, the parents of six-year-old Mickey, also known as Li Jia Hua, smile indulgently as he sails his fleet of paper airplanes around visitors. The parents talk about his painting class, his singing class and his piano lessons.

Mickey has been playing piano since he was four. He practices about an hour a day, which he said he likes to do. He also said he likes doing his kindergarten homework.

Mickey’s father, Li Xiang Ming, an executive with China’s biggest internet provider, said he likes to see his son have fun — he thinks play is an important part of learning. The pressure will come from school, he added, once Mickey starts first grade and the homework and expectations start to pile up.

“It’s very hard work for parents, to do homework with their kids,” Li said. “It’s competitive for parents. ‘Your kid got A. My kid got A+.’ People compete very, very hard.”

So far, so Tiger Parent.

But this is where Li and his wife part company with that model.

“You know, many parents say, if he gets a lot of homework, I’ll do it,” Li said, “because we don’t want him to be so burdened.”

Mickey’s mother, Cui Xin Yen, a human resources executive, said she would not sweat it if Mickey brought home a B, nor would she sit for hours and drill him — like Amy Chua does with her daughters. Cui said she would just want to make sure that her son understands what he didn’t get the first time around.

Nor do these well-educated, upper middle-class Chinese parents feel they should dictate to Mickey what he should excel in — better that he choose for himself.

In that, they’re in good company among 30-something Chinese parents.

Their friend, Han Bing, an educator, though not yet a parent himself, said he thinks the “Tiger Parent” model does not reflect how things are done in modern China.

Still, he can see how an ethnic Chinese several generations removed from China could retain a view of what Chinese parenting was once about, when China was poorer, and a child excelling on the national exams could make all the difference in a family’s survival.

He said before 1978, before the open-door policy, China had more consistency in terms of what kind of values people should carry on. But after that, China had more access to the rest of the world.

“So we learned a lot of new things in a relatively short time period,” he said, including from watching American sitcoms, like “Full House.”

“It was really popular in China in the late ’90s,” Han said. “Everyone was watching it. Everyone was talking about it. And they were saying, ‘hey, this is a different way to bring up your kids. You don’t have to beat up your kids all the time.'”

Now, with the Chinese government stressing that the country’s future economic growth depends on China becoming a more innovative society, at least some parents are getting the message that a little creative downtime can be a good thing.

Outside a kids’ activity center in Beijing, several parents said they follow their kids’ lead here. Li Hua Feng said, “I let my daughter choose what she wants to do, and I respect her choice.” Her five-year-old is learning piano.

Li Hua Feng said that she has heard of Amy Chua’s book, and while the “no rewards until you’re perfect” approach might still resonate with some Chinese parents, she thinks this is a generational thing that has mostly passed in China.

She added that there’s enough pressure coming from a school system that emphasizes memorizing and passing intensely competitive exams. As a parent, she’s more interested in her child’s creativity and psychological well-being.

In that, she’s not so different from many American parents.

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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