In Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there are two key messages for parents and teachers. The first: hard work pays off. The second: strict discipline is the best way to ensure our kids succeed. Statistical evidence shows that Chinese kids are ‘stereotypically successful’: in 2014, Chinese children were the highest performing ethnic group, with 74.4% achieving 5 A*-C EM compared with the national average of 56.6%. What is the secret?
Chua notes: ‘In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’ or that ‘parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.’ By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt that way.’ The idea of learning as ‘fun,’ ‘discovery’ or ‘exploring’ does not seem to exist for Chinese parents. Throughout the book, Chua makes references to poor teaching methods holding Western children back: ‘While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way – with rods, beads and cones – I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way.’ When Chua talks about skills, she explains: ‘I don’t mean inborn skills, just skills learned the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way.’ Underpinning this comment is the highest of high expectations: children can learn anything, as long as they are taught it explicitly and drilled enough in it.
To those who may argue that not all children can be successful with hard work, Chua cites her sister Cindy, who was born with Down’s syndrome: Chua’s mother ‘[spent] hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her how to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today, Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.’ As the mother of young children, Chua notes: ‘As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks, I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: 1. Higher dreams for their children, and 2. Higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.’
And by ‘how much they can take,’ Chua is referring not only to how much children can learn, but how much discipline they can handle. Each of Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, play instruments; Chua, a professor of law at Yale university, attends every music lesson and every practice session at home, coaching, guiding and, in reality, shouting. The extraordinary results are achieved through this disciplined and strict practice. She explains: ‘What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.’ Furthermore, while Western parents worry about self-esteem, Chinese parents: ‘assume strength, not fragility.’
Chua’s harshness has been condemned in the media, notably when given a sub-standard birthday card, hand-made by her daughters. She quotes herself saying: ‘I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.’ In a later letter, her daughter notes: ‘funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: the card was feeble, and I was busted. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel like you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.’
It is not easy to discipline children in this harsh way: ‘you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy.’ We believe exactly the same thing at Michaela. There are times when I really, really don’t want to give a pupil a demerit or a detention: I know how hard they are trying, even though they are still doing the wrong thing, and I love them so, so much. I’ve started saying in my head: ‘do I love them enough to give them a demerit right now?’ By turning our thinking from indulgence to discipline, I do think that in the long term our children will be more successful, not to mention more resilient.
For hard work is the gateway to future success: if a child achieves lower mark than wanted in a test ‘the Chinese mother would get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.’ Even on holiday, Chua insisted on daily instrument practice, telling her children: ‘every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.’ She reflects: ‘Will Sophia recall with bitterness the time I laid in to her at a piano in Barcelona because her fingers were not kicking high enough? If so, I hope she also remembers Rocquebrune, where the manager of our hotel heard Sophia practising and invited her to perform for the entire restaurant that evening, overlooking the Mediterranean, [getting] bravos and hugs from all the guests.’
She rails against the indulgence of choice in Western parenting: ‘they just keep repeating things like “you have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion” when it’s obvious that the “passion” is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.’ Children do not know enough to make the right choices, which is why indulgence will lead to lower academic success. Nearly half of young people are leaving school without even the minimum qualifications: this is a national tragedy, and something we need to take seriously. When Chua’s rebellious younger daughter gives up the violin in her most rebellious teens, her mother feels she has lost – but when she takes up tennis the coach comments to her: ‘she has an unbelievable work ethic – I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. You and your husband have done an amazing job with her. She never settles for less than 110 percent.’ And today she, like her older sister before her, attends Harvard.
We want a happy ending for our children. But this means hard work, and discipline to ensure they do that hard work: ‘In Disney movies, the “good daughter” always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.’
Winning prizes, passing exams: these give children choices. In the short term it is so very, very hard to be strict, to be demanding, and to not settle for less than 100%. At Michaela, we have very, very high standards, and are not afraid to tell our pupils: ‘that’s not good enough. Do it again.’ In the short term, it feels bad for them to have ‘failed,’ but the extra practice, and seeing the improvement in the second piece should stand them in good stead in the long term.
Chua writes: ‘All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.’ This resonates strongly with me: at Michaela, we do things totally differently. We all want our children to succeed, but we just have a very different approach.