Does the Tiger Mother allow for her Cubs’ Creativity?

Published with Mary Hanneman in The News Tribune, February 23, 2011

In case the state of the economy isn’t depressing  enough, now comes the news that we are lousy parents.  In her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, author Amy Chua tells us that the “Western” parenting model allows kids to have too much fun and tolerates mediocre grades like an A-.   By contrast, “Eastern” parents require hours and hours of music lessons and academic drills, accepting nothing less than a perfect 4.0.

There is growing evidence that there may be something to this Eastern model.  The New York Times recently reported that some colleges find that half of their applicants from China have scored a perfect  800 on the math SAT – a score only one percent of American students attain.   And a widely respected international test recently found that among 15-year olds, those in Shanghai outscored those in 60 other countries.  In math, three out of four Shanghai students outperformed the average American student.   Shanghai students were also three times more likely than were their American counterparts to demonstrate an advanced understanding of math.


So is Chua right that Chinese mothers really are superior?   Her argument is not without merit.  But she is also missing an important element of education.


To understand what she’s missing, let’s provide some context.  In China, education has long been the path to social and economic success.  For over 1,000 years, Chinese bureaucrats were chosen  on the basis of their exam scores.  Serving in the government bureaucracy in the past was and arguably even  now remains China’s most prestigious career.   China’s rigorous exam system favored men with photographic memories and prodigious study habits since success rested on one’s ability to regurgitate, verbatim, long passages from the Confucian classics.   This historical legacy has contributed to an emphasis on rote learning and discipline that remains today. 


So Tiger Mom is nothing new.  Chinese literature is filled with stories of the “Good Wife, Wise Mother” who sacrifices everything for her child’s (read son’s) education.  Educational success for the child has always brought riches and rewards for the entire family – and perhaps even the entire clan. 


Today in China, strong educational values are reinforced by pressure to get into college due to the large economic rewards that come from being educated.    Chinese students are urged by parents to spend virtually all their waking hours in study.  Extra-curricular activities like school sports have fallen by the wayside. 


Compare this history with that of the U.S.    Our educational system took shape during the 20th century when access, not excellence, was sought.  Schools evolved to provide “something for everyone”.  Extra-curricular activities assured that students remained engaged and even entertained during the day; and social promotion ensured that one could succeed without learning.  For most of the 20th century, our educational system worked OK because for the most part, well-paying jobs didn’t depend on a quality education.


While our lax educational model sounds grim in today’s world, it does have an advantage over the Chinese model :   In terms of fostering creativity, we still hold the edge.  While creativity is hard to measure, the U.S. remains far and away the world’s leader in terms of the number of patented new ideas each year.   Lack of discipline in your schools isn’t great, but for those who don’t need discipline, it does have its advantages.   

The problem of an educational system that thwarts rather than promotes creativity has not escaped the attention of China or of other emerging economies steeped in an Eastern educational model.   Not satisfied with simply producing students with high test scores, these countries are busily revamping their educational systems to make them less rigid and more creative.

As for us?  Trying to reach a consensus on how to introduce rigor into an overly permissive educational system has been painstakingly slow    And just as China is taking a look at our educational system to see what they might learn, we should take a look at theirs.  But let’s not forget to leave room for creativity.  Listen to Tiger Mom, but like kids everywhere, don’t listen too closely.