Hybrid tiger's lesson for tiger mom

Updated: 2014-05-09 07:55

By Quanyu Huang(China Daily)

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To be, or not to be a tiger mom, that is the question to be deliberated, especially with Mother's Day round the corner. Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, once argued that Chinese mothers were better than all other mothers. She cited statistics with which we're all familiar: Chinese-Americans tend to dominate their peers in school and in tests, Chinese-Americans enroll in and graduate from the best US colleges at alarmingly high rates, and Chinese-Americans have the highest average income among all ethnic groups in the United States.

Though Chua later backed away from her blanket assertion that Chinese mothers were superior-even disavowing her article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", which was published in The Wall Street Journal-she has returned (with her husband Jed Rubenfeld) to the same basic thesis in The Triple Package.

She now argues that eight "cultural" groups in the US are more successful than others. Not surprisingly, Chinese-Americans are among the pack. The success of groups like Chinese-Americans, Chua says, is due to three distinct "cultural" characteristics: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. Since average Americans don't possess this "triple package", they are destined to be less successful.

While there's no question that Chinese children excel at early academics and tests because of certain cultural factors prevalent in Chinese families, Chua doesn't mention the sobering, second half of the story. I believe that her theory is unable to explain why no Chinese educated solely in China has ever won a Nobel Prize for any of the science subjects or the fabled mathematics Fields Medal.

Americans have won the highest number of both prizes. Remarkably, the only people of Chinese descent to have ever won the Nobel in science subjects-Tsung-Dao Lee, Frank Chen Ning Yang, Samuel Chao Chung Ting, Yuan Tseh Lee, Steven Chu, Daniel Chee Tsui and Roger Yonchien Tsien-did so after completing their education in the US.

This illustrates the critical problem with Chua's "triple package". The so-called success of Chinese-Americans cannot (and should not) be attributed solely to cultural characteristics passed down through Chinese families. There's more to it than that. In The Hybrid Tiger, I have argued that children acquire education from three disparate sources: (1) family education, (2) school education and (3) social education. In the course of becoming "educated", children are bombarded with different values, demands and instructions from these three sources of education. Children must develop an intake procedure through which they sift, meld, discard and incorporate these varied and often competing values to form a cohesive whole "self". This fourth piece I call "self education". For my "tripod theory" of education to stand upright, the three legs (family, school and social education) must balance and support the head (self-education) to form a whole, independent and free-standing structure.

Unfortunately, while discussing Chinese-Americans in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package, Chua ignores the unavoidable, formative education that all Chinese-Americans receive from American schooling, American peers and American society as a whole.

In the US, traditional Chinese education has been infiltrated and remolded by various American cultural and educational influences, and because of this, Chinese-American parenting and education have proven better than either style alone.

A core tenet of Chinese-American family education/parenting is the "supremacy of education". In contrast, the central teaching of American school education and/or American social education is the cultivation of creativity, independent thinking and self-esteem.

What are the results of this hybrid model? It has the potential to be massively effective. To achieve more consistent academic success at primary and secondary grade levels, Americans should adopt some of the virtues inherent in Chinese culture. For instance, there is much that Americans can learn from Chinese discipline. And the Chinese have much to learn from American culture that teaches creativity and independent thinking.

While I have a separate disagreement with Chua's characterization of what constitutes traditional Chinese family education, the primary point I want to make is that we cannot ignore the "-American" in "Chinese-American". Doing so threatens to undervalue the indescribable importance of distinctly American education.

If Americans and Chinese are truly interested in adopting the best education practices, fixing their troubled systems, producing more Nobel Prize winners and scientific leaders, and fostering the best possible results for their children, they must look seriously at the vivid example of Chinese-American parenting and education already thriving within the US.

It is the confluence of the best parts of Chinese and American educational influences - the "hybrid tiger" - that has the potential to produce something truly unique. The Triple Package tells only a fragment of the real, complex story that is unfolding before us.

The author is director of Asian/Asian American Studies Program, Miami University.

The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 05/09/2014 page9)