I’m a Tiger Mom

Over the weekend, the Straits Times featured the recent controversy over a book written on Chinese parenting styles, particularly on how Chinese-Singaporean moms tend to be strict, over-achieving and obsessed with academic excellence.

I’m a Tiger Mom – because I’m born in the year of tiger and I’m a mom.

Jokes aside, it is telling how (1) happiness is equated with achievements; and (2) kiasu-ism seems to be our Singaporean heritage.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, in which he observes that Asians (particularly from rice-growing traditions) have an innate belief in hard work and a strong sense of the relationship between effort and reward. This seems to explain why we drive our children to succeed in terms of education and career, by ferrying them to one enrichment class after another and filling their schedules with programs and activities that would give them a head-start in life (albeit possibly losing their childhood). We seek to have an edge over others, and begin to fear if we perceived somehow that we were losing out in the rat-race or giving our children anything less than the best opportunities to excel.

My son just started kindergarten. Prior to this, each time we were asked which school he attends and we replied “none”, the responses were mostly a disapproving look or a voice marked by concern. One “memorable” encounter was when we decided that we should enrol him in Chinese class for lack of any Chinese-speaking person in his life, and so that he wouldn’t end up hating his mother-tongue simply because he struggled trying to catch up learning it in school. We enquired at one school about the most basic level class and were told that he should actually be in a higher-level class appropriate to his age. The counter staff then whipped out a book and began to show us the Chinese characters he would already need to be able to read and write. When we reiterated that he had only just learned his Chinese name and that’s why we wanted him in a beginner’s class, we were shot the icy stare that said it all, “What kind of parents are you?”

According to Gladwell, we are the inevitable products of our culture (amongst other things). It’s no wonder then that we are contending with the issue of a low birth rate. A scan of the ongoing debate on why – or why not – to have children would reveal that Singaporeans logically deem the result is not worth the effort. This is understandable given that it is difficult in the first place to quantify the rewards of bringing up a child. Thus, couples gravitate towards a relationship in which they can dictate the amount of commitment and work they wish to invest; perhaps marrying and bearing children later, or opting to be DINKS, ie, Double-Income-No-Kids. Our culture also explains why if we can’t give our child everything that will promise his success, we’d rather not even entertain the idea of having a baby.

My husband insists that the solution to our nation’s procreation problem would be to mandate a regular blackout during which there should be no other alternative activity after dark except for couples to reproduce. While there is no concrete scientific basis that this method works, it nonetheless serves to highlight a glaring fact that Singaporeans do work hard – and long – and simply have no time to make, or have, children.

Is this a cultural legacy we wish to retain – or history that needs to be reshaped and remade?

“Have you started thinking about which primary school you’ll be sending your son to?”

Unwittingly, we may be perpetuating the very thing we complain about. If I were to deliberately move house or carve out volunteer hours from my already limited time I have with my family, in order to get my child into a choice school, I would end up contributing towards the culture that we don’t seem to be satisfied with. I’m sure you’re thinking: “It’s all too easy to say that now; just wait till it’s your turn.” Perhaps; we’ll see what kind of Tiger Mom I am!


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