Book Review – Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age

In Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, author Maya Thiagarajan examines not only the whys but also the hows that lead to the creation of academically-intense cultures. She provides a unique first person account of living and experiencing education in three cultures. As someone born and raised in India, educated in India and the US, and with experiences raising kids in the US and Singapore, Thiagarajan’s perspectives are not only well-informed but well-researched and presented with an honesty rarely read in books of such genres. Additionally, her Harvard education, stint with Teach for America, and the knowledge gained from teaching in the US and Singapore, informed by her own early education in India combine in a credible mosaic to lend gravitas and meaning to the arguments and ideas she presents.

 

Throughout the book, the author reveals the many ways in which kids are raised differently in the US, in India, and in Singapore. The author writes about how parents value learning differently in these cultures. She writes about how the US has succeeded in creating a national reading culture while Asia has more unapologetically nurtured kids in math-rich homes starting at very early ages. One of the central themes of the book is the differences in values pertaining to learning and how these get permeated into kids’ lives through parenting styles. The following quotes are representative of how the findings of the author reflect the different values.

 

American parents and educators are told to give children choices, to respect their desires, to ask them questions as opposed to issuing orders…Children are supposed to want to do the work – otherwise, they shouldn’t have to do it.
In contrast, the scripts that Asian culture offers its parents include statements, not questions, and orders, not requests…parents and educators don’t spend much time asking them [kids] what they want or catering to those desires. (pp. 41-42, emphasis in original)

 

While American culture makes mothers feel guilty about pushing a child too hard academically and forcing him to do academic work that he may not want to do (for fear that he may then dislike the subject or suffer from lowered self-esteem), Asian culture makes mothers feel guilty about not pushing their children enough and abdicating what the larger culture sees as a mother’s responsibility (p. 42, emphasis in original). 

 

One thing that stuck with me simply because of how much I seem to be using this word in my own life in reference to even non-education related things I do with my son, is the author’s observation that “American education rhetoric is somewhat obsessed with making learning ‘fun’. …Learning should be challenging, meaningful, rigorous, engrossing, interesting and satisfying. It does not need to be a game or a party.” She further quotes an interviewee who, to this point about fun says, “We Asians aren’t so interested in constantly having fun. Our kids learn to like studying and learning. They don’t expect or want everything to be a game or a party. As a result, they learn to extend their attention spans and develop their ability to concentrate.” (p. 132) These differences are the resounding foundation on the basis of which parents parent differently in each of these cultures.

 

Maya ThiagarajanThiagarajan leads a strong chapter on the intercultural differences between how the West privileges critical thinking while Asian cultures emphasis learning by rote or memorization as she discusses the good, the bad, and the ugly of the latter.

 

An interesting feature about this book that some may find helpful is instructions on how to foster the opposite of what each culture directly or indirectly promotes. For example, at the end of Chapter 1 provocatively titled, “Why Are All the Asian Kids on the Math Team”, the author presents Tips for Parents on “How to Build a Math-Rich Home”. Likewise, in Chapter 2 where she writes about, “Raising Readers: Is West Really Best?”, her Tips for Parents section is on “How to Build a Language-Rich Home”.

 

The first two parts of the book are dominated by insights into education and learning differences. The concluding part elaborates on the culture of respect that exists in India and Singapore; and living, sharing, and parenting in a globalized world while remaining mindful of the pervasiveness of technology in the lives of our kids today.

 

I enjoyed reading this book’s many obvious and some understated but apparent differences in how learning is approached in the three cultures. This book is extremely rich in what makes for the stereotypes (some quite justified) that emerge out of our parenting styles and cultural indoctrination.  The reflective writing and anecdotes drawn from the author’s own experiences as well as those collected from her interviewees make this book very informative while allowing the space for readers to form their own judgments. The author does seem to push for her own views in multiple places but these perspectives are presented with rationales for why that is the case.

Some of the things that nagged me were:

 

Research is limited to the three cultures which is narrow in scope even if it is rich in context-specific lessons and new information. Although, I do have to admit, it was refreshing to get such in-depth insight into how things work in a culture other than the US (and India) and I do appreciate the fact that the author does not necessarily privilege any one over the others (with some exceptions).

 

The generic “he” as reference to a child is used in enough places that it stood out to me. As a feminist and as a mother, this bothered me. Gender inclusive language would have been appreciated.

 

The interviewed group of parents are limited to the author’s sphere of influence and contacts. Even though this isn’t necessarily a limitation in terms of the points the author makes, they are when you consider the larger concern with generalizing the data thus gathered to an entire culture or country. To the author’s credit, she acknowledges these limitations.

 

Personally, reading this book left me feeling very anxious, unprepared, and honestly, scared. This has nothing to do with the book itself per se and more to do with how the contents of the book played on my own insecurities for my kids. As one half of a multiracial couple, the way I want to raise my kids academically, as influenced by my Indian upbringing, is often complicated by the ways in which my Canadian husband was raised.

 

My views on how much rigor I want to include into my kids’ academic lives vis-a-vis allowing for the kids to be kids not bogged down by having to learn say, Essay Writing at age 4, as some schools here in California emphasize, are still in developmental stages. For example, while I am not entirely opposed to supplementary education like those provided by Kumon or Mathnesium, my husband feels strongly against these programs. Easy for us to say this given how the love for learning was inculcated into me naturally at a young age and how as a certified gifted kid, my husband got to benefit from advanced classes that recognized his potential and kept him intellectually challenged.

 

What if our kids turn out differently from us and need that extra motivation to want to do well for themselves guided by supplementary programs? I am not sure. As I said, my views are still forming and I am not yet at the point where I am ready to argue in favor of one or the other side.

 

 

To conclude, this book is a good read to gain an understanding of how Indian and Singaporean parents “educate” their kids using a higher degree of parental involvement and often State-endorsed academic rigor (at least in case of Singapore) and how this compares with the same in the US. If you are on the edge or insecure about where you stand, reading this book can go one of two ways, you’ll either be better informed and therefore in a better position to decide what you want for your kids, no matter your own cultural background; or like I was, become more anxious about making education-related choices for your kids’ futures wondering whether or not whatever you decide will be the right one.

 

In any case, if you are the parents of young kids, this book gives you a lot to think about and Maya Thiagarajan does an excellent job getting your thought wheels churning.

 

I received a complimentary copy of this book for reviewing purposes. 

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