It's admission time at Bangalore's premier pre-school, and anxious parents swarm the playground, armed with forms and squirming two-year olds. "We looked at about ten schools," says one father, "What they teach, Montessori or not. It is very important at this stage."
Yes, at this stage, and the next, also the one right after.... This is just the beginning of the long rat race that awaits our kids, of class ranks, test scores, cutoff marks and percentiles. And we will be right beside them: waking at the crack of dawn at exam time, hauling them to the inevitable extra tuition classes, filling out those college admission forms, moving mountains – even cities – to jam our kids through the right schools, colleges, and graduate programs. Before you know it, we'll be coyly turning down invitations to dinners, weddings, and parties, saying, "My daughter has exams..."
This then is the ISI-chaap version of "good parenting" in India. Any less is considered a form of child abuse – or at least a treasonous dereliction of duty. No wonder so many of us were thrilled when Amy Chua invented the term "tiger mom," a cool, 21st century moniker for Asian A-type parenting. Really, what's not to like about a woman who never allowed her kids to "get any grade less than an A"; to "not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama." And – sweeter still – who sneers at those lazy and over-indulgent Americans for not doing the same. Revenge of the parental nerds, indeed!
Chua's label has now become a badge of honour for upper middle-class, over-educated parents intent on raising kids who are not just "first class first" – as our parents desired – but also fluent in French, pitch-perfect in both piano and bharatnatyam, and read Proust in their spare time. Harvard, baby, here I come!
"I'm a tiger mom. And I have no problems with that," says one NRI acquaintance, "Kids should be pushed to achieve. We went through it and it worked for us."
When the conversation turns to potential schools for our kids, she dismisses both the old-fashioned Indian schools – huge class size, crap teachers – and the more loosey-goosey international ones. "It's all horse riding and artsy crap with all these super-rich kids, No discipline" she says of a well-known contender. Chua would not approve. Neither would the grandparents.
During each of these discussions, I sheepishly await my turn, for that moment when I will be found out. "We don't want her to be in a school where it's all about academics," I mumble to incredulous stares. Besides, that 'artsy crap' sounds like fun.
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The truth is that the Tiger Mom style of parenting doesn't make any sense to me. Neither does this obsession with schools that will "drive" our children to ever more A-pluses, herding them like cattle into all the right colleges. Why is it even necessary?
Maybe my daughter will be an overachieving student like her father. But he thrived in a boarding school known more for producing career socialites than rocket scientists. The guy is now an overachieving engineering nerd with a whole bunch of patents to his name. Then again, what if she is a middling student with a passion for design – or writing like me? Do I want to put her in a hyper-competitive environment where she will feel both inadequate and deprived?
Or how about this crazy idea: maybe we don't all need to raise Type-A Ivy League or IIT graduates?
Perish the thought! The very notion is as sacrilegious now as it was back when our parents were pushing us to be IAS officers and senior bank executives. Despite all the noise about creativity and the perils of rote education, we remain wedded to a claustrophobic definition of success and achievement. It's still all about being Number One. Anything less is unacceptable, even shameful – for the parents.
This narrow worldview makes even less sense today than in the past. Our middle class parents were driven by the anxiety of a limited income and opportunities. Today, there are innumerable other roads to achievement than engineering, medicine or business school. Besides, a good look at our peers should also tell us that the right degree offers no guarantee of a fulfilling or successful life. Yet the same mother who will lug her child to the New York Met – in the name of global education – cannot conceive of affording him the luxury of self-discovery.
The deeper problem with the Tiger Mom ideology is that it assumes academic achievement is all. Chua constantly conflates life skills with skills required for material success. For instance, in her latest outing she writes:
When our kids go off to college, we want them to have the confidence, judgment and strength to take care of themselves. Even critics of my approach to parenting would probably concede that, after years of drilling and discipline, tiger cubs are good at focusing and getting their work done.
Not a word here about life outside the classroom, the loneliness, peer pressure, sexual curiousity – riddles which can't be solved by "hard work, drive and resilience in the face of failure."
"[H]ard work can fix just about anything," insists Chua, but we know it's not true. Sheer slog can't fix broken marriages or hearts, nor disloyal friends and co-workers. What gets you into an A-list school doesn't help you find and nurture love, raise a family, build loyal friendships, or handle the inexplicable, often unfair trials of tribulations of life.
Worse, it won't help you fix your own flaws. Clearly, no one taught Chua to ask certain all-important questions. For instance: Why is it wrong to threaten to burn your child's toys? Or not allow her a bathroom break during piano practice? Or throw her hand-made card back at her face?
But, hey, that kid got into Yale. Though I can't help wonder what Chua taught her about being a good mom.