Tiger Mothers… the British version

5 Jan

Last night I was lucky enough to watch a preview of a documentary which goes out on BBC2 at 9pm tonight (Jan 5th) Meet Britain’s Tiger Mums.

Well, I didn’t know whether to be horrified or impressed. The film features a little boy of 6 who has a schedule so hardcore he starts at 6.30am before school and is timetabled every minute of his day till bed at 9pm: he does Kumon maths, Kumon English, chinese, extra spelling and has to write a diary; as well as being tested on his vocab every day. He was shown yawning and occasionally crying with exhaustion – it’s hard to believe that such pressure-cooker parenting will really pay dividends… it looked more likely to turn him off any kind of learning forever.

Amy Chua, the ultimate Tiger Mother

Amy Chua, the ultimate Tiger Mother

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the immense work ethic and dedication of the Amy Chua style Tiger Mother for whom there is no such thing as failure, just not enough work. (There was one ten year old who played the piano so beautifully, I felt moved; the price? Three hours practice a night, on top of homework.)

When I was in China last year, I was struck by the dynamism, the energy, the can-do spirit which permeated the place: everyone worked hard and felt the future was their’s to create. I had a sense that the future was there, that we are just lagging in the slow lane. I came back to Britain and was stunned by a kind of perma-lethargy that I suddenly perceived; I felt like we’d given up.

What comes across very strongly in this brilliantly made and subtle documentary is just how much having no welfare safety net spurs on the Chinese. One woman movingly told how her grandparents had been poor rice farmers; that life was so tough that if the crop failed the family starved. Her own parents had run a corner shop; they expected no-one to help them, their view was that they had to work as hard as they could when they could so that they wouldn’t be left in the gutter in old age. Such notions are powerful, the closeness of such poverty and destitution is a massive spur to the next generation to achieve. If there is no safety net, hard work is the only safe option.

One Taiwanese woman, married to a wonderfully laid back chap from Newcastle, exhibited both the strenghts and weakness of the Chinese way: she’d been a rebel and hated her strict childhood, replete with random tests on her school work from her mother; who recounted proudly that all her children had got Masters degrees. But at the same time she was highly ambitious for her daughter, wanting her to get a good job and go to university, infuriated by her husband’s view that the little girl ‘should just be happy’. (Though notably, back in Taiwan, she suddenly sounded much more liberal, as if remembering how unhappy she’d been).

I came away feeling that the right way was probably somewhere in the middle: children should learn self control, to put business before pleasure, to apply themselves – but should also be given time to be free and creative, to have fun and play with other children and develop their social skills and interests.

But while I know that logically, I also felt frightened. It’s all very well being laid back, but the  bar is going to be set high for our own children – if we want them to be able to compete against these hot-housed Asian kids we better all get down to Kumon… quick. Or perhaps, having just read the Steve Jobs biography, we need to start hot-housing their creative skills so they can think outside the box… that kind of whacky originality is not a byproduct of being drilled at spelling at 7am… but it can remake the future.


5 Responses to “Tiger Mothers… the British version”

  1. anon January 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Hi, I have a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Take away my benefits and force me into hard labour (probably for the minimum wage with my lack of qualifications) and watch me hang myself. You unthinking cow.

    • fattkittens January 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Thanks for being brave enough to insult me anonymously!

    • Maximitosis January 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm #


      I’m pretty sure it’s not fatkittens who’s forgotten to think here. There’s no suggestion that the whole UK welfare system should be shut down, but rather that if there is no safety net, the impetus to create your own safeguards is much greater. given that most people aren’t creative or financial geniuses, working hard is most people’s only option. While not exciting, it certainly should not be castigated.

  2. Jonathan January 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Tell you what Eleanor, why don’t you simply experiment with getting rid of the TV and canning internet access except for homework and let us know how you get on.

  3. MsXpat January 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Thanks for the heads up. I read the Amy’s book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to seeing the programme tonight.

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