Beyond the Tiger Mom by Maya Thiagarajan

I enjoyed reading this book a lot more than I thought I would!

Maya Thiagarajan writes about both the overt and subtle differences between Asian and Western parenting today, and offers her rich perspectives on how best to educate and nurture our children for the coming age.

What hit me first was her well-researched journey into the inner psyche of a spectrum of Asian parents. Maya makes it clear from the start that she does not mean to make sweeping generalisations, tarring all Indian parents, for instance, with the same brush. Rather, her observations are derived from extensive conversations with parents from different Asian countries, and are by no means definitive.

She has certainly done lots of research, and whilst I disagree with one or two of her observations, most of them are indeed an uncanny reflection of true perspectives and dearly held beliefs by many Asian parents.

Much of what Maya wrote deeply resonated. For instance, I let out an involuntary chuckle as I read this on the MRT:

“Parental anxiety is a highly contagious disease, far worse than the common cold or flu.”

Indeed! And how much more so in Singapore, when it comes to academic achievements of our progeny.

 

Secondly, this book has intriguing views on education, borne out of her rich and varied teaching experience. Having grown up in India, she attended university and worked in the US, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She had taught in a Baltimore inner city school, elite American private schools, and an International school in Singapore (UWC). Maya also has a Masters in Education Policy from Harvard University, and I think it’s cool that she hardly mentions it at all.

It has been years since I was in school, and even more since I was in the Singaporean education system. I am currently vicariously experiencing through my kids, what the Singaporean education system has become. The consensus among my mummy friends is that whilst we had to work quite hard to do well in school during our time, school today is a whole new different ball game. What it takes to do well has morphed into something alien, with Big Tuition obscuring pretty much everything else.

Ultimately, I suppose I liked the book because it coheres with my views of striking a good balance between free play in nature and working hard in school. Plus, throughout the book, there is a strong sense of deep empathy (instead of judgment) for the acute stress that parents go through in trying to do the right thing by their kids. This can only be because Maya herself is an Asian parent trying to navigate the choppy waters of bring up children today, with all the expertise and burden of knowledge as a professional educator.

 

The only section that I disagreed with, was on her observations of the reading culture in Singapore. Maya felt that most Asian parents in Singapore could not see value in reading for its own sake, as opposed to reading to acquire knowledge that could be useful in exams. She felt that Americans had a far more rooted culture of reading bedtime stories to their kids as compared to Singaporean parents.

I found that a skewed perspective, perhaps also because of my personal bias, borne out of my own upbringing and current group of friends. My parents read to me often when I was a child, and even back then, my mum and her friends would agree that a love for reading was the sure-fire way to English proficiency. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy reading, and go out of my way to try to nurture a deep love of reading in my children.

Today, most of the mothers I know are constantly enthusing about good picture books, and how their hearts leap for joy when they see their children reading for pleasure. Justina, Pamela and Eileen are just a few of such moms, who are constantly filling their children’s time with good literature, and encouraging others to do so through their social media platforms.

I would go as far as to say that most of the mothers I know want their children to love reading for its own sake, for the worlds it opens up, for the ethical questions it makes us ponder, and for the sheer beauty of the written word (and the alluring rhythm of the iambic pentameter that Maya refers to in the appreciation of a sonnet).

And not for the sake of doing well in English compositions in the PSLE (where children have to write rather strangely to be deemed as proficient).

As for the overall reading culture in Singapore, shouldn’t the very fact that we have some of the best public libraries in the world, prevalently dotting our heartlands, count for something?  Apart from being well-designed and generously funded, our public libraries have an endless influx of high quality children’s literature, both from local and foreign writers.

 

Another point which created some dissonance was Maya’s view that whilst English is the official language of Singapore, it is often not the language that mothers associate with love and emotion. For my peers and I, and possibly more than 50% of Singaporeans, English was the language that our parents spoke to us in our growing up years. It is my first language, my mother tongue, and dare I say, my heart language.

While I find it interesting to consider “the high psychological costs that countries and societies experience when they replace their own languages with the language of the colonizer, the language of power” (which reminds me of a point my review of Sonny Liew’s graphic novel), many of my friends, even those who have grown up in Chinese speaking families, now dream in English rather than any other language. Perhaps this ‘linguistic displacement’ has been so subtle and pervasive that we can’t even think of acknowledging it.

I found this thought-provoking too –  “Like refugees, people and societies who are exiled from their own ancestral language and literary heritage lose a part of themselves”. I feel it in a sense, and thus try to pursue a deeper knowledge of the Chinese language, but folks like my Singaporean-Chinese husband routinely and blithely proclaim that “I am Singaporean, not Chinese”.

I have gone on for far too long.

 

Suffice to say, Beyond the Tiger Mom covers many intriguing topics such as “Why do Asian kids excel in math?”, “Is early math important?”, “Do students really need tuition?”, “What Asian mothers say about play”, “Fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets”, “Achieving balance”, “Secure families versus intellectual freedom” and “Twenty-first-century Asian families”.

There is a also a helpful “Tips” section at the end of every chapter.

All in all, I found Beyond the Tiger Mom a very interesting read, and would recommend it to all Singaporean parents, especially if you are grappling with the difficult balance between spurring your child on towards achieving their best and enjoying a childhood of play for its own sake.

 

 

Note: Thanks for the review copy!

  2 comments for “Beyond the Tiger Mom by Maya Thiagarajan

  1. Rachna Anand
    February 14, 2017 at 11:18 pm

    Both the book and your comments are truly enlightening about education and parenting. I picked the book with sckepticism last week and it has proved to be more gripping than a mystery novel. Maya uses simple language and even without actively admonishing east or west parenting styles she has clearly identified the weaknesses and strengths of both systems. I do agree with most of your comments and Maya’s observations and I would also like to add that reading and writing are essential to improve understanding and ability of languages mathematics and sciences. I believe Reading alone does not improve comprehension especially when the subject is complex or abstract. Looking forward to more books from Maya

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