Be afraid, be very afraid. After Pushy Mum, that Ghenghis Khan of secondary-school applications, here comes Tiger Mother. Tiger Mother is Chinese with a fearsome outboard-motor of ambition for her offspring. By the age of four, Tiger Mother’s baby is reading Sartre, but thinks that, on balance, Balzac is the better prose stylist. Tiger Mother’s children are never allowed to watch television, play computer games or go to sleepovers, which are a time-wasting invention of indulgent Western parents who are too lazy to put in the hours needed to raise a genius. Tiger Mother rarely sleeps herself. Why would she? Sleep prevents you shouting at your child to practise her violin!
If you think you are ambitious for your child, Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, will make you think again. Compared to Chua, who is a professor at Yale, you are a gutless, kiddy-spoiling amateur. Forget potty training; this is Pol Potty training. Ruthless, rote-learning and hellbent on world domination.
Chua, born to a hyper-achieving immigrant family, never lets her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, think that getting less than an A was acceptable. Mere Bs trigger “a screaming, hair-tearing explosion”. While Sophia practises, Chua looms over the piano saying encouraging things like: “If the next time’s not perfect, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them.”
And you wonder why the Midlands will soon be a giant call-centre for Shanghai.
The worst thing about Tiger Mother’s method is this: it works. Sophia, Chua’s compliant elder daughter, made her Carnegie Hall piano debut at 14. Lulu, the rebellious one – we’re talking polite Chinese rebellion here, not the heroin-dependent British variety – led a prominent youth orchestra and still found time to score straight As. Obviously, it would be cheering to report that both girls are humourless automatons with terrible dress sense. Sadly not. They have turned out so well they call their mother “insane”.
Chua’s book has caused outrage among American parents, who have accused her of cruelty and even racism. The latter charge is unfair. Chua is at pains to point out that anyone – an Irish working-class father, a Jamaican matriarch – can qualify as a “Chinese mother”. It’s attitude, discipline and three hours’ violin practice a day, not ethnicity, that count.
I found myself alternately recoiling and laughing out loud at the psychotically driven Chua. Still, there are moments when she makes you ask yourself what the Chinese are doing right and we are doing wrong. The latest OECD survey put China’s 15-year-olds at the top of the world’s academic rankings. British children had slithered down the ladder to 28th in maths and 25th in reading. What mum or dad would not cheer Chua’s indignant observation that “instead of making kids study from books, schools are constantly trying to make learning fun by having parents do all the work”?
The lesson Tiger Mother teaches us is that Western parents are signed up to the idea that all stress is bad for children and the thing that matters is self-esteem, a nebulous concept which was unknown when this country won two world wars. “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to over-ride their preferences.”
Chua reckons Western parents give up too easily because we are scared of making our children unhappy. Yet how many adults – myself included – now say, “I wish I’d never stopped piano lessons”? Every week, the Small Boy tells me, “I wanna quit choir”. (“I wanna quit” is the mantra of my son’s generation; they are of the view that homework, turning off the X Box and other outrageous demands are “too stressy”.)
Trying to be a Tiger Mother for a change, I insist that he continues choir, which is laying down a terrific work ethic and a storehouse of pleasure for the future. As if to prove the point, Ashes hero Alastair Cook says he believes that his years as a
St Paul’s Cathedral chorister helped give him the patience and endurance for those long hours at the crease. I don’t know if Alastair has a Tiger Mother, but a demanding, self-disciplined childhood produced one hell of a cub. You can just imagine Tiger Mother’s bloodcurdling roar at the league tables, published yesterday, which showed that fewer than one in six pupils gained five good GCSEs in traditional subjects, the equivalent of their great-grandparents’ school leavers’ certificate. Schools have switched to “softer” topics to boost results.
I would bet my house that not one Chinese-British pupil, whether rich or poor, failed to get five good GCSEs. Amy Chua’s philosophy of child-rearing may be harsh and not for the fainthearted, but ask yourself this: is it really more cruel than the laissez-faire indifference and babysitting-by-TV which too often passes for parenting these days? Millions of failing British children could use a Tiger Mother in their tank.