I am contemplating buying Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. I would have borrowed the book but alas, the library’s not open due to the earthquake, so I have to make do with my Kindle for PC. (Am contemplating buying a Kindle too coz my brother would never speak to me again if I bought an iPad, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, I read the first sample chapter, and I have to say that I found many parallels to my life, at least from what I’ve read. More traditional Chinese families tend to have a tendency to push their children to the point of insanity to make them succeed academically. I’m not going to say whether that’s good or bad –of course I have my opinions on it, but I’ll leave you to make your own judgements for now. I just want to share my experience of living under that style of parenting.
I have always been a rebellious child. I don’t follow the norms. I don’t like norms. I don’t like conformity. I veer towards right-brain thinking, which might make me see the world in a different way to the majority of people. Whilst growing up in Hong Kong, I would always refuse to do the set homework. It would be a huge battle of wills. My reasoning for not doing the homework: My hand hurt from holding the pencil and trying to control it so I could form those Chinese characters. I still can’t form Chinese characters well.
After my family moved to New Zealand, things let up for a bit. My mother used to make me remember English phrases from school and make me repeat them back to her when I got home. She quickly gave up when I started making up my own phrases. Clearly, the English language was not going to be a problem for me if I could start forming sentences after two months.
However, when I was eight, she discovered that I had no idea what decimal numbers were. Prior to that, my dad had always been the one who taught me maths. My dad is pretty good at maths, but he’s an awful teacher. He thinks that everyone should be a mathematical genius and automatically understand complicated concepts. Mum took over after I only got half the questions right in a maths competition.
From then on, it was war. I resented having extra work. Why did I need to be three or four years ahead than everyone else at maths? Why did I have to do all those stupid questions after school? Why couldn’t she leave me alone to read my books? Sure, I enjoyed getting the prizes for maths competitions. It made me feel like I was worth something. The rest of the time, I resented being called stupid or useless for not being able to grasp certain mathematical concepts. My excellence in mathematics alienated me from my peers. I was never the popular kid –I was too shy and too weird– but this just made it worse. I think I’m a bit socially awkward today because of what I experienced back then. I didn’t want to be noticed –and sometimes I still don’t want to be noticed– because the attention I got was hardly ever friendly.
When it came to maths, I had to get all Excellences (the New Zealand equivalent of straight A’s). Anything less was not good enough. I felt pressured into performing well. I felt like my parents’ show pony. They loved being able to say how good at maths I was, but I felt as if they loved my mathematical achievements instead of the person that I was. I was much more than just a bunch of mathematical formulae and Distinction certificates. They didn’t care that I loved to write. They didn’t care that I liked dancing. They didn’t care so much when I got Excellence in English or French. They cared when I failed a mock history essay. Failure was not acceptable in my family back then.
The resentment grew. Even the Excellences in Mathematics failed to boost my mood. I was not a mass of numerical formulae. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement because hey, I was only this good because it got drilled into my head every day for the past ten years. I was sick of it. Maths took up most of my time, leaving me little time to concentrate on subjects that I enjoyed and naturally were good at, such as French and English and…well, not so much history. My history grades in high school were hit and miss. But I liked history and I felt that if I had more time to spend on it, I’d be better. I just didn’t have the time.
This excellence in mathematics led to me being pushed into taking Physics in Year Twelve (twelfth grade in American and sixth form for some other nations). I slept a lot in class because of the heater. All of the theories went right over my head. My boat for my practical went backwards so its speed was in the negatives and there was a burnt plastic smell when I tried to construct a circuit for the electricity topic. To put it simply, I sucked at it.
That year was my last stand. The pressure was too much. I hated Physics and I hated Maths. What if I didn’t get an excellence for a maths paper? That would be the equivalent of failure. Besides, I wanted to prove something; I wanted to prove that I had talent all on my own and that I was right about myself all along. I was not a mathematical person. My talents lay in the arts and other more creative subjects.
My parents wanted me to take Year Thirteen Calculus. Dad wanted me to get a maths scholarship in university, then a maths degree, and then he wanted me to go and teach maths. Mum wanted me to do it because why would I not do it? I was good at it.
I laid down an ultimatum. If they made me take Calculus, I was simply going to fail it, there it was. The word ‘fail’ scared them. My mother tried to threaten me. If I failed Calculus, she was going to rip up my in-progress novel. I, in turn, told her that if she did it, I was going to leave home and never look back. I would change my name and cut off all contact with the family.
I’m not whether she took me seriously, but I think she was a bit afraid. She didn’t really know what I was capable of.
The lesson here? Raising a child goes both ways. The child trains the parent too. I started early. It’s not easy, but if you’re lucky, eventually your parents might learn. Parents have to learn that their children are not putty to be moulded any way they please. Children have minds of their own, personalities, their own inherent talents and flaws. Children can be quite different from their parents. A child is not their parents’ doll or tool or show pony. The child is a little person who deserves to be loved for who they are, not for what they achieve. Achievement should be encouraged, but don’t force the child to do something that they really don’t want to. Guide them when they are small, but as they grow, let them choose their lives. After all, in the end, the parent is not the child. The parent actually doesn’t know what’s best for their children.
I always say this; “I’m the one who knows what’s best for me. You’re not me so you can’t know.” I truly believe that.