In the parenting book Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, Maya Thiagarajan tries to answer the following questions that many Filipino parents -- if not all -- have asked themselves: How do I help my child achieve his maximum academic potential? How do I help him find the right balance between work and play? How do I deal with my child’s failures? Is it sometimes good for him to fail?
For answers, Maya uses an extensive body of research including interviews with hundreds of Asian parents and children to provide accessible and practical guidelines for parents. In fact, each chapter ends with a "How To" section of specific tips for Asian and Western parents. But what will probably make this an engaging read is how she weaves her own reflections in the book, all based on her experience teaching and parenting in Asia and the West.
Maya reveals she spent most of her childhood in India and as a teen, attended an international boarding school, giving her a front row seat to the different ways of viewing and understanding the world. But her education and later on her life as a teacher was heavily influenced by her parents.
“Both my mom and dad were avid readers and they spent a lot of time engaging me and my sisters in conversations about all kinds of topics,” Maya reveals in an email interview with SmartParenting.com.ph. “One of my most vivid memories as a child was having my mom read To Kill A Mockingbird out loud to me and my sister when I was about 12 or 13. We used to read a few chapters together each night.”
Maya began her teaching career with Teach For America, where she taught at a public school in Baltimore City for two years. She went on to teach high school English at some of America's most prestigious independent schools. After a decade of teaching in the US, Maya moved to Singapore and began teaching at The United World College of South East Asia (UWC).
Struck by the different approaches to education and parenting that she encountered in Singapore, where her family is currently based, Maya began to interview Chinese and Indian parents living in Singapore, and that’s how the book came about.
Maya, who earned a BA in English from Middlebury College and a Masters in Education Policy from Harvard University, talks to us further about her research for the book, her observations on the differences among Asians when it comes to school, and her opinion on homework.
When it comes to attitude towards education among Asian parents, who do you think is stricter? When it comes to Asian parents, I think it’s difficult to generalize about groups of parents -- massive generalizations can always be a bit dangerous because they lead you into the realm of stereotypes.
However, in my individual conversations with students, I found that my Korean students described being pushed very hard by their parents. If they didn’t get perfect scores, their parents would tell them that their studying was not sufficient. Also, news articles about Korean discipline and educational pressure abound. I do think that it’s a very intense culture. But I guess most East-Asian nations are intensely focused on education, and the norm in East Asia is a stricter form of parenting.
From my own experiences, I’ve found that South-East Asian families -- of Malay, Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino origin -- tend to be a little more relaxed. But I have met very relaxed Chinese parents as well as very strict South-East parents. Like I said, it’s hard to generalize.
The book excerpt you shared with us (read it here) talks about the constantly positive praise doled out regularly to US students in private schools. I can see the disadvantages, but what are the advantages? Well, I don’t think that “sugar candy” style praise is ever a good idea. However, it is very important for parents and teachers to praise kids for their effort and determination. Also, if we know that a child has been working really hard, it is absolutely essential to praise and validate the child, regardless of results. I honestly think that effort matters more than results, and as teachers and parents, we have to make sure that kids know how much we value their effort and motivation.
It’s also important not to make our kids think that their self-worth is somehow tied to academic achievement. As parents, it’s important to make sure that we regularly communicate love, affection, and positive regard for our children, no matter what their grades are. This is true of teachers as well -- I hope that every single one of my students knows that I care about them, regardless of what they do or achieve.
Many parents dread Math and Science, but, of course, they want their kids to love it. What are your tips on how we can incorporate this into a child’s daily life? First, I think that parents should refrain from making statements like “I never liked Math” or “I’m not good at Math” in front of their kids. Our kids absorb our attitudes in all kinds of ways, so we need to work on sharing a positive attitude with our kids.
In my book, I spend the first chapter describing how moms can build “math-rich homes’ for their kids. I think that with young kids, it’s quite easy to create a math-rich home, even if you as a parent don’t actually like math or feel good at it. The important thing is to become conscious of how to integrate math into everyday conversations and activities and make it a part of one’s life.
Here in Singapore, I see many mothers working hard to integrate math into daily life and create a mathematically rich home for their children. Mothers talk to their kids about numbers, shapes, and patterns from the get-go. They play math games in the car or at the dinner table (Guess the number? Solve the mathematical riddle, Add up the numbers on license plates as quickly as possible, Calculate distance traveled etc.). They teach their kids chess. They spend money and time on Lego sets, building blocks, tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, and board games. When they take their kids to the grocery store, they talk math. If one apple costs $0.80, how much will six apples cost? When they ride the elevator, they talk math. Look, we’re riding up and down a number line. If we’re on the fifth floor now, how many more floors till we get to the 11th floor?
What’s your stance about homework? Many Filipino parents are complaining their kids have too much. Some homework is important to help consolidate skills and instill self-discipline in kids, but too much homework gets in the way of time outdoors and time to play, and that can have dire consequences.
I think that a lot of kids in Singapore, and probably across Asia, don’t get enough time outdoors. In fact, in my book, I describe the consequences of too much time spent indoors studying or doing homework -- up to 90 percent of kids in Singapore are myopic or nearsighted, and doctors think that this might be a result of not having enough time outdoors. Additionally, many children -- young kids and teens -- suffer from anxiety, and there’s a lot of research about how time outdoors in nature can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
We all need more balance in our lives – and I think that we all need “a green hour” each day where we can be outside and get some fresh air and exercise. Kids particularly need this time. In my book, I quoteRichard Louv, the author of Last Child In the Woods, who says that “time in nature is not a luxury for our kids, it’s an essential investment in their health.”
In the Philippines, we talk about how we should we let kids to fail, but in reality, especially when faced with a failing grade, many parents can’t seem to stop themselves from “rescuing” their child. I write about this a lot in my book. In Singapore, there’s a strong aversion to any kind of failure, but personally I think that low-stakes failures in school can be healthy for kids. If your child tries out for the football team but doesn’t make it, don’t think of it as a disaster; instead, think of it as a teaching moment. If your child doesn’t do as well on a math test as he hoped, don’t get anxious and upset; instead think of it as a teaching moment and help him learn from his mistakes and make a plan to study harder next time around.
When parents swoop in to “rescue” their child, they may think that they’re helping the kid, but actually in the long run, they are sabotaging the child. It’s what I call parenting for the short-term. If we want to raise strong, resilient kids who can cope with all the challenges that life will inevitably bring, then we need to give them chances to fail.
If we parents deal with failures in constructive ways, then we can help our children develop resilience and persistence. We can help our children realize that failure and rejection are a part of life; they’re not the end of the world.