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January 21, 2011

Tiger cubs versus precious lambs

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Tiger cubs v precious lambs

The contest with China moves into the classroom and nursery

SOME 2,400 years ago Mencius, a Confucian sage, endured a peripatetic Chinese childhood. His tigerish mother moved house three times before settling on one good enough for the infant genius—close to a good school. Many modern parents, anxious to give their child a winning start in the postcode lottery of life, would sympathise. They agonise about how to raise their children. Chinese mothers, however, still know what’s best.

So contends Amy Chua, a Chinese-American law lecturer, who has whipped up a storm with her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, and, in particular, a provocative extract published in the Wall Street Journal. The article’s starting-point is that “Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids”, because “Chinese mothers are superior”. Chinese matriarchs are better because they are tougher, stricter and readier to be loathed for banning children from almost any form of fun, from play dates to—horrors!—computer games. Indulgent Western parents, cosseting their baa-lambs’ self-esteem and releasing them to play in the mud when they could be doing extra arithmetic or practising scales, are condemning them to a life of underachievement.

In December the OECD published the results of a test pitting teenage students around the world against each other in reading, science and maths. Shanghai students comfortably pipped the South Koreans, Singaporeans and Hong Kong Chinese, with only eccentric Finns bucking the Western-slacker trend. America was 17th in reading and even lower in maths and science.

The results will not have surprised the creator of a self-explanatory American website, Asians Sleeping in the Library, “meant to celebrate…the hardest workers at our universities.” Recent research in Sydney, Australia showed that diligence begins early: primary-school children from Chinese backgrounds spent an hour doing homework every night of the week, compared with 20 minutes some nights for Anglo-Australians. In Singapore Chinese children do notably better academically than the Malay and Indian minorities, though the reasons why are disputed.


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