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Talking Stick

The Talking Stick Colloquium #46
Tiger Mom: Raising A Brood Today



Talking Stick Convener's Note: After some deep philosophical discussions in recent weeks, it is ime for a breather. This week, we take a different tack and address concerns closer to home, namely, the challenges of parenting today. 



"Mom has the same solution for everything," my daughter - now 18 years old -  complained to me once when she was in her early teens.

Anticipating the answer, I had asked, "And, pray, what might that be?"

Her response, accompanied by the appropriate gesture, was: "cchapaiR aaveh?" or "want to be slapped"?

Although my wife has never slapped our daughter, the threat of an impending smack (figuratively speaking, that is) is always alive and implied in their exchange - much like a nuclear option, ready to be used to squelch any argument that was not going mother's way.

I found my daughter's comment funny at the time and it still makes me smile but I realize now that she was actually making an important statement about her mother's parenting style, not uncommon in Punjabi /Indian homes - robust and muscular in its use of the slap (or the threat of it) as a disciplining tool; obsessive and compulsive in its relentless stress on performance, achievement and success.

For my wife, this is simply the good old fashioned way of rearing children, the one I jokingly call the Punjabi "chhittar" (spanking) school of parenting - although in fairness to her, the instruments that are used are always verbal ones. Like many other Sikh mothers I know, my wife is convinced that she has to raise a winner, and constant pushing, needling - or even scolding - is just part of the toolbox.

Trying to be the tender hearted foil to my martinet wife and not appearing to be taking sides, I routinely get caught in the middle. My standard reaction is "you have a point," when either side presses me for my position.

"You have a point," is a gem of wisdom I imbibed from the story of the old Jewish Rabbi who was called upon to settle a dispute.

As each side made its case, the Rabbi stroked his long beard and remarked, "You have a point!" The Rabbi's wife, watching the proceedings, exclaims, "How can they both be right," to which the old man responds with a stroke of his beard, "You have a point!"

Both mother and daughter have a point. The trouble is that neither can see the other viewpoint. And I am left stroking my beard - a lot!

My daughter's lament and my wife's robust parenting approach pretty much sums up the generational, cultural and parental gap in our house - and, I suspect, in a lot of Punjabi households. Beyond that, it also points to a broader question, much in the news lately, namely the role of a parenting style can play in child development.

My attention to this subject was drawn by a recent book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," by Amy Chua, a Harvard educated daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is currently the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale.

The book is a personal narrative of what Ms. Chua calls the "Chinese mothering" of her two daughters. She does qualify that Chinese mothering is not to be seen as an ethnic thing but a parenting philosophy that views strict discipline, uncompromising values and an unsparing mothering style as the reason Chinese (and Punjabi) kids are seen as more successful.

It has caused a minor sensation, inspiring extensive media coverage (including TIME magazine's cover) because of Ms.Chua's strong disapproval of parenting methods of the west. She remonstrates with her western counterparts for being slackers and indulgent, and thus raising a bunch of losers.

Ms. Chua offers many examples of what she calls superior Chinese mothering (which she used) and which many Punjabi parents will readily recognize and relate to: no sleepovers, no playdates, no TV or computer games and, worse, no complaining about no sleepovers, no play dates, no TV or computer games.

In school, nothing less than an 'A' is acceptable. A 'B' is a sure sign of impending failure. All hell breaks loose and a mad scramble for additional practice is put in place through supplemental programs like Kumon.

Piano and violin, accompanied by ballet lessons and rounded out by tennis or golf are de rigueur.

Heaven help the kid who expresses an interest outside of math/ science or being a doctor. Try telling your Punjabi parent that acting is what you want to do. My daughter did, once, when she was younger, and my wife went through the roof!

As you might expect, our daughter's development, though not quite as extreme (for which I claim credit) has followed a somewhat similar pattern: no sleepovers, period. Prom nights were acceptable only if accompanied by a known and approved Sikh boy and home by 11:00 pm. Our daughter defied both rules (again, with a little covert help from me).

Children are expected to be grounded in their own culture as well: Sikh camps, Sunday gurdwara, harmonium and kirtan lessons were a necessary part for ensuring that the girl was grounded culturally; and above all, Punjabi language was compulsory at home, with special emphasis on "haa(n) ji" and "achha ji."

Western parents are seen as being too squeamish and overly concerned about the child's self esteem. They are too quick to "slather praise, even for the lowest of tasks like drawing a squiggle or waiving a stick."

Asian parents can do things that would seem unimaginable to their western counterparts: like telling an overweight kid bluntly, "Hey fatty, loose some weight," or calling a disrespectful child "garbage" (which Ms. Chua's father did when she talked back to her mother).

By contrast, when Ms. Chua told a gathering of friends at a dinner party that she had called her older daughter "garbage" (in Chinese) for being disrespectful, they were aghast. One guest was so upset that she broke down in tears and had to leave early! Despite their tip-toeing around obesity and weight issues, more western kids end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self image.

My wife was incredulous when I narrated the incident to her. Now that our daughter is old enough to present neat, logical arguments to challenge her stance, anything that my wife does not like to hear is deemed disrespectful. She thinks nothing of responding with an admonition like "bewakoof" (stupid) or "akull da ghutt hai" (dim-witted) or the more threatening "chhittar lagan waale ne" (you need a good spanking).

Honestly, I have not seen any visible signs of damaged self esteem in my daughter - or Ms Chua for that matter.

To be sure, I get blamed by both sides! My wife thinks I am "too soft" on the girl and that is why she is getting out of hand (vigarrh gayee hai) while my daughter thinks I am always siding with mom, ganging up on her.

Is there any real merit to Ms. Chua's argument, or the Punjabi parenting style? Does such a regimented drilling of children always work?

What about the real cultural differences that divide immigrant parents and their offspring?

What we do not usually account for - or allow - is that the dominant culture around us is, in effect, shaping a distinct identity for our children. School, movies, fashion and the media, not to mention peer pressure, infiltrates the cultural bubble that we create. Our homes become a cultural battle ground with our kids caught in the middle.

As our daughter grew into adolescence, the American identity taking shape was very discernable, and I am sure this is a pattern that many Sikh parents recognize: parents become a bore (with some justification, I might add); the Sunday gurdwara, with its traditional ambience and Punjabi speaking granthis, ceases to be inviting. English and rap takes control. From "achha ji" and "haa(n) ji", they move on to "kyo(n) ji" ('But why?)

In all of this, the important thing is that our children do see through our double standards and hypocrisy.

"There is a time to be Indian and there is a time to be American," the title of a study of Indian American teenagers, aptly captures the lifestyle of our kids - living simultaneously in two worlds.

The transition between the two worlds is not always smooth but for the most part, kids manage to cope quite well in my opinion.

At eighteen, our daughter is fairly typical of Sikh-American teenagers her age. She lives in two worlds simultaneously. She is attached (literally) to her iphone/ ipod/ Mac and her preferred mode of communication is texting - a skill that I have had to develop in order to keep up. "Hanging out" with friends is a favorite pastime, although one is hard pressed to figure out what exactly "hanging out" means.

She views homework and housework as necessary evils to be coped with, but definite impediments to the pursuit of happiness. Parents are to be engaged with only when necessary, like when asking for money.

Yet, she remains deeply rooted in her Sikh heritage and takes great pride in being a Sikh.

The challenge for parents, it seems to me, is to help nurture in our children a truly composite personality consisting of two, perhaps multiple, cultural identities.

What, if any, lessons can we take from our Gurus whose track record as parents was, like ours, a mixed bag. 

As someone put it, where, at the end of the day, regardless of our preferred parenting style, do parents stand?

On the sidelines, as cheering spectators to the children?



We would love to hear from our readers, but particularly the mothers and children, for their perspective. And, of course, from single parents too.


February 21, 2011  

Conversation about this article

1: Harpreet Singh (Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.), February 21, 2011, 7:15 PM.

Amy Chua is receiving harsh criticism from the media and "Western" parents for no good reason. I found both her work ethic and self-sacrifice, when it comes to raising her kids, impressive. I don't know any Sikh parents who take parenting as seriously as Chua. The proof is in the pudding: How many Sikh kids do we know who even have the ambition to perform at Carnegie Hall or attend Juilliard? And what percentage of Sikh kids even apply to Harvard or other Ivy League schools? I think the Chinese are far ahead of us and know how to raise kids. We can all take inspiration from Chua's story.

2: N. Singh (Canada), February 22, 2011, 2:56 AM.

Harpreet Singh: I totally agree with you. I have just finished reading 'The Jewish Phenomenon' by Steven Silbiger. It talks about how the Jewish people are the most successful ethnic group across the world not only in terms of money but also scholarly activities, including having the most winners of the Nobel Prize. The emphasis in the book is on parenting and getting a good education as the right road to success both for individuals and communities. If I had it my way, I would make this mandatory reading for all Sikh parents. These are the sort of strategies we need to employ to overcome the challenges that are facing us. I have a new found respect for the Jewish nation and their achievements.

3: Jesroshan Singh (Malaysia), February 22, 2011, 5:11 AM.

My parents never resorted to the 'violence' described above. All they told me was that as a Sikh you should use your brains to think what is right and what is wrong. My dad and Nana ji drilled Sikhi into me and I am proud to say that, at 19, I am still a virgin, haven't had a girlfriend yet, never been clubbing, etc., and the thing is I don't find myself a loser because my parents gave me a choice and I am proud to have chosen the right path. My parents did not have to hit me, instead they chose the right words to develop my thinking. If I fail the tests, they just tell me to try harder because it is not the end of the world.

4: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), February 22, 2011, 11:07 AM.

It is not a question of self-esteem but a question of self-identity and free choice. Asian cultures including Sikh culture don't have much value for self-assertion, individual freedom and self-identity. I don't agree with Ms. Chua that Western parents are raising "bunch of losers" - that is a bigoted statement. I have come to the conclusion that Asian societies have much less emphasis on freedom and, therefore, are very insular and anti-individualistic. The Asian identity is not out of choice of freedom but "out of rearing". In fact, I would go so far as to say that most Asian cultures, including Punjabi, is anti-freedom for the growing child. Most Asian families who have this regimental, indoctrinating imposition on their kids are in fact perpetuating it out of insecurity. I agree with the author that threats of corporal punishment and attacks on self-dignity of others are norms and are not considered paranoid phenomenon in our culture. I find it hard to see that Sikhs can't even date because of their parents and it is worst for Sikh women, when it comes to dating. The objective of Asian parenthood seems to cast the self-identity of the progeny in the image of parents that supplements the desires and expectations of their parents.

5: Bicky Singh (Ontario, Canada), February 22, 2011, 12:23 PM.

I think to be a good parent, one must adopt a blend of being supportive as well as being firm. Children can get out of line so fast these days, that it can be a struggle once they've embarked on a less desirable route for themselves. The bottom line is that every parent loves his/her kids. The question is what balance do we need to strike with our kids to ensure their success. So many Western parents are so engulfed in their own pursuit of happiness that they tend to forget the proper raising of their kids. This is (sadly) also infiltrating into Punjabi families as well. We as parents need to establish boundaries for our kids, otherwise they will suffer for us not being there. I believe that respecting of parents is paramount and there should be a policy of zero tolerance here. Because most Western kids don't have this same level of respect, that's why they have become spoiled. As the old saying goes, "Maa deeyaa(n) gullaa(n), ghi-yo deeyaa(n) nallaa(n)!"

6: Gurpreet (Lancaster, PA, U.S.A.), February 22, 2011, 8:57 PM.

This is a very emotional topic for me because raising three children ranging in age from 13 to 20, has had its challenges. Having been raised in North America, I remember trying to adjust between the cultures, and at times it was not easy. I have great respect for my parents for raising two daughters and a son in a nurturing environment where we were told to take the best from both cultures. Of course, I want to instill that same notion in my children and with Guru's grace, hope to raise respectful, productive members of society. I am reminded of an analogy told to me at a gurmat camp many, many years ago: children are like sand in the palm of your hand. If you open your hand completely, chances are you may lose some as the sand will blow away. If you make a tight fist, the sand will seep out between the fingers. The key is to cup the hand for that perfect balance and protection of the sand.

7: Harpreet Singh (Shillong/ Bareilly, India), February 22, 2011, 9:57 PM.

There is something wrong in our general approach to parenting. As pointed put by Jesroshan Singh, more than being regimental and strict, what is needed is that we give our kids the right kind of religious education. Religious education may not be a big thing for a majority religion but, being a minority religion, it has got high importance for Sikhs, especially in this day and age when many of the young Sikhs, boys and girls, leave their homes for higher studies. During the course of my education, I have seen many world-class Sikh professors whose daughters had chosen to marry non-Sikhs (who were also non Punjabis) or whose sons have cut their hair. Why, once we succeed professionally, do we go all out to make our children professionally successful but forget to remind them of their religious duties? For once if he or she is strong in Sikh religious and moral beliefs, I don't think he or she will go astray. As far as mothers reminding teenagers/ youth, it is their duty. In my case, I have been away from 'home' for seven years now and have not done anything against Sikhi, but still when I go home and my mother and I are alone, she always warns me against alcohol, and urges me not to ever go on the 'wrong' path. Sometimes I get irritated when she says it but afterwards I think had I been in her place, I would have also done the same with my children. It is only when you become a parent yourself that you know how much your parents have loved you.

8: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 23, 2011, 6:53 AM.

There are two intertwined ideas that I had hoped to present: one, the Punjabi parenting style and two, identity formation in the diaspora. Punjabi/ Sikh immigrants want to (understandably) hang on to their Punjabi antecedents but their American/ Canadian/ English offspring is being shaped by another, very different dominant culture. This tussle only serves, in most cases, to harden the "strict" Punjabi style, whereas what we need is perhaps a "loosening" of that grip. Undoubtedly very difficult, but parents have to recognize which artifacts and attitudes - cultural, religious - are important and to be kept and which ones can be discarded.

9: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), February 23, 2011, 4:00 PM.

Ravinder, yes there are two ideas that seem intertwined but they are not entirely and forever inseparable. Not every Sikh is a Punjabi, nor should every Sikh try to become one. Yes, we do need to nurture some of the culture that we bring with us, not because it is Punjabi but only because it has some good and lasting values. Sikhi arose in Punjab and I know religion and culture are closely intertwined, but Sikhi is not limited to Punjab and its culture.

10: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 23, 2011, 6:39 PM.

To add to the Tiger Mom's extempore lecture, it was often prefaced with 'Marjani', 'Kamjaat' and some even more colorfully explicit terms of endearment. The younger sons are usually exempted and the speech somewhat tempered like saying: "Tar-jaana" instead of the common "Dub-jaana". The poor father often gets caught in the cross fire, and here we could embellish the old Rabbi with the more colorful Nasruddin who upheld the usual verdict: A judge in a village court had gone on vacation. Nasruddin was asked to be a temporary judge for the day. He sat on the Judge's chair with a serious face, gazing around the public and ordered the first case be brought-up for hearing. "You are right," said Nasruddin after hearing one side. "You are right," he said after hearing the other side. "But both cannot be right," said a member of the public sitting in the audience. "You are right, too," declared Nasruddin.

11: Anne Hungate (Powell, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 25, 2011, 10:54 AM.

Your writing style is lovely. Of course, you've left me with the responsibility of finding my own balance between expecting disciplined behavior and encouraging self-expression. I like Tiger Mom's premise that children are strong, not weak. I also believe in the importance of building relationships with other children and learning how to 'play fairly'. Thanks for the provoking thought.

12: Radha Venkatraman (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 27, 2011, 4:04 PM.

Balance, Balance - that's what strikes me the most from reading Amy Chua's book, all the reviews in Time Magazine and now with your article here. Parenting style needs to be tailored to the child. Although I only have a 15 month old son, I have been questioning a lot of what my reigning style is. I think my default is no different from the heavy-handed style that Ms. Chua talks about. But even with a 15 month old, it is already not working. So trying different strategies from showering more affection to showing more empathy (sounds odd, I know) is getting better results! In the last few months, my self-awareness has been growing higher. And who am I kidding, I can only change myself and lead by example. There is no doubt that children are competing in a global marketplace now and expectations are higher. So while we have the responsibility to instill the right foundational values of discipline, hard work and respect, we need to have enough self-awareness to realize when its time to let go. I come from a mixed parentage (Tamil/Hindi) while living/ growing up in India. I remembering questioning my identity many-a-times and so felt that it actually gave me an advantage of knowing both the cultures well. It greatly helped me upon coming to America and having the confidence to take on anything and be successful at it. While the expectation from us was high, we were given the freedom to choose. Most importantly, my parents trusted us due to which we would always hold ourselves to a higher standard. No heavy monitoring was needed on their end. I feel the key is to have an open mind to various approaches and to be ready to change oneself. Easier said than done!

13: Aryeh Leib (Israel), February 28, 2011, 7:51 AM.

N Singh's (#2) comment can be explained, in part, by Radha Venkatraman's (#12) observation: the Torah states, "Chanoch l'naar al-pi darko" - educate the child according to its way. Individual differences are readily discernable in children from a very early age. Some learn visually, others are auditory processors, still others favor a "hands-on" approach. Some naturally gravitate to math/ science and other analytical disciplines, while others are of a more intuitive, artistic bent. As parents, we ignore these distinctions at our peril; permitting our own (often misplaced) expectations to squelch a child's own talents is a sure recipe for an unhappy child who will grow up to be a frustrated, unfulfilled adult. An equally important corollary is found in something I learned from my rabbis; that these children whom I consider to be "mine" are, in truth, God's children - who have been given into my care for the purpose of raising to each one's individual potential. My job is to do the best I can; success is not in my hands. This, I believe, is in line with the Sikh concept of Sehaj, ie. the child's success or failure, after a certain age, doesn't reflect on me as a parent - either for good or bad. I'm sure we all know of parents who were models of love, support, and discipline whose children turned out the exact opposite of what should have been expected. Conversely, as one father said to his child, "True, the way you turned out may be my fault - but, it's YOUR problem!"

14: Simran Kaur Taneja (Ohio, U.S.A.), March 01, 2011, 2:58 PM.

When I first began to read this article about my relationship with my mom, I was definitely a little nervous, not knowing what to expect. But after reading the article, I have to admit that it is a fair portrayal. Though there has always been a cultural gap between my mom and I, my dad has always been the bridge, reconciling our points of view with a "What she really means is ...!" When I was younger, I was terrified of the "chaperR" but it never came. And as I have grown older and wiser, I realized those were merely empty threats to make sure that I stayed in line. I still get the occasional, "cchapaiR aaveh?" but in fairness to Mom, she is not the fire-spewing dragon she appeared to be when I was younger. I commend my parents for coming to this country and raising a kid in an environment that has barely anything in common with the one they grew up in. Though I hated not being allowed to do what "the other kids" were doing, I now have a better appreciation of where they were coming from. I want to thank my parents and even the other Sikh parents in our community for the values and morals they've instilled in us. Without them we wouldn't be able to face the day to day pressures and difficulties of being a teenager in this society.

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Tiger Mom: Raising A Brood Today "

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