Confessions of a Tiger Dad

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By Parag Khanna

This year was the first Father's Day on which my daughter promised to make me a card. She never actually made it since we were busy traveling, but I was touched by the thought. I also couldn't help but recall one of the most memorable and controversial scenes from Amy Chua's parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in which she berates one of her daughters for making a slapdash card for her on Mother's Day. Since the book was published in 2011, I've been struck by how few (read: none) fathers have spoken in defense of disciplined parenting. After all, until Tiger Mom, wasn't the parental archetype reversed: stern fathers and coddling mothers?

Chua's underlying argument is actually a gender-neutral defense of Asian immigrant parenting. My own upbringing (mostly in New York) was similarly tough: Straight A's earned me freedom to spend as much extracurricular time as possible on the tennis court. I was obligated to excel at what mattered to the system (and my parents) so that I could maximize focus on things I found more challenging and inspiring (like languages).

For the past decade, I've been observing how a young generation of Asian-Americans is bifurcated between the over-achieving teenagers who pack the freshmen classes of our elite universities and those who blend in with the mainstream masses. When I was growing up, the latter category didn't really exist. Inevitably, the swelling ranks of Asian immigrants would yield a more bell curve-like distribution, but my instinct was also to blame the parents: Did they lack the work ethic and killer instinct of an earlier generation?

If we strip away the gender and immigrant aspects of these debates, we are left with the fundamental principle that should command our attention: discipline. Discipline is what Tiger Mom is really about, and I believe it is a principle as timely and necessary as ever.

The essence of discipline is routines and deferred gratification, both demonstrated in countless social scientific studies to be crucial to success in most aspects of life. Whether practicing piano for 10,000 hours or being rewarded only after genuine achievement, there is nothing particularly maternal or Asian about the logic of hard-work and incentives. In a period where teachers are rightly accused of complacency and children of feeling over-entitled, discipline is a reality check. We have to prepare today's youth for a world where their competition comes both from hard-working students worldwide and from technological automation.

In an age of perpetual distraction, discipline matters. Countless articles attest to the scourge of iPad and Angry Bird addiction, as if the blame lies with technology itself rather than parental laziness. I admire the contributors to WIRED's Geek Dads site, who constantly conjure and share new virtual puzzles and real tinkering challenges to engage kids. They encourage a holistic, well-rounded approach to technology to stimulate creativity.

Kevin Kelly, WIRED magazine founder and technology philosopher, has written passionately about his year of home-schooling his eighth grade son. The curriculum was a blend of practical survivalism and ethical reflection, with technology only playing a supplemental role. This kind of experiment-oriented discipline is clearly not for the sake of raising obedient children, but in order to teach children to themselves be disciplined people who don't blame technology for our individual lack of self-control in using technology.

It's no surprise that the plethora of Internet-based tools now available is empowering parents to curate their own curriculum for their children. We have been home-schooling our daughter for the past six months. With guidance from online forums and hiring local tutors, we saved a fair amount on tuition cost, eliminated commuting and our daughter now reads, writes and converses in three languages. (And yes, don't worry, between ballet, swimming, karate and drama classes, she gets plenty of the all-important socialization.)

By setting the terms and tone of our children's education, we see just how underwhelming formal education can be -- and how a child can live up to his or her potential much earlier than conventionally realized. Instead waiting until second grade for trips to the zoo or museum, our daughter does such "special missions" once per week, including wandering through the alleys of Chinatown.

In our household, travel is the religion. Our daughter has been to 65 major cities in 27 countries. We don't take her to Moscow or Tokyo or Cape Town to do math homework, but to see museums, wear funny costumes and learn chit-chat in foreign tongues. No engineering major from China or robot will outwit an outgoing young person with street smarts.

It matters much less what you are disciplined about than that you encourage self-discipline. For example, daily "PE" in the morning before or after school is a great idea to teach coordination and encourage athleticism. Yoga seems to have become a fad amongst young kids already. Fathers need to have a vision for what skills and virtues they can bring out in their kids through smart and creative routines.

The division of labor in parenting is changing. There are more stay-at-home dads than ever, either alternating years on/off the job with their spouses or choosing portable careers. Still, the pan-gender consensus that parenting matters more than schooling doesn't make the task any easier. Spouses definitely won't agree on each other's agenda, and kids may get confused over "who's the boss." But if you read Tiger Mom until its conclusion, you should remember the ultimate message. It doesn't matter what your child's college major becomes so long as they always make their best effort. Last time I checked that's the American dream, not the Chinese one.

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