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The Death of Tiger Mom (Part 1 of 2)

It’s been over a decade since Amy Chua launched her notorious writing career describing the benefits of being a Tiger mom. In her book, she told how Asian moms were “better” and pointed to the exceptional academic performance of her children — and Asian children generally — as proof. And she’s right. Asian kids have, for decades, been over-represented at top schools from middle through medical school.

I wanted some of that for my kids.

So, at the age of 30-something, this six-foot, two-inch, 200-lbs Black man transitioned to life as an Asian mother. Not surprisingly, the fit was uncomfortable, but I was determined for the sake of my kids. I followed the two-step plan of the Tiger mom.

Step 1: I signed my son up for Kumon. 

Step 2: I yelled at him for not being good enough.

But there were Problems

As soon as I began, however, I ran into two problems: 

My first problem was that I had a brain. So despite Amy’s suggestion that it was healthy and wise to brow-beat a child into submission using meals, sleep, and affection as ransom, I couldn’t get my head around it. Also, having coached thousands of parents, I saw the short-term gain and long-term pain associated with pressuring a child to excel in school. It only works if the mom is prepared to do whatever it takes — including verbal, mental, and physical abuse — to produce a good student. Most Western parents balk at “learning-by-force” for obvious reasons.

But my second problem was that my child was a Black Boy—more on this next week.

The Long Season for Tiger Parents

Amy was right about some of the benefits of Tiger parenting. “Tiger season” spanned from 1900 until 2020 — March 15th, 2020 to be exact. (The day COVID shut down schools). 

During Tiger season, the education game was straightforward, and the rules were easily understood: 1) Conform to school rules. 2) Learning isn’t meant to be fun. 3) Class rank is your God. 4) Finish your damn Kumon packets!

The graphic below describes how Tiger parents take ownership of their child’s learning and maintain that ownership, in many cases, into college. 

The child is a passenger on their educational journey. Their Tiger parent slowly provides some increases in autonomy along the way when, upon entering college, the child is thrust into a leadership role. But don’t fear. Their Tiger parent is right behind them. 

Gaming the Education Game 

I have known many Tiger parents. Each would stop at nothing to “win” the education game. Many enrolled their kids in full-time private summer schools, which cost thousands of dollars. For many Tigers, this was a stretch on their finances, but they happily paid the price. 

In these schools, students would learn the subjects covered by their child’s school in the coming year. For example, rising 8th graders would spend the summer learning 8th-grade math, science, history, and composition. Not surprisingly, these students would outperform their peers the following school year. 

Some argue that this is an unfair practice, but I beg to differ. These Tigers are simply gaming a system that is easily manipulated by those who are willing to put in the labor. I applaud their effort.

But what happens when the rules change?

Old Game, New Rules

Think about basketball players in the 1960’s. The game was entirely different. Different rules — no three-point line, no shot clock, and dunking was prohibited! The best teams were robotic. Dribble, pass, shoot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Over 50 years, basketball evolved into the high-flying, crowd-igniting show we see today. And with the evolution, so did the preparation of the players. 

The game of education is now going through the same evolution — revolution, really. Artificial intelligence is expanding. Repetitive and robotic tasks once done by humans are, perhaps rightfully, shifting to actual robots. This is not limited to blue-collar jobs, by the way. Brookings Institute researchers state,

“Our analysis shows that workers with graduate or professional degrees will be almost four times as exposed to AI as workers with just a high school degree. Holders of bachelor’s degrees will be the most exposed by education level, more than five times as exposed to AI than workers with just a high school degree.”

Brookings Institute

From manufacturing jobs to mediators. From doctors to dry cleaners. From engineers to educators. ALL will be affected. The new rules will look nothing like the old. And any player stuck in the old model will be sidelined. 

The 100-year Degree Plan

The new rules of education mean that learning is not something that happens primarily in the four walls of a school. The school has had a virtual monopoly on education for decades, but now, learning starts when you leave the womb and ends when you breathe your last. 

ALL will need to shift their mental model from “school-work-retire” to “learn-work-learn-work-learn.” The need to constantly upskill will continue to stay ahead of the disruptions and AI encroachment. 

Tiger parents fear this disruption. In the new education game, the rules are opaque. Success is fragmented. Measures that imply work readiness — like GPA — are being replaced by fuzzy measures like “mental flexibility” and “curiosity.”

“There’s no multiple choice test for mental flexibility!!”

Tiger Moms everywhere

Mental Flexibility won’t’ be on the Test

My most recent example of mental flexibility came yesterday as I visited “Aladdin’s,” one of my favorite pre-COVID restaurants. What was once a packed lunch spot now had only four other customers in the dining room. 

Pointing to the empty waiting room, I said to the owner, “So sorry about COVID!” As he filled a to-go-container, he smiled without looking up and said with a slight accent, “This has been the best year we’ve ever had in 25 years! My business has expanded by triple, and next week we are reducing the size of the dining room to expand the kitchen. We are now a take-out restaurant, my friend!” Then he paused and looked me straight in the eye. Smiling broadly, he continued, “And I love it… because I hate dealing with customers!” 

Ouch. 

Despite his unusual honesty, the Aladdin’s owner adapted, pivoted, and benefited from the disruption. He did so because he thinks like an entrepreneur. He knows how to solve problems. He never waits for someone to tell him what to do or learn. He knows that the stale strategies that worked in the past are no more. 

The new rules require creativity, risk-taking, and independent thought. And this is why Tiger mom must be domesticated — or put down. The skills she teaches her child are 1960s game plans. They have no place in 2021 and beyond.

Domesticating Tigers

As I work to declaw Tiger parents everywhere, the question I get most is: What now?!

Tiger parents must shift their approach to one that builds “Independent Learners.” The graphic below is a primer on next week’s post. 

More in next week’s post on the steps to take and why this conversation is more intense for the parents of Black Boys.

As always, we welcome a free conversation about your situation and encourage you to take our free assessment on how your child is being prepared for their future. Both can be accessed by clicking here.

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