Today brings the second half our our interview with Maya Thiagarajan, author of the most terrific book for parents, Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age. Please click through to read last week’s interview about Global Education. It’s an interesting read about how East and West educational systems and how to transition children between them, as well as a few tips for enhancing your home for optimum learning.
Today Maya speaks about parenting for global success and preparing our children for living a life that’s different from what they know now. Maya grew up in India, went to the USA for university and her first teaching positions, and is now raising her young family in Singapore so she is a wealth of information about education and parenting.
Which educational style (Indian, American, or Singaporean) do you relate to the strongest, and why? Have you now, or do you think you’ll ever be able to mesh your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours between the different cultures in which you’ve lived?
I think that global parenting is very confusing because different cultures offer parents such contrasting messages. Often Eastern and Western messages about parenting seem to directly contradict each other. But, at the same time, I think that parents today have the unique opportunity of being able to learn from parents in other countries/cultures and adopt best practices from around the world.
In my book, Beyond The Tiger Mom, I talk about “the parenting see saw” or the need to achieve some sort of equilibrium between seemingly opposing ideas and values. For example, Americans often prioritize freedom and free play, while Singaporeans/Asians prioritize family ties, respect for elders, and more structured work. Now all of these are good values, but the freedom to express oneself might clash with the need to be respectful of your elders. Or what one culture sees as “self-expression,” the other culture might view as “disrespect.”
Another example is that American culture is known for its individualism, and kids are praised for defending their views and speaking out for themselves. In an Asian context, where societies tend to be much more collectivist, these behaviors might be interpreted very differently; they might be viewed as inconsiderate or even selfish. So really, it can be very confusing for a parent (or a child) who straddles both East and West. I think that immigrant parents, expat parents, and global parents of all kinds often find themselves conflicted and bewildered!
I think that my experiences of living in different cultures has both enriched and confused me. My solution to this, however, is to constantly be open to different cultural viewpoints and then embrace ideas and attitudes that I like. So for example, I am a huge fan of America’s emphasis on creative expression, reading for pleasure, asking questions, and exploratory learning. However, I’m also a huge fan of Singapore’s emphasis on math-activities, focus and concentration, and respect for elders. I try my best to help my kids benefit from my experiences in both cultures, and my philosophy is to find a comfortable middle ground, as much as possible.
How do you prepare children to live and succeed in their current culture, yet prepare for a future when they may find themselves living elsewhere?
All our kids need roots, and they need a sense of belonging. It’s important for kids to understand the culture they live in and to feel a part of that culture. Given that we live in Singapore, I make a big effort to teach my kids about the history and culture of the island. Even though we’re not Chinese, we celebrate Chinese New Year, which is the biggest celebration in Singapore. My kids get “hong bao” or “red gift packets” from their teachers and from our friends, and we enjoy watching lion dances. We moved here when my kids were quite young, so they really do think of Singapore as home.
However, given that my kids are Indian by ethnicity and American by passport, I also make an effort to teach my kids about their other “homes” and to help them see that the world is their home and that they are global citizens. I make a big effort to read multicultural literature from all over the world to them, and I feel strongly that multicultural books are absolutely important in today’s globalized world. One of my major goals for my kids is to help them empathize with all people — in fact, I often tell them to “judge less and empathize more.” When we stop judging others and their differences, and when we instead try to understand how people feel and why they feel that way, we are not only kinder but also happier. For me, being a global citizen is about empathizing with others, judging less, and being open to other people’s world views. Knowing more about the world — geography, history, global politics, world religions, world cuisines — also helps, and most kids enjoy learning about other cultures.
How do you stay true to your own beliefs and parenting style when it may not be congruent with those around you?
Well, our parenting is always influenced by the larger culture we live in. Parenting is, in many ways, a cultural act. And I think that it is natural and healthy to stay open to the culture you live in.
However, inevitably there will also be some aspects of the mainstream culture around you with which you disagree. I think it’s important to be honest with yourself as a parent and to think carefully about what you believe in and what you really care about. For example, I honestly think that many kids in Singapore are under too much academic pressure when they are very young — even three-year-olds here are sometimes sent to “tuitions” or “enrichment classes for math/language,” and many kids spend their entire weekend studying. I made some ground rules for myself — in fact, I even wrote out a personal parenting philosophy for myself. I said that I will make sure that I balance academics with lots of free play and outdoor time. I believe that academic work is very important, but I also make sure that my kids get a “green hour” every day — or an hour after school when they can play freely with their friends in the park or, if it’s raining, at home. I think that having a strong sense of what you believe in is very important. Just as many educators are required to write a personal education philosophy, I think that parents could also benefit from doing this. Once you know what you believe, it’s much easier to stay true to it.
With family being so important in Eastern societies, how do you keep ties between your children and their grandparents when they live oceans away? Is it possible for children to still have stability and ‘roots’ while at the same time learning to fly with their own interests?
I think it’s so much harder to raise kids today because so many moms don’t have the support of an extended family around them. In Singapore, the government incentivizes families to live close to each other in a number of different ways, and they expect adults to take care of their elderly parents. One of the things I love about Singapore is the emphasis on extended family and “a strong family culture.”
Given that I don’t have any family in Singapore, I have had to create a “village” for my children in other ways — I encourage the grandparents to visit often and stay as long as possible, and we Skype or Facetime with them regularly. Additionally, I have made a big effort to create a network of mom-friends who can help me out when I need some extra support. It’s a two-way street of course — I help them out whenever I can as well. And I also make a big effort to cultivate good relationships with the other adults in my children’s lives — their teachers and coaches and babysitters. I really do believe that it takes a village to raise a child; without that village, parenting becomes too stressful and exhausting, and kids lack the range of adult role models and caregivers that they need.
Maya Thiagarajan is the author of Beyond The Tiger Mom and is currently living, teaching, and conducting workshops with parents in Singapore. You can find out more about Maya and her endeavours at www.mayathiagarajan.info