In China, a Generation Raised by ‘Tiger Mothers’ Seeks a Softer Approach

Digital Learning

In China, a Generation Raised by ‘Tiger Mothers’ Seeks a Softer Approach

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 27, 2018

In China, a Generation Raised by ‘Tiger Mothers’ Seeks a Softer Approach

Beijing—For Nancy Xu, childhood revolved around her studies. That meant early-morning bus rides to school, loads of after-school classes, and by high school, spending 12 hours a day on coursework.

Xu grew up in northwestern China, and the reason for all that studying was a high-stakes test called the Gaokao, a nationwide college-entrance exam. In many cases, this one ultracompetitive test determines what kind of job the student will be able to pursue as an adult.

For Xu, all that studying paid off. She wound up earning a slot at a prestigious university in Shanghai, where she now lives and runs an education consulting company called Cevolution. The system worked for her. But now, Xu and many others are questioning whether the style of parenting that stresses such rigorous and constant study is the best preparation for the world after college.

In fact, Xu says attitudes toward education are changing in China. The phrase ‘Tiger Mothers’ has been used to refer to parents who monitor children closely with high pressure to succeed. But now, there’s a new class of parents in China who describe themselves with a softer label: Panda Moms. Xu says that means encouraging more creativity and self-exploration.

EdSurge sat down with Xu during the recent Global Education Technology summit in Beijing to ask about her ethnographic research into parenthood in China, and about what Americans can learn from the Chinese education experience.

EdSurge: What are some differences in attitudes toward education of parents here in China compared to parents in the U.S.?

There was a book in the U.S. a few years ago that was really popular called [Battle Hymn of the] Tiger Mother. People were shocked, saying, ‘Oh my god, how can you raise a kid like that?’ But that style was actually very common in China, especially the parents who raised my generation. I was born in the 1980s, and that was when the Gaokao become a vehicle for [upward mobility].

This is the exam that students take to get into college, right? The Gaokao?

Right. So if you want to get into the top-tier school, you have to be the top one percent in your province.

One percent of a big number of people, right?

Yeah, 1 percent of millions of people. In my province it was 3.5 million students [taking the test] the year I took it. So I needed to get into the top 1 percent to get into the top tier school. I studied more than 12 hours per day in high school.

You were one of those top one percent?

Yeah, yeah.

Congrats. So parents clearly put a lot of emphasis on their kids’ education?

It’s a life-changing chance. Education is your life ticket to change.

Tiger Mom was nothing new. People would change where they live, people would buy school district houses, people will bribe their teachers. Regulating every hour [of kids’ time to make sure they are studying enough.]

After being raised like that, these kids, who are in their 30s now and becoming parents, they know it’s not a path they want their kids to take.

So this new generation are not trying to be the same as their parents?


If people don’t want to be Tiger Moms anymore, what is it now?

Well, we call them Panda Moms. Panda Moms are these type of people who are like, “I don’t want that pushing too hard for my kids. I want them to be their own people.”

We actually interviewed parents who will classify themselves as Panda Moms. One said, “[My kid] loves drawing.” So they put her into a drawing after-school class but the teacher was teaching in a very regulated way, saying to the students, just copy the drawing in certain ways. And the parent says: “I quit that class because I don’t want my kid to lose their own creativity.”

And I was like, “That’s amazing.”

You’re saying that's very different from the way you grew up?

That’s very different. Exactly. [Parents today are saying], “I just want them to enjoy it.”

And then at the same time, [that mother] is so anxious. She tells us, “I’m consciously building up my own social network with parents like me so that we can support each other. Because otherwise I will get bombarded by all the people who are Tiger Moms, who are like, ‘My kid is now in third grade and he can do a fifth grade test.’”

So it’s in transition, maybe?

It’s overwhelming, and it’s very confusing. If you are parents in China, it’s a very tough job. It’s not only about raising your kid and keeping them alive, it’s about keeping them happy. It’s confusing. It’s like, “should I buy a school district house?” That’s millions [of RMB].

You mean change districts so the child has a better chance of scoring well on the Gaokao?

Right. And then should I do after-school classes? And what type of after-school classes? And if I don’t do after-school classes, what is the implication? It’s extremely stressful. Some of our designers in the company do this because they want to find a better way to think about how to educate our kids.

Based on the education projects we did, we found out that most of the time it’s not the kids that need to be educated, it’s the parents. To help them understand what education is really about, and build up their confidence. Because they will pass on their attitude to their kids. No matter what. So, how can you help them to learn about parenthood?

I hear there is a growing market for educational podcasts and courses for adults in China. Could you say a little bit more about that?

What happens in that field is you can see entertainment talk shows where people are debating about issues in China, and then people are thinking about their lives differently. And [appearing on a popular TV talk show], you will see them putting up podcast classes, and then they charge 200 RMB, which is like $20. And then you’ve got millions of subscribers within 10 days. And you can listen to it on the subway, or you can listen to it whenever. And it’s very light. There’s no interaction.

And is it popular?

These are extremely popular. We saw one professor that joined that talk show program, and one week after that program, he had 30,000 subscribers to his class.

I think the reason behind why that appears is that basically we’re looking into the demographic of these subscribers as well, like if you look into these things they are mostly university grads who are in their late 20s to early 30s and mostly in super-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, or they are in first-tier cities.

There’s a gap between university education and career education. Basically, a lot of things you learn in university are outdated the minute you learn it. And so you go into your career and you’re like, how should I behave? How should I interact with people? How can I get my point across? These are the things that school won’t teach you. And people are like, okay where should I go? And they saw this talk show, and they are like, okay, I’m going to subscribe to this class.

Do you have any advice for American educators, based on your experience in China?

If you are a U.S. company and you only think about how you can copy and dump your stuff in here, you are going to be horribly wrong. Not only because the politics are different and the structures are different and the mindsets are different, but because people behave differently. The whole ecosystem is different. Education is only one piece of fabric in our whole life.

If you look into how Pizza Hut just changed their whole model from, you buy one piece of pizza and you go home and eat it. Here, it’s a theme park. You go there and enjoy a birthday party with your friends. They have amazing menus every two or three months. So they basically reinvented themselves. Like how Nike reinvented themselves or Starbucks reinvented themselves.

It’s really interesting how the expressions from China actually influence the rest of the world. I would really like to encourage people to come here. We’re going to have a lot of [financial] opportunities and tension and love and passion. But [don’t treat China] as a cash cow.

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