When the controversy raged last year over “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” many an NRI saw her parents or herself reflected in the description. Amy Chua asserts that children of “Chinese parents” are not allowed to, “choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” One could practically hear a worldwide chorus of Indians shouting, “Hey, that describes Indian parenting precisely!”
Indeed, many Indian kids can attest to parental pressure to succeed. Some were told at a very young age what after-school activities they would participate in, which university they were going to attend, and what career path they would pursue years down the road. “Good” Indian kids get As in all classes, even a B+ is jokingly, even endearingly nicknamed an “Indian fail.” NRI kids often choose to comply rather than suffer the wrath and consequences from their parents.
With the “brain drain” partly to blame, NRIs are arguably one of the most successful immigrant groups in the west. Indian-Americans have the highest median household income in the US according to 2010 census data. They are far more likely to be doctors or engineers, and are more educated than their counterparts. Based on this snapshot, many NRIs declare that Tiger Parenting is working out perfectly for the community. It is undeniable that certain types of kids thrive with this type of upbringing. Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Indian parents within and outside India who question the wisdom of pushing children to succeed at all costs.
Many an NRI has enjoyed the heartwarming and hilarious film, “3 Idiots,” or the Tamil version of the same, “Nanban.” The three main characters represent three stereotypes of Indian students. The first struggles to fulfill his father’s wishes that he become an engineer, all the while dreaming of becoming a photographer. The second of the three friends strives to become an engineer to release his family from the grips of poverty. The third pursues engineering simply because of his love and passion for the field.
One controversial stereotype in the film is the student who commits suicide. One student in the film commits suicide when he is rejected from the engineering school of his father’s dreams, another hangs himself when his engineering project is a failure. Yet another attempts suicide when threatened with failure, afraid to disappoint his family. Suicide is now a leading cause of death among Indian youth. Some may scoff, saying that parental pressure rarely leads to suicide, and often leads to its intended goal of success. I am inclined to agree, there is clear value to Indian tiger parenting. Widespread financial wellbeing, academic achievement, and respectable careers in any given community are a commendable and impressive collective feat, to say the least. Yet, there are also downfalls from this sort of pressure applied from a young age, downfalls that are unquantifiable in comparison with the benefits.
A question that must be posed but is rarely considered is, can NRIs as a group equate academic prowess, money, and career accomplishments with success? My (non-Indian) husband and I have noted that NRIs and Indians tend to derive their sense of self with education and/or career achievements. When being introduced to a non-Indian, one might hear, “This is my daughter Wendy.” Details about Wendy would come up in later conversation, while getting to know her better. When an Indian introduces his son, he might say, “This is my son Kumar, he is doing his undergrad in X, and is going to pursue Y after that.” It’s almost as if this guy has prepared an elevator speech about his son, reciting it to anyone and everyone in earshot. While these details about Kumar are important and meaningful, why do they need to be stated during the introduction? It reduces Kumar as a person to little more than his career pursuits prior to even getting a chance to know him. Of course this description of Kumar’s father is a caricature. Nevertheless, while most NRIs may not even realize how often this happens, pay attention and you will likely see the truth behind it.
One may wonder about “Kumar’s” childhood and how it affected his future sense of self. Unmistakably, there are many Indian IT professionals, doctors, and engineers who truly love their field, and pursue it of their own accord. Yet we all know that many other Indians are compelled to achieve their parents’ wishes while suppressing personal dreams and desires, like Farhan from 3 Idiots.
What happens to these kids’ feelings of self-competence and self-motivation? Children become confused as to whether their aspirations are due to their own drive, or due to parents’ desire and urging. With parents making most decisions for their kids up until adulthood, they find it daunting to navigate the world on their own. When children are forced only to obey and master whatever skills are required for admission to the best universities, they may end up lacking creativity and resourcefulness. They become adept at working hard and following rules, but may not possess leadership skills or the ability to think outside the box. Moreover, some NRI children pushed too hard, like Amy Chua’s daughter Lulu, may act out in rebellion. Although some children excel when pressured by their parents, others reach a breaking point and refuse to comply.
Additionally, the Kumars out there who are repeatedly equated to their accomplishments may subconsciously begin to feel reduced to nothing more than those labels. While this rarely leads to suicide, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and a clouded sense of self. As adults, many successful NRIs struggle with an intangible and elusive feeling of regret and emptiness. Some may not even realize the source of their dissatisfaction. After all, they have been taught from childhood that theirs is an enviable lot in life. Status and prestige are so very coveted by NRIs, and often act as blinders to what else is truly meaningful.
Some NRIs, including myself and some I know, have observed these phenomena. As a result, attitudes are already beginning to change. Increasingly, NRI parents leave many day-to-day decisions and problem solving up to their young children to help ensure their future independence and confidence. They encourage children to pursue their own interests and hobbies to encourage a sense of autonomy. Although they drive their children to succeed, these parents keep a careful gauge of their children’s psyches, to avoid pushing too hard.
That being said, I do not purport to condemn the Indian values of hard work, education, and achievement. It is a known fact that American children are falling behind when it comes to education. This is a multi-faceted problem, and along with the American education system, overly lax American parents are partly to blame. Indian students are drilled in learning how to memorize, and arguably lack creativity and communication, leadership, and real-world skills. On the other hand, American kids are indulged, their parents fearing damage to their child’s self-esteem. While some argue that India produces a glut of engineers, the US suffers a dearth of the same. Although Indian Tiger Parents may be too tough on their kids, it’s quite likely that their American counterparts are not nearly tough enough. It is evident that the ideal parenting style is a happy medium between the two extremes. However, reaching this happy medium is easier said than done.
Amy Chua asserts that Chinese parents assume strength, and not weakness in their children, and accordingly accept nothing but success. I wholeheartedly agree with this notion. As NRI parents, we should continue to expect the best from our children. However, we need to impart that success is also living a happy life, being a kind person, embracing beauty, and appreciating the blessings we have. We should expect our offspring to excel in their pursuits, even put some pressure on them. We must provide a firm structure, and simultaneously be a soft and loving place to fall.
Furthermore, I want to stress that this piece does not at all claim to provide an all-encompassing view of NRI parenting. With all the points I raise, I don’t contend that NRI Tiger Parents don’t love their children as much as any other parents. If anything, I wish to become part of the voice in the collective NRI head. I hope that this voice will be triggered when you’re introducing your son or daughter. If he has achieved laudable feats, let those be discovered while learning more about him as a well-rounded person.
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