SingaporeMotherhood | Family Fun

February 2016

Maya Thiagarajan, Author of Beyond The Tiger Mom, balances East-West parenting styles

Are you a “tiger mum”? Do you believe in raising your children in a traditional Chinese or East Asian manner? That means strict rules, tough love and discipline in order for your kids to succeed later in life. It is a mode of parenting that can be classified as neither good or bad, but it sure gets one thinking about what it takes to raise a successful child.

Teacher, author, global citizen and mother of two (Rishi aged 10 and Lekha aged 7), Maya Thiagarajan, was struck by the different approaches to education and parenting that she encountered in Singapore. That eventually led to the publication of her first book, Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for The Global Age, in 2015. We caught up with her and discovered that she definitely isn’t a “tiger mum”!


Why did you decide to write this book?

When I moved to Singapore from the United States (US), I started teaching at an international school that is almost 70 per cent Asian (East Asian and South Asian). I was struck by how differently parents here seemed to view parenting and education, and it made me question all the paradigms that I had absorbed when I was in the US. I wanted to write a book that gave voice to what parents in Singapore were doing, but I also wanted to write a book that celebrated what’s best about both Eastern and Western approaches to parenting and education. I think that both Eastern and Western parents can learn from each other.

How has becoming a parent changed you?

I think it has given my life tremendous meaning and purpose. In my professional work as a teacher, becoming a parent has made me far more empathetic to the anxiety and stress that parents feel for their children. When I first started teaching – long before I had children of my own – I used to think that many of the parents I worked with were a little bit crazy because they seemed to lack perspective about their own children. Now, as a parent myself, I can understand where parents are coming from, and I can empathise with them instead of judging them.


What’s a typical family weekend like for you?

Our weekdays are really busy, so I try to keep our weekends as free and open as possible. I try to prioritise family time on weekends, when we can eat meals together, read together, and socialise with friends. Since our weekdays are so regimented and scheduled, I try really hard to make sure that we all get some downtime on the weekends. I also try to ensure that we all spend some time out in nature every weekend, at East Coast Park or Gardens by The Bay. I think that nature is a wonderful antidote to the stresses of urban life.

What have you learnt about yourself as a parent?

I love being a mother! One thing that I’ve found though is that there is no one right way to be a mother. Since I’ve lived in different parts of the world, I’ve witnessed a range of very different parenting approaches, and I can see value in many of these approaches. I try hard to combine the best of different approaches to parenting and education.


What’s your biggest challenge in raising your kids?

I feel as though I constantly ricochet between different ways of viewing parenting. When I speak with Asian mums, I often think that I’m not pushing my own children enough academically and that I am too relaxed and indulgent. However, when I speak with Western colleagues and friends, I worry that I might be pushing my children too much! Where is that perfect balance between pushing hard and ensuring that kids get strong academic foundations and grow up to be respectful and well-behaved but simultaneously giving kids the freedom they need to play, to imagine, to engage with the arts, to speak their minds?

Any interesting book writing incidents to share?

Many, many quirky tales! But you have to read the book to get the inside story. I share lots of parenting stories and challenges — from what successful parents do to build mathematical homes and raise their kids in a math-rich environment, to the worries and anxieties that some mums face when their kids don’t do as well in school as they would like, to the discussions that some parents have about the best way to discipline kids.


What challenges did you face in bringing up cross-cultural children?

Since my father is Indian and my mother is American, I’ve always straddled both East and West. I have to say that I find Singapore a very easy place to raise children because it emphasises many of the values that I hold dear – particularly family and education. In the US, I often worried that peer culture seemed to be much more important than family. Furthermore, mainstream American culture doesn’t revere education the way that Singapore/Asia does.

How would you describe your parenting style?

What I strive for most as a parent is a sense of balance. I believe that kids simultaneously need opposing forms of help and support. They need high expectations, discipline, and a little bit of pressure or stress so that they work to their potential, but they also need a safe and nurturing environment where they feel comfortable taking risks, failing, and asking for support or help.

Kids need guidance from parents but they also need the freedom to begin making their own decisions and thinking creatively.

As a parent, I try hard to find that perfect (but often elusive) balance between these different forces. Most importantly, as a parent, I let my kids know that they are my top priority and that I’m always there for them. I guess to me the most important thing is to be loving and balanced.


The best thing about being a parent is…

that you get lots of hugs, cuddles, and love on a daily basis.

Review: Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age by Maya Thiagarajan

Singaporean parents, in particular, will love this book. Not just because each chapter concludes with pages of tips and how-tos on topics close to our hearts — how to build a math-rich home, how to help your child memorise information, how to supplement your child’s education are some examples —  but also because author Maya is a parent who is particularly like us.

Like us, she straddles an east-west divide when it comes to parenting. Like us, her heritage is Asian. Like us, she had a Western-based education delivered in English. And most of all, like us, when it comes to parenting, she is sometimes confused about which style to follow — the stricter, more structured, authoritarian, academics-driven Asian style, or the freer, more independent, Western-style with its emphases on positive discipline, creativity, and freedom.

Just as there is no perfect style of parenting, there is no perfect answer. The solution, Maya suggests, lies within the straddle. And here, once again, it is typically Singaporean. Her interviews with parents in Singapore reinforce our ‘uniquelySG’ quirks. “I know I’m a kiasu mum because I feel more anxious than my son does when he takes an exam,” one admits.

The Asian obsession with tuition is accepted with wry acceptance: “One mother estimated that thirty out of the thirty-five students in her son’s class… attended tuition in all their major academic subjects. Her son himself spends all day Saturday at tuition classes.”

As one foot remains firmly planted on Asian soil, Maya encourages us to embrace the western tenets of 21st-Century parenting — to help our children develop a growth mindset, to frame failure as a learning experience, and to move along with changes in technology that have made parenting now so different from what we know and how we were brought up.

Perhaps, while waiting for the child’s tuition class to end, mum (or dad) could read this book. You’ll chuckle over parental excesses, probably identify with most of them, devour the parenting and teaching tips at the end of each chapter, find community with parents featured, and come away reassured that your style of east-west parenting, whether you’re a Tiger parent or not, is the right way to raise your little Asian Tiger. — June Wan


Want to find out more about East-West parenting in a global world? We have THREE copies of Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age to give away. Here’s how you can win one:

  1. Share this article on Facebook using the link below. Hashtag #SMTigerMom so that we know you have done so, and we can get in touch with you.
  2. Let us know in the comments below.

Closing date: 12pm on Friday, 11 March 2016

Images courtesy of Maya Thiagarajan.

All content from this article, including images, cannot be reproduced without credits or written permission from SingaporeMotherhood.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram for the latest article and promotion updates.

Maya Thiagarajan, Author of Beyond The Tiger Mom, balances East-West parenting styles