Homely lessons from a tiger mum

Patti Waldmeir
Lawren | The Image Bank | Getty Images

Cao Qing is home-schooling her 13-year-old son because, among other things, "he doesn't like homework". In the land of the midnight homework project, the average teenager's distaste for homework would not normally give Tiger Mum pause.

Most Chinese children learn early to sacrifice playtime and sleeptime on the altar of schoolwork: kids who do not excel in primary school fail to get into the middle school that gets them into the high school that guarantees the right university entrance scores. School is a serious business in China, right from the beginning.

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So who cares if the offspring hate homework? Is that not part of the human condition – not just in China, but around the world?

Ms Cao is one of an increasing number of Chinese parents who no longer think suffering is a necessary condition of academic success.

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"The school gives too much homework," she says, as an autumn breeze blows through the open patio door of the walk-up duplex flat she rents in a Shanghai suburb to use as a home-schooling base for her son, Zhou Yi.

"Besides, he's a boy, and boys like to play, they don't like to sit still for a long time," she says, adding: "They can't just get all their knowledge from textbooks."

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Our chat is obviously distracting the boy in question, who pops up from his studies at the nearby kitchen table and goes off to fondle the family's newborn kitten and fetch his beetle collection for us to admire.

"Schools teach children in bulk, and it's not suitable for every child," Ms Cao says, adding that "each one has a different talent, and is good at different things. I don't think the rigid education in school suits my son."

Plenty of Tiger Mums and Dads around China agree with her on that one: China's education system is geared to helping millions of children each year pass the selfsame exam, the dreaded gaokao or university entrance test, widely faulted even in China for requiring too much rote learning of irrelevant content.

Many families are so desperate to avoid the gaokao that they send their children abroad to study, at an earlier and earlier age.

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But instead of sending Zhou Yi to board in Europe or the US, Ms Cao, a former fashion designer, takes him to the swimming pool at lunchtime to give him a practical lesson in the principles of flotation (which he has just finished studying in a textbook).

And every day, two hours are devoted to the study and interpretation of ancient Chinese texts. "Schools do not pay attention to traditional Chinese culture, especially the classics from Confucius and other Chinese philosophers," she says. "They are the essence of Chinese culture and as a Chinese person, my son must be familiar with them."

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Ms Cao says that day's text was I Ching, the Book of Changes, one of the oldest (and hardest to parse) of the Chinese classics. I make a mental note to pull out I Ching whenever my teens complain about homework: they would prefer a week of schoolwork to spending even five minutes reciting that with me over the kitchen table.

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And what about the social training that comes with all that schoolwork? There are many things that China's one-child generation arguably needs less of: calories, electronic games and pampering from parents, to name a few. But less time spent with children their own age would not normally figure at the top of the list.

Employers complain that China's only children are spoiled, selfish and bad at teamwork. With no siblings to cut their teeth on – and six doting adults devoted to each of them (mum, dad and two sets of grandparents) – they should arguably spend more time playing playground politics, and less piano.

Ms Cao says her son is naturally sociable, but just in case she has added the 10-year-old child of a friend to their home schoolroom.

The schoolday starts with morning exercises, then six hours of lessons punctuated by an hour of free time on the internet at midday, a swim and an hour of calligraphy every evening. No piano, no violin – all in all, a lot less time than he used to spend on schoolwork, she says. And learning about insects – which Zhou Yi wants to make his life's vocation – "he can do in his own time".

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The only drawback: "Parents who home-school don't have teachers to blame if the child doesn't do well," she says. "It's a big responsibility," But at least this way, Tiger Mum does not also have to play the part of Homework Harridan. Although reciting I Ching while peeling potatoes must take some practice.

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