Sunday, June 5, 2011

Who is parenting Hong Kong kids?


The headline of a news report reads: “Hong Kong's 'tiger parents' face the pressure,” (AFP June 5, 2011). The story line is tried and a bit old – Hong Kong people are driven to success (economically) and place high expectation on their kids (academically), with higher still pressure to match. “So as parents climb the ladder in one of the world's most competitive economies, they and their children must also contend with the academic equivalent.”

The term “tiger parent” refers to a certain style of parenting (by Chinese) made famous by a Yale Law Professor Amy L. Chua in her book: BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER (2011)

The book distinguishes Western vs. Chinese parenting style (free choice vs. disciplined), content (rounded vs. academic) and goal (happiness in life vs. academic success). As summed up by Professor Chua: “Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”

The book started a cultural war of sorts: “Refreshingly, and perhaps uniquely, Chua instead catalogs the various ways she tortured her two young daughters, all in the name of Chinese tradition and the goal of reaching Carnegie Hall (or at least the Juilliard precollege program). “

I am originally from Hong Kong, and have taught and visited with many of the universities there, now and then. I know Hong Kong.

The story has a ring of truth to it, at least with its central thesis: Hong Kong people work very hard in a competitive economy. Parents try very hard to mold their kids to be successful in life, academically and otherwise.

But as with most news stories these days, the above story (with catchy headline) is written to sell papers, more so than giving us the whole picture of parenting in Hong Kong, in a balance, nuanced and insightful way. For example, not all Hong Kong parents are “tiger parents” nor children are geared towards academic study. As Professor Chau said: not all American parents are alike.

As counter point - fact checks to the story, when I started teaching in Chinese U. of Hong Kong some 25 years ago, only top 5% made universities, now it is 18%, with many other opportunities for getting ahead, e.g., one can be a police officer (including being inspector without going to college. Though in reality, a university degree is still the golden standard for success in life, and as a person.

I do not want to get into a cultural world between East vs. West, a no win exercise, I certainly do not want to take sides, at least not within the confine of this blog (1000 words).

This blog offers up a simple observation (a question really) that should add more fire to the debate of what is proper patenting – goal, style, content – for Hong Kong kids.


In order to do parenting, good or bad, we need to apent time with the kids, less mining their business and more having their interest in mind, in a most personal, intimate, and above all else, involved ways. Practically, being a parent is a 24/7 job. Parenting takes time.

In the US “soccer patents” come to mind. (Of course I am being political correct here. It really should read “soccer mom” because mothers all over the nation still assume most of the child rearing responsibilities, as they struggle with economic security at home, even before the most recent sub-prime crisis!)

In Hong Kong, if truth be known, most of the parents are not there when the kids need them, the daily sort of way – “dad can we read a book/take a hike together?” Not just a “helicopter parent” – hovering around in all sort of ways, to keep an eye on the kids.

Ironically, “helicopter parenting” now has a new meaning – JIT (just in time) parenting., or MBA parenting if you like. Parents drop in JIT for the kids concert performance or HS ball game., to show concern, to allay guilt, to keep up with the Jones? Here I am surprised and amused that N.J Governor did not excite another culture war, this time between rich vs. poor parents. Gov. Chris Christie can afford spending $2000 plus for a state helicopter ride to attend his son's high school baseball game, when the working poor cannot afford a car to drive the kids to the park.
(Still recall the $25,000 dress, for a NJ HS pomp night.)


If HK parents are too busy to parent their kids, who is doing the job of real parenting, again day in day out (the “first in the morning” and “last in the day” test) , in the most minute sort of ways (from ironing the uniform to cooking the meals).

The answer is: domestic helpers: foreign and locals.

“In 2010, there were 284,901 foreign domestic helpers in the city, of which 48% were from the Philippines, 49.4% from Indonesia, and 1.3% from Thailand. They usually live in their employer's residence and perform various household duties such as cooking, cleaning, and child-minding.: (

If there were 284,901 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, here were at least that many in local helps (who worked illegally). That makes for 500,000 helpers. (One study show that nearly all (99%) domestic helpers are foreign, with 1% from China or locally, legally).

In 1996, there were about 1.8 million households. Of those about 1.1 millions have income between $15,000 to $45,000 (government income eligibility for hiring is $15,000; real life actually income is $17, 300) making them economically affordable for them to hire foreign help. In essence one out of 2 affordable families have a live in help.


If indeed many of the Hong Kong rich families’ kids are raised by domestic helpers, half of them from abroad, it would be interesting to ask: How do “foreign parenting” affects the net generation of Hong Kong ideas?

(1) The impact of the blood parents is much diluted by the presence of live in helpers who for all intent and purposes are the kids’ psychological parents. (Both of my kids were brought up by Pilipino maids).
(2) Since helpers are not there to maintain discipline, at least not acting as “tiger”, the kids are not really disciplined, beyond in the presence of their parents. In essence, we have “tiger parenting” by absentee parents and “ sheep (following order of price/princess) parenting” by daily routine domestic helpers.
(3) The kids will be affected by the language, education and cultural background of the domestic helpers of which 41% has post secondary education. (The most educated are the Pilipino.) For example, many of the kids now speak better English than my generation, less because of school but because of live in help.


The moral of the story is that it take more than “tiger parents” to turn out “tiger” kids. Education and molding kids happen in many ways, some planned, most happened by accident and by default.

Internet parenting, anyone.

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