Little Expats II: Tiger mothers and The Pursuit of Happiness


Some say that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens here will eventually happen to the rest of the Continent. It is indeed the place where different and far away cultures manage to mix together with the privilege of remaining largely unaffected by the host country. In this frameless picture I made my first real life encounter with a tiger mother.

The picture above shows my son’s kindergarten homework. They started to familiarize with letters and sounds at the beginning of the school year and although teachers stressed the importance of having a routine in exercising a little bit everyday, they also insisted that children shouldn’t be forced to do their homework at this stage (thanks God!) otherwise they could develop a negative attitude towards the whole learning process (catastrophic as it sounds…).

My son is doing his letters, as often as I remember to pull the notebook out of his backpack. Which is not everyday but at least once a week.

The other day I walked him to class and my eyes fell on an open notebook, in a corner of the room. Unlike my son’s, that notebook was immaculate on the outside and letters were neatly drawn, minuscules and majuscules. All with the same, perfect black ink. Instead of the usual three lines under the given text, a full page of letters was completed and there were no finger or food marks around the lines. I looked around for the owner of the perfect notebook and it came out it belonged to the Chinese girl of the class. The teacher followed my look and understood what was going on in my head and tried to console me. “She has a tiger mother, don’t look at that notebook!”.

The Chinese, perfectly combed girl may have a tiger mother but then what about the Indian kids in the class who moved last September from Mumbai following their dads’ hi-tech jobs and walked into class the first day already knowing the whole alphabet?

I asked an Indian friend if all Asian parents were so competitive regarding their children’s achievements in school. She wasn’t surprised: “Yes, of course they are. It’s pure logic: if you want to stand out in countries like India and China you have to be the best and to be sure you’ll be exactly that you start to work hard. Since the very beginning”.

Standing out and working hard were part of European post-WWII education. The stuff my parents’ generation was made of. My generation got it a little softer: we had to work, and enjoyed being first but the idea that maybe it was not all about success had started to make its way into our head, and behavior and inner values.

The generation after mine – say, guys in their early 20s – are way less attached to past symbols of success. They want to change the world more than they want to make money. They want to get a degree but don’t think anymore that the world will fall apart if they don’t. They want to know who they are and they crave happiness and self fulfillment way earlier than we did. This is old, comfortable, sinking Europe at least.

When we went to California, The Husband met a friend who has moved there a few years ago. “I set a rule in my house for the kids: no more work after 9 – he said – otherwise they would be up till midnight to study as their American classmates do. That is not healthy”. Working hard to achieve one’s objectives is still a typical American trait while in Europe we think that you should never forget that there is more to life than work.

When I told my Belgian friends about the tiger mothers at school, they shrugged their shoulders: “Yes, but then what? Do we want stressed, overachieving children? Don’t we prefer them to enjoy childhood, play outside and be happy?”. Of course we want them to be happy. But my point is: Can we still afford it?

In a global world, where the work market is almost free of entry barriers, can we still think that competitiveness is a wartime thing? Will happiness really matter in twenty years time?

What do you think?


  1. what do i think???ha! I think that i have become addicted to your blog (as i have read all in one go today)
    SO glad to have found this
    Great writing and a blog i can truly identify with (what with being Italian and having kids that are only half italian and speaking more than 2 languages etc etc etc)
    And 8 minutes??? That’s way too long! πŸ˜‰ Half it NOW lady!

  2. Thanks, I am flattered! Otto minuti look long I know but it’s less than enough as the only decompression time allowed in a typical day, isn’t it? πŸ™‚

  3. All I can say is that I cherish the memories of long summer days spent doing nothing as a child! I hear you about creating competitive children from an early age but, culturally, I don’t think we are equipped to enforce such tight rules and I can’t help thinking that there will be psychological repurcussions later. Please don’t become one of those American mothers who start worrying about college choices when the kid is 4!

    1. I know, me too! I am not stressed (not yet) but I just wonder if we can live much longer believing that we can keep sailing at our own pace as if the rest of the world didn’t exist..
      I have been told that every year there are summer positions openings at some of the best universities in Belgium. The first applications they get are from Asia, second comes America. Europeans always hesitate: you know, in August they have holidays planned. That’s what makes me think..

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