Lessons in tough love from the 'wolf dad'
Xiao Baiyou takes to heart that centuries-old adage 'spare the rod, spoil the child'.
The businessman, who deals in property and luxury goods, has become a media sensation with the publication of his book, My Beida Children, which attributes strict parenting to getting three of his four children into the prestigious Peking University, known colloquially in Chinese as Beida.
Like America's self-proclaimed Chinese 'tiger mum', Amy Chua, Xiao has been challenged and criticised for what some say are the overly stern child-rearing tactics he has employed while bringing up his son and three daughters, the youngest of whom has not yet entered college.
But Xiao, who some call China's 'wolf dad', says the results of his parenting speak for themselves.
What made a businessman decide to publish a book on parenting?
Two years ago, I had a party because my daughter and son were both admitted to Peking University. Many of my relatives and friends came and asked how, despite my being so hard on them, they turned out so polite, academically successful and very happy. They said I should write a book about my experience. But I didn't have the money to publish the book. I borrowed from friends and I came up with more than 100,000 yuan (HK$122,000) and published the book in June. By [this month], it had sold 120,000 copies.
What is your book about?
One part of the book is about teaching children to follow principles - the principles that are the basis for traditional Chinese values. For example, they should be filial to parents, friendly with peers and respectful of their teachers. They should revere their elders and be able to tell right from wrong. They are not given any pocket money, because all the wrongdoing of juveniles is associated with money. I provide my children with food, clothes and shelter, and we send them to school and pick them up. What do they need money for? They are not allowed to open the refrigerator at will because they should eat enough at three daily meals. Their rooms are not air-conditioned either.
They are told we parents can have air conditioners because we work and earn such things. Parents should provide many things, such as a good education and care, but never material comforts.
Why do you think it is such a hit?
Many experts who have judged me said the book is about how to be very strict and spank your children, but there's actually more to it than that. Now people know there is a 'wolf dad' in China, but my understanding is that the popularity has much to do with people caring about their children's education.
What about their social lives?
Until they receive their acceptance letters to college, I don't allow them to have friends. Before college, their social network is made up of family, classmates, teachers and neighbours. A student's main task is to study, not to make friends. Of course they can have classmates who they like to hang out with, but these students must be in the top five of the class or school leaders. Once they are in college, I urge my daughters to find boyfriends. They should get married and have children. I encourage my son to drink and smoke, which is more manly.
Many readers have a problem with you spanking children. Has it crossed your mind that it might be abuse?
I don't think spanking [children] is abuse in any society, because I spanked them in a very scientific way. I used only [the handle of] a chicken-feather duster and I slapped them only on their palms or on the back of their lower legs. I drafted very specific rules and they knew how many times they should be slapped for each offence. After the lecture, they would fetch the chicken-feather duster and say, 'Dad, please spank me'. They weren't allowed to flinch or cry when I spanked. When it was finished, they could run to their mother and seek comfort. Only marks on their body remind them of the mistakes they had made.
Now that they are in college, are they still prohibited from opening the refrigerator at will?
All these rules started when they were three and ended when they were 12. By then they should have known the rules well, and they rarely made such mistakes. After 12, the mistakes they make have more to do with values, which can be corrected only by assigning readings. Only knowledge teaches them right from wrong.
Did your children try to stand up to these rules?
I raised them militaristically, even in the way they talk and the position in which they sleep, sit and stand. They are used to it. I told them at a very young age that dad is king, mum is queen and they are subjects. But I have to be a good king and punish them only for good reason.
What does your wife say about your style of parenting?
My wife agreed when she was carrying my first child that I would be in charge of education. So she would not interfere when I taught my children a lesson or punished them. When that was done, she was responsible for coddling them, comforting them and applying cream where I spanked them.
How were you raised?
My mother beat me up a lot, regardless of whether I did something wrong or not. I benefited from it. Everyone says how great Liu Xiang and Yao Ming are, but did they see how hard their parents and coaches trained them. When I am strict with my children, everyone says I'm too cruel and hard on them. What do they mean? In China, that's how we traditionally raise children. You are their parents and you love them, but when you are educating them, you are like a doctor cutting off a damaged body part.
Two of your children were born in Hong Kong and two in the United States. Why did they choose Peking University? It is usually not the first choice of students in Hong Kong or the US.
I value Chinese culture very much and I think Peking University is the best place to lay such a foundation. They can go to graduate school in the US. Raising children is like building a house: some parents want to build a hut and some a courtyard. I want to build a tall building and for that I need to lay the foundation well. All my children should hold a doctoral degree. I have great expectations.
People compare you to 'tiger mum' Amy Chua. Have you heard of her?
Only recently, and I read her book and the letters from her daughters. She is also very strict with her daughters, but I think my method is more systematic. I am also much stricter, because I am doing it in China. Actually, there are people trying to make us sit together and have a talk about parenting. Someone is working to make it happen.