Chinese 'cat dad' feels vindicated by daughter's success, happiness

A hit Chinese TV drama, 'Tiger Mum, Cat Dad', reignites debate over the relative merits of two very different parenting styles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 June, 2015, 6:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 June, 2015, 11:21am

Everyone knows the tiger mum. Now meet a cat dad - Chang Zhitao. The mainland businessman drew attention four years ago when he and Chinese-American law professor Amy Chua debated their different approaches to child raising at a public talk in Shanghai: she advocated tough love as described in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; he believed in giving children choices and being sensitive to their feelings.

That debate over parenting styles is now back in full swing in China, thanks to a popular television series inspired by Chua's memoir. Titled Tiger Mum, Cat Dad, the drama launched last month revolves around the conflicts arising when a pair of successful professionals try to get their five-year-old daughter into an elite school; unlike his wife, the father's parenting style is more akin to Chang's.

Chang is gratified that his daughter, Chang Shuai, has grown into a self-assured young woman who knows her own mind and takes the initiative to achieve what she wants.

After she graduated from Harvard University last summer with a degree in economics and psychology (he still gets a thrill recalling the ceremony), his daughter underwent three rounds of rigorous interviews and beat a slew of applicants to secure a job at McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy. And while waiting for her work visa, she sought an internship at a Silicon Valley start-up because she wanted to set up her own business one day and figured the experience would be useful.

Although Chang Shuai's path was not all smooth sailing, her father believes she put in the painstaking work to get ahead because she had the freedom to make her own decisions.

Chang Zhitao says perhaps the best example that illustrated the benefits of this philosophy came when he and his wife, Zhang Yihong, offered their daughter her choice of an extracurricular activity when she was at primary school. Shuai initially wanted to learn the erhu, then quickly decided she didn't look good playing the traditional Chinese instrument. She switched to the violin, only to give up after a couple of weeks when she realised how difficult the instrument was to master.

But the Changs decided to give their daughter another chance if she wanted to follow an artistic pursuit. Since she enjoyed hanging out with other children and being active, they enrolled her in a dance class.

To their surprise, Shuai discovered a love for dance that she retains today and developed effective time-management skills that have stood her in good stead.

Interests are the children's engine, and responsibility is the wheel
Chang Zhitao

"When she was in high school, she could strike a good balance between schoolwork and her hobby of dancing at the weekends," Chang says. "Even while at Harvard, she tried her best to spend at least 10 hours dancing each week."

He recalled how she managed to choreograph and organise dance performances amid the coursework.

The family disputes played out on the television show Tiger Mum, Cat Dad mirror the conflicted feelings of millions of Chinese parents torn between giving youngsters the freedom to enjoy their childhood and enforcing the harsh discipline Chua advocates (hours of piano practice after dinner without a break, for example) to drive them to success.

There are plenty of opinions on both sides of the argument.

A discussion that Jiangsu TV aired recently on the different parenting styles drew spirited debate, and led Ding Yinuo, a junior student from Nanjing Foreign Language School, to write an open letter to the broadcaster asking why children should have to grow up trying to meet someone else's idea of excellence instead of being their true selves.

Chang's "soft and tender" cat-dad style did not mean his daughter had complete freedom. She was required to complete her homework as soon as she got home and to maintain good habits like being on time for meals. But perhaps a bigger contribution to what he describes as the waltz of parenting was the after-dinner walks he took with his daughter almost daily when she was in high school. It gave him the chance to know his daughter better and instil positive values, he says.

Close contact between parents and children, especially in early years of school, plays a significant role in shaping a child's character and personality, says Liu Yonghe, an expert and activist on child-rearing.

"There is a consensus among young parents that emphasis should be placed on child-rearing as early as possible to better support positive character and temperament," says Liu, who has written several books on family education, based on years of counselling parents at schools, companies and community groups.

"An upbeat outlook is a valuable asset for life and much more important than some utilitarian goal such as attending a top-notch school."

If you browse online forums, it seems that questions over whether to offer tender-loving-care parenting or the authoritativeness of a tiger parent raise lively discussions, although young parents now seem to lean towards the liberal approach.

Chang offers a metaphor that young parents may find helpful: interests are the children's engine, and responsibility is the wheel. Guided by the two notions, he believes they can help their children grow into well-adjusted adults who are confident and cheerful - whether or not they receive an letter of admission from an Ivy League university.