Married to a Tiger Dad

Married to a Tiger Dad

There are a few sheets of paper that never fail to pique the interest of first-time visitors to our home.

"Wah, spelling list ah?" most will invariably ask.

Pinned on opposite ends of a coloured cork board in our dining area, the two sets of papers each compiles a random mix of words that my husband began drawing up last year.

It is his "new word of the day" system for our son, seven, and daughter, four, that aims to introduce them to a word every few days and build up their vocabulary.

He was inspired after a parenting talk in which the speaker shared how he mooted a similar project when his daughter was in preschool. The girl went on to ace English and win a prestigious regional essay-writing contest in her teens.

In theory, it was a commendable plan. But the execution requires some finesse, which I thought was lacking in our lists. These contain a hotchpotch of many multi-syllabic words, such as "ergonomic" and "hypoallergenic", that would confound even some adults.

It's not about how many big words they know, but how effectively they are able to use new words they are exposed to, I told my husband in exasperation.

When he began making the kids write lines should they forget their word of the day, I got cross.

"You will turn them off learning," I protested.

Then suddenly, it all made sense. "Oh my gosh," I blurted out. "You are a Tiger Dad."

He adopts the same strict regimen when drilling our kids on the multiplication tables. If our son makes any mistake while working (painfully) from the two times table to the one for nine, he has to start all over again from "one, two, two", nevermind that his dinner is getting cold.

And just the other week, we had a debate over which enrichment classes, if any, to sign our daughter up for.

Now in K1, she had come home with flyers advertising various after-school programmes at her kindergarten conducted by external vendors.

The fees weren't cheap, ranging from $200 to $400 a term, so the plan was to pick just one.

How about dance, I suggested. Our girl has been asking to attend ballet classes, but I thought the weekly workshop at her school sounded more fun, as it promised exposure to various dance forms including hip-hop, Latin and waltz.

My husband, however, was not impressed.

Waving another pamphlet with a detailed course outline, he said: "Why not this, speech and drama? It sounds more useful. There's not much you can get out of dance."

"It's fun - that's a good enough reason," I retorted. "And you do learn something - flexibility, body coordination and... and it's fun."

He had left me spluttering too when he passed a similar comment about the plays I sometimes take the kids to watch.

"Actually, what do they learn? They won't remember much once the show is over," he had said, after being told I might catch a production or two with them during the ongoing KidsFest.

I took a deep breath. Theatre is live and demands focus and participation, not static images trussed up with fancy effects that are on tap from the whole gamut of gadgets these days, I argued.

Besides, exposure to the dramatic arts can fire their imagination in ways that you can't, well, imagine.

Unlike me, my husband believes fun should be a means to an end. Fun for fun's sake is pointless if it does not also enhance learning or add value of some sort.

But I believe kids will naturally learn something if they are having fun. Even if they don't, the pleasure derived is worth it for me. So they might forget the moral story of a play we've seen, say, but they would at least remember we had fun watching it. Not everything has to offer a teachable moment, a popular concept in this age of hyper-parenting.

Here is the irony, though: Even as I chafe at his taskmaster approach, I greatly admire my husband's dedication, discipline and never- say-die nature, traits that I sorely lack.

He is hard on our kids because he believes in them. Left to my laissez-faire ways, they may never learn anything concrete. Let's face it: Some pressure is healthy, even necessary. And you can't escape rote learning for things like the multiplication tables.

So while he provides a solid, systematic structure for our kids' learning, I embroider it with fun elements and strive to make the process more palatable.

I play an excellent good cop to his formidable bad cop, the Tigger to his tiger. My job, I know, is easier than his.

He drills them relentlessly on the multiplication tables. I count on a great free app called Bedtime Math to help teach arithmetic concepts in an engaging way.

He carts home books on general knowledge, everything from mediaeval knights to the world's strangest looking insects. I shop for authors and titles I enjoyed as a kid, from Judy Blume and Roald Dahl to box sets of stories on Encyclopedia Brown the boy detective and simplified versions of Shakespeare's plays.

He still maintains the vocabulary lists, which now feature more age-appropriate words he draws from online resources. I use opportunities such as news articles to expose my son to new terms in context, although "beheading" and "terrorist" are words I wish he didn't have to be acquainted with just yet.

It will be fun to see how our kids turn out.

Who plays the tiger parent in your family? Write to

This article was first published on Jan 25, 2015.
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