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China's Ambivalent Tiger Moms: When in Rome...

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TIGER MOTHER

There is a lot of truth in Amy Chua's self-congratulatory Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chinese moms, today and in the past, will stop at practically nothing to ensure their children are armed with weapons required to defeat kiddie competition and obliterate barriers of future financial success. That said, in the People's Republic, contemporary mothers, flooded with information that promote a more liberal model of modern parenting, are conflicted: on one hand, they exert tremendous pressure on their (single) kids to excel academically; on the other, they feel guilty for imposing so much stress on cherished dumplings. There is increasing awareness a monomaniacal focus on grades can, in the long run, put young adults at a disadvantage.

Brands have begun to capitalize on this new truth.

The Middle Kingdom: Changes Afoot.

Despite ancient cultural imperatives, China is not static. Several contemporary influences buck against traditional definitions of proper child rearing: a) the rise of the coddled -- i.e., pampered -- single child, b) international media that promote alternative values (e.g., individualism), and c) an expanding economic pie fueled by entrepreneurialism and availability of higher education. Regarding the latter, the sky looks broader than ever before. Booming economic growth has been turbocharged by broadened availability of advanced degrees. In 2000, approximately 1.5 million college graduates entered the labor force. Today, the stream has become a flood, with six million university students, each dreaming of riches, beginning the hunt for professional gold. While Party positions are still rated for stability and proximity to the corridors of power, the most cherished positions are within multinational companies such as Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, investment banks and consultancies. It is understood these companies value initiative and independent thinking, characteristics at odds with traditional childhood "obedience."

But Traditional Values Endure.

As China hurtles towards 21st century superpower status, however, the gravitation pull of traditionalism, however, is felt everywhere. Therefore, it is unsurprising pedagogical practices have not evolved since economic reform began after the Cultural Revolution. Pupils never -- absolutely never -- question, let alone challenge, their instructors. Father-knows-best patriarchy, the modus operandi of both imperial China and the Modern Middle Kingdom, is alive and well within the Ministry of Education. The gao kao, the nation's all-or-nothing university entrance exam, rewards regurgitation of facts, not critical reasoning or originality. Individuals' ranking vis-à-vis peers are compiled starting in kindergarten. Children do not compose essays, outlets of self-expression in Europe and America, until the seventh grade. China's curriculum is nationalized. Uniforms are de rigeur. Beyond soccer, school-sponsored after school activities do not exist. And pre-graduation dating is still a bit shocking, a signal of corrupted ambition.

Study: Still the Only Path Forward

Children, despite three decades of high-calorie diets and plush toys, are still compelled to express commitment to their parents through study, the only means of advancing through the pearly gates of Middle Class respectability. The pressure both kids and parents endure to conform to success markers is awesome. The Chinese character for "teach" (jiao) has the character for "good son" (xiao) imbedded within it, suggesting that the act of learning is the most concrete manifestation of filial piety. The average eight-year-old totes more than seven kilograms of books to and from school every day. A 35-year-old employee of JWT came to office in tears because her young daughter was "failing" piano lessons. When I asked the mother whether she thought her daughter was talented, she replied, "It doesn't matter. If she doesn't learn discipline now, she will never get into a good university."

Stress and Guilt.

What's the result of a monomaniacal focus on academic achievement? Stress. And guilt. In a focus group, one eight year old revealed, "I live in fear of disappointing my mother." According to a study conducted by the China Teen Research Center, 75% of children aged thirteen to fifteen spend more than eight hours studying every weekend; 65% feel "stressed" or "very stressed" about academic performance; and 66% take courses during summer and winter holidays. Parents are equally anxious. Per research piloted by the China Institute of Education and Learning, 50% of mothers say they "care about nothing other than their child's studies" but 83% "worry about reducing the burden of heavy daily workloads." One mother's articulation of her dilemma: "I know he is unhappy. I know he should enjoy life. But this is China. What can I do?"

Brands to the Rescue: Happy Achievement

The ambivalence of parents is fundamental, hence the profusion of brands that aim to reconcile achievement with delight. We have noticed five "themes" marketers use to turn "sweat" into "perfume." They include: a) eliminating the struggle between "good for you" and "enjoyment," b) transforming protection-based safety into joy, c) surreptitiously honing competitive instincts, d) increasing both IQ and EQ and e) releasing stress.

Sugar Coated Pills.

Chinese mothers are drawn to brands promising "stealthy learning" -- i.e., intellectual development masked as fun. Disney will succeed more as educational franchise -- its English learning centers are going gangbusters -- than a theme park. Mickey Mouse makes a killing selling a series of Wonder House DVDs. Children learn about everything from the difference between squares and rhomboids to using spanners. McDonald's restaurants, temples of childhood delight in the West, have morphed into scholastic playgrounds in the PRC. Happy Meals offer collectible Snoopy figurines wearing costumes from around the world. McDonald's website, hosted by Professor Ronald, offers "Happy Courses" for multiplication and "chengyu fun" (i.e., classical four-character classical Chinese phrases, the usage of which, even today, is a sign of a keen mind). Smarties' "colorful creativity" platform encourages kids to "sweeten imagination" by arranging candy pellets into art pieces. Skippy peanut butter combines "delicious peanut taste" and "intelligent sandwich preparation."

Joyful Protection.

Parents stop at nothing to protect "investment" in their child. That is why some of China's most powerful brands have "safety" propositions. Procter & Gambles' Safeguard soap, for example, has maintained a 25% market share for over twenty years by focusing on "germ kill." China Mobile offers "safety check" and "school time management" SMS services for parents who demand "anytime, anywhere" communications with teachers. China's millennial generation is swaddled. In the words of an eight-year-old, "I have a wonderful time when I'm on my own but my mother worries. Sometimes I feel like I'm in jail." In the past few years, progressive brands have begun to address the tension between safety-driven regimentation and discovery. Safeguard, perhaps the savviest brand in the Middle Kingdom, has elevated its aforementioned anti-germ functionality into a richer "freedom to learn" angle. Omo detergent's "Dirt is Good" skillfully links "powerful grime removal" with worry-free exploration, an asset on child's journey from babe in the woods to Renaissance kid. And Zhonghua toothpaste connects "twelve levels of 'germacheck" with a "new world of culinary adventure."

Playing to Win.

The competitive hurdles young children confront on a daily basis are omnipresent. So "playtime" must deliver more than mindless release. "Fun and games" should also whet the drive to win on the battlefield of elementary school advancement. Computer games are hawked as balance, reaction and alertness enhancers. Transformer toys, board games and musical instruments exist as means to victorious ends. Quaker Oats sharpened conventional nutrition claims with "endless energy," the X factor of Chinese ping pong champions. In 2008, McDonald's created an Olympic Cheering Squad for little ones to compete for a trip to the Beijing Olympics where they could meet, and be inspired by, national champions. Parents also applauded the chain's "soccer skills" camps.

EQ and IQ.

Intellectual skill is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for success. Parents embrace anything that promotes EQ - i.e., "emotional quotient," or "civilized sensitivity" -- and IQ balance. China's EQ push has been further reinforced by the Party's promotion of a "harmonious society" and underscored by an anachronistic propaganda campaign about "eight shames" and "eight glories." Spitting and throwing trash on the ground are out. Sacrificed bus seats and Lei Feng, the PLA soldier cum Cultural Revolution martyr, are in. Harry Potter, a noble prince, is popular with both children and adults. So is Dumex milk powder, which features a "Golden Wise nutritional system" and a boy smart enough to divide cake with varying numbers of friends. Dada's Little Warrior, Wrigley's popular chewing gum, tells youngsters to be "SuperGood Kids" who "love to help, discover and create, protect the environment and build team spirit."

Reward and Release.

Brands can also cultivate affinity with by rewarding victory and providing vehicles for anxiety release. KFC celebrates Children's Day with a Children's Day Gift Pack. Pizza Hut lets parents acknowledge performance with "triumph feasts." McDonald's promotes itself as a respite from the rigors of music, chess and swimming lessons. Brand-sponsored on-line avatars, vessels of anti-social discharge, let kids let it out. So do Danone cookie's "unveil your inner superman" and Tang juice's "slay the evil ogre" programs.

In conclusion, Middle Kingdom parents have no choice but to put their children on a path to success, on which academic achievement is preparation for a lifetime of bloodthirsty competition. Moms and dads are torn between China's classic "tough love" approach to child rearing and new-generation appreciation of childhood delight and self-discovery. Brands have an important role in resolving this conflict of the heart.