Tiger Mothers Versus “Idle Parents”: Parent Lifestyles in the Asia Pacific region and Australasia

Parents throughout the world strive to do the best for their children; what is best though, is defined by the family’s cultural and economic background. Subsequently parents in the Asia Pacific region will often have different aspirations and different priorities for their children than their ‘neighbours’ in Australasia.

Commercial opportunities

  • Parents in China are likely to be more willing to pay extra for convenience, e.g. a better school location or someone to look after their children during lunchtime;
  • Foreign language teaching, including online opportunities and printed publications, are likely to have a ready audience in Asia as parents with ambitions for their children in a more global world buy into language teaching options;
  • Consumers in Asia may be more willing to pay for extra help to look after their elderly parents.


Speaking at the “Young Minds” conference in Sydney in June 2012, Australian Tom Hodgkinson, the author of a book called “The Idle Parent”, declared that “being an idle parent is quite hard work”. Parents have to go against the grain by insisting their children become independent at an early age. Hodgkinson has some sympathy for Amy Chua, who wrote “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother” about Asian parenting styles and her own battle to make great musicians out of her two daughters, but he says an ”excess of tiger mothering can destroy children’s mental health”. He believes childhood is being destroyed by an unhealthy dose of the work ethic. ”Years that should be devoted to play and joyful learning are being stifled by targets and tests and long school hours.” Rowan Callick, Asia Pacific editor of the “Australian” newspaper, points out that in Australia, parents sometimes complain to teachers that their children are burdened with too much homework. By contrast, Asian parents moving to Australia often express horror at how little homework is given.

Per Capita Consumer Expenditure on Education, Australasia and the Asia Pacific Region: 2006-2011


Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics/Eurostat/UN/OECD

Note: Expenditure on education covers pre-primary and primary education, secondary education, post-secondary non-tertiary education, tertiary education and education not definable by level

Shopping and advice online

In the modern world, the birth of a baby often encourages new mothers to go online in search of advice on parenting and buying the best products for their new arrivals. According to “Secret Online Lives of Asia’s Mothers”, a research study by Microsoft and Starcom MediaVest Group from 2010, 59% of Asian mothers say they could “always” persuade their family and friends to buy the same items they buy, with 72% of Indian and Malaysian mothers saying the same. Mothers in China even trust online communities more than their own friends and relatives when it comes to product recommendations for children.

In Australia, many websites for mothers offer advice on raising kids, with some offering discounts of up to 80% compared to retail stores. Whether buying new cars or nappies, mothers find online strangers a trustworthy source of advice, according to Christie Nicholas, director of kidsbusiness.com.au. Another website – mumslounge.com.au – brings together mums and retailers, offering users special discounts and deals on products.

Parent-child relationships

Mums of older children in Australia even go online to communicate with their teenagers: thus, 57% of Australian parents have “befriended” their children on Facebook – in contrast with only 10% of Japanese parents. That is a reflection of the difference between parents – children relationship models in Australia and in Asia, where parents are more likely to discipline their children than to befriend them. A Melbournian blogger told a story about her friend from Singapore visiting Sydney: she happened to spank her child; an Australian man witnessed that and proceeded to phone the police. The lady was detained at the police station and only released on the condition that she had to go to court and appear before a judge.

Education versus playtime

Asian parents are not only stricter with their children but also feel compelled to constantly monitor their educational progress. For instance, a recent (December 2011) survey by educational authorities in Shanghai shows that although more than 90% of kindergartens in the city do not offer courses in the English language, most parents seek those courses elsewhere. Education has become so important that during school exams in China, large groups of parents sit on the pavements for days on end, with favourite home-cooked food for their children to eat during the breaks between exams.

A survey from early 2012 in which 7,500 families around the world were polled by Gymboree found that Chinese parents insist on their children studying so hard that they miss out on outdoor play time. The same survey also found that Chinese parents spend less quality time with their children than their peers in other countries. “On one hand, parents are spending a lot of money on their children; on the other hand, parents are spending little time with them,” Wang Juxian, a kindergarten teacher in Shanghai who has been working with children for 30 years, told the China Daily newspaper.

Australian children are encouraged to spend more time outdoors, and some parents choose to work from home in order to be able to spend time with their children. In spite of this, up to 43% of children think that their dads spend too much time working, and 27% think their mums work too much, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, released in May 2012.

Getting to school and back

More than 60% of Australian children are driven to school by their parents, even though a vast majority of their parents — 80% — thinks that it would improve their kids’ health to walk or ride a bike. Parents cite a lack of safe cycling routes and traffic as key barriers to kids being allowed to ride to school. A similar situation is observed in New Zealand, where a Greater Wellington regional council report showed that less than 40% of Wellington children living within five kilometres of their schools walked or biked to school each day. Concerns about safety or the fact that parents have to drive somewhere else anyway and can drop their children off on the way are the most common reasons for this.

Transport is a major problem for parents sending their children to school in rural China. A number of serious accidents involving school buses last year prompted local governments to ban them. Transporting the kids back and forth has become a heavy burden for each family, because some schools don’t allow students to have lunch in the classroom or remain on campus during break time. “When it rains, the road becomes a muddy pool. Small kids often lose their shoes because the mud grips at their shoes and they can only free their feet. Bikes are useless on rainy days, so some parents carry their children to school on their backs,” a Chinese father, whose son has to live with his grandmother because of her proximity to a school, told “China Daily”. “You know, sometimes I really hate myself because I don’t have the money to send him to a school in the city”, admitted another frustrated father.

Child-parent obligations

And when Asian children grow up, parents expect more of a “pay-off” for their efforts, yet their grown-up children may be living too far away or be so busy with their careers that they can’t take responsibility for the elderly. In 2011 Chinese state media suggested that China was considering making it a legal duty for people to visit their aged parents. Under a draft legal amendment, elderly people could go to court to claim their right to be looked after by their children.

A survey of the Asia Pacific region from 1996 by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a government statutory agency, whose role is to research and communicate findings on family wellbeing, showed that, compared to Asian nations, Australians were less likely to see care of elderly parents as a family responsibility than a government responsibility. In Australia 72% said that care of elderly parents was a family responsibility, compared with well over 90% in all the Asian nations for which data was reported.


Parenting seems to be more of a struggle in Asia Pacific countries in comparison with the Australian style of “idle parenting”. As Rowan Callick of the “Australian” says: “For most students and their parents, something has to give – world-beating test results or the modern Aussie lifestyle.”