What came first; Korea’s tough education standards or the high expectations of Korean parents?
Chicken or the egg?
Not all, but most Korean students excel in academics. Young students are intelligent, not because of genetics or racial reasons, but due to a cocktail of consistent training from after-school programs, summer and winter school, private tutors, extra-curricular lessons and hyper disciplined study at home.
What Is a Tiger Mum
The common parenting style in Korea is one that focuses on achievement, performance, and finally success. These type of parents are nicknamed ‘wolf dad’ and ‘tiger mum’, however the ultimate ringmaster of this whole charade is typically the mother.
To draw out and develop their child’s abilities, tiger mums intensely devote their time, money and life to their child. The creme de la creme of tiger mothers can be found in Seoul (Daechidong and Mokdong) and Gyeonggido (Bundang and Ilsan), where the most elite education is found.
My Tiger Mum Experience
My childhood was very different from all my other British friends. On weekdays after school, I attended piano, math and French classes (sometimes more). I then completed homework (from my school and various after-school classes), then ‘study’ which involved learning from textbooks or from my parents.
In the lead up to A-levels (a Korean equivalent would be university entrance exams), the pressure was stifling. I would dread holidays and weekends because it meant intense study 24/7 (or at least the pressure to).
One winter, I was forced to live in Cambridge alone for just over a month and attend a Korean academy, where I had math and biology class every day. My room consisted of a mattress, desk and chair. The bus that I usually took to class would not run on Christmas, New Years Day and boxing day, so I would have to walk in the snow to class (yes, classes ran as usual).
It was my first Christmas and New Years alone. Away from family and friends to devote myself to study. The highlight of my time there was when another student and I craved ice-cream, but the accommodation didn’t have a freezer so we secretly beheaded our neighbour’s snowman and stored the tub in its torso. It was very tough, but it taught me insane work ethic.
Modern Tiger Mums
I had no other Korean (or east-Asian) my age throughout my childhood, so I thought I was experiencing a form of child abuse because I had nothing to compare my life to. Now coming to Korea, I realise that my parents had recreated the same gruelling K-school style training for me in England.
The intensity of the mothers here didn’t phase me. Their relentless demand for excellence, travelling hours just for a class and investing millions in tutors is something normal in my childhood and here.
However, even amongst tigers, there is the queen tiger. Their dedication is scary. They meet up in cafes to compare academies, study resources, and of course compare and gossip about children. Sometimes you can see them completing their child’s homework or even buying books for themselves (to learn what their child will study next year, so that they can tutor their child at home).
In Seoul, the mothers of Daeichi district are infamous for being filthy rich and snobby. These mothers even go so far as to discriminate and isolate children and families who have under performing children, because they don’t want their own child to be negatively influenced.
These Daeichi tiger mothers have been labelled Dweji Umma (‘돼지엄마’) which means ‘pig mum’. Pigs are a symbol of wealth, which represent the huge financial investments they make on their children’s education. Pigs are also known to pamper and coddle their children. Dweji also sounds very similar to Daechi.
Why Do They Do This?
The reason why Korea was able to develop at this lightning fast rate and grow from a third world to a first world country in a few generations, is because of immense work ethic. These women who have been born and bred in Korea, know the ugly truth that society is elitist and hierarchical. In order to protect and ensure the best possible future for their family, they will stop at nothing.
Korea has a huge family centred culture. If one person does well, everyone does well, but if one falls, everyone else is dragged down too. Being strict is to ensure that the latest member of the family does well to protect the value of the family name. A successful child reflects positively on the parent and family. Whether it shows elite DNA or best background, if your child excels the family rises to a higher status.
Ultimately, micro-managing and disciplining is a display of love and dedication. They are doing what they think is the best way to ensure the happiest and most comfortable life. After all, why would the mothers be spending huge amounts of dough on their child’s education, if the mother’s didn’t love them as much as material products.
If done well, this parenting technique can produce organised and self-disciplined people who have an ingrained work ethic and are able to beat international competition. They can grow up to get respected jobs, and build huge brands that boost Korea on the global market and build Korea’s economy.
The fact that Korea has such a high level of safety and lack of teen pregnancy, vandalism, drug abuse and school drop outs can be largely attributed to the environment that the parents created for the child.
If done wrong, the child can end up over qualified, under confident, low self-esteem, afraid of failure and have distant and broken relationship with family and other loved ones. It can also push people the wrong way and create rebels who are deliberately lazy and under-perform as well.
The Next Generation Of Tiger Mums
I myself as a Korean lady, who will one day (in the far future) become a mother, have actively kept a folder in my brain labelled ‘What Not To Do To’. I have witnessed some ridiculous parents (from mostly Gangnam mothers).
However, I am aware that there is tiger cub inside me that could easily get fiercer and take over. As I get older I empathize with the choices that tough-love tiger mums have made.
Rather worryingly I have realised that over the years I have naturally developed habits (like being hyper-critical and always trying to succeed no matter the emotional consequence) that tiger mums possess. Yet, European influences have diluted these tendencies a lot.
I am very curious of how myself and my peers will become the next generation of tiger mums and ajummas. Maybe we will be the perfect combination of Eastern-Western parenting techniques or maybe we will wreck the future with a whole new set of problems.
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