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Posted on Sun, Jul 24, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

Unstructured summer fun and discovery versus Tiger Mothering

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Summertime fun fishing with Little Brother, bare feet splashing.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang | Contributor

Eleven-year-old Niu Niu and 7-year-old Little Brother are trying to build a raft with papyrus stems, like ancient times, in case they ever have to escape a war by crossing a rushing river in the dead of night by strapping together logs they fell on the side of the river.

After struggling for some time roping the “logs” together with string, Niu Niu declares, “String is too hard. This would be easier with duct tape.”

Off to the garage she goes. Back she comes with a roll of duct tape on her arm. Raft completed in two minutes. It floats!

So much for figuring out ancient skills.

Although Tiger Mothers like Amy Chua and Wendi Deng Murdoch have been making the news lately with Chua’s hardcore and Deng’s fierce styles of parenting, I find that my children (OK, me too) are so overscheduled these days that the slower unstructured pace of summer is invaluable for dreaming, drawing and discovering random things.

Little Brother and I have been baking (nondairy) cream pies.

It is not easy keeping the children off the computer, and I usually end up even more exhausted from the effort than they.

But, it is only during the summer that we ever actually get around to things like fishing, hunting for toads, running fingers through gelatinous strings of toad eggs and then watching tadpoles to hatch and grow legs, feeding the baby bird that fell out of its nest, making sorbet with freshly squeezed juice, doing science experiments like erupting a baking soda volcano, volunteering at the zoo, building things in the woodshop with Gong Gong, learning to cook and sew with Po Po, planting a vegetable garden with Uncle Rich, kayaking and hiking with Uncle Howard, watching softball games, learning Photoshop or Flash, swimming outside the confines of 30-minute swim lessons at the YMCA, reading books outside of the syllabus and taking time to watch the sun set and the moon rise.

During the school year, we can barely manage Little Brother’s mold farm.

Even during summer camp, the children have a whole week to slow down and focus on one thing at a time, be it dance, art, music or soccer.

Years ago, there was a list circulating online of 100 things one had to do to ensure one’s children an “all-American childhood.” They were nostalgic small-town things like visiting Grandma and Grandpa on their farm and eating cotton candy at the county fair, things that recalled bare feet, rolled-up denim overalls and pigtails (60 years ago?).

My Asian American friends and I (and a few non-Asian American friends with urban childhoods) were indignant to discover that apparently none of us had had “all-American childhoods” and that none of the things we remembered in common “counted.”

I do not like the checklist approach. Rather, I find I continue to learn from my children’s explorations.

A few weeks ago, Little Brother caught a firefly at dusk. Pinched between his fingers, its belly blinking yellow, I realized that I had never before seen a firefly up close. As a child, I had read stories about poor children in ancient China who studied by the light of fireflies caught in a jar, but I had never actually caught any because we did not have fireflies where I grew up.

Now here is Little Brother explaining to me that fireflies blink to find a mate and that their larvae are called glowworms.

Funny, I can sing the 1950s song, “Glow little glowworm glow,” but I never knew what it was about.

Today we caught dragonfly nymphs! Cool.

Thanks to the University of Michigan Centers for Chinese Studies, Korean Studies, and Japanese Studies for the opportunity to discover and learn calligraphy casually at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival Top of the Park Kid Zone.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog and a contributor for Chicago is the World. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at



Mon, Jul 25, 2011 : 2:56 p.m.

Nice piece, but can I be indignant too? I grew up in an urban environment but visited my grandparents on their farm and I'm pretty sure I was often barefoot with my jeans rolled up.


Mon, Jul 25, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

Loved this piece. Don't listen to the sourpuss, Frances. It's evocative and beautifully written. Keep writing!


Mon, Jul 25, 2011 : 4:38 p.m.

I was agreeing with you. In fact, I even thought: "hey, we are going to get through a Frances piece without the usual 'indignant Aisian American' " part. Alas, it was not to be. Too bad, if she stopped being a one trick pony, her articles might be more interesting. Was it really required? Well, yes, to be a Frances article, you must be indignant over something, I guess. For any other writer, it probably would have stood on it's own. Yes, keep writing, maybe try not being so indignant.


Mon, Jul 25, 2011 : 12:48 p.m.

"My Asian American friends and I were indignant " Yep, shocking. That's pretty much the cruz of every one of your pieces.