Monday, October 1, 2012

On trophy kids and tiger mothering

my version of tiger mothering, sweatshirt by
 This post was prompted by yet another article on the book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  Let me start off by saying I read the book. I knew I’d mostly disagree with it, but I read it, not to find holes or to criticise it, but because I know that my faults lie in the opposite direction.  I believe we are all born (or grow up with) a parenting style, although it only becomes apparent once the children come around. I always knew I’d be a lot like my mom. I hoped for a slightly stricter version having taken queues from my father, but  no, I’m just like my mom, a freakin’ softy, and this is what motivated me to read the book, the hope I’d find arguments that would strengthen my resolve to be more discipline oriented, at least some of the time.

And I did find some interesting arguments, like how empty praise benefits no one and  sometimes you just have to say “that’s not good enough” when it’s clear that no effort has been made. I liked the idea of looking at this as not as a criticism but as refusing to treat the child in a condescending manner, choosing to believe in their ability to do better.

However,  for the most part, I think the book is based on a flawed premise that tiger moms make more successful children. Yes, Chinese* children often excel academically at school and music recitals. This academic advantage often carries on into college, but if you look at the top CEOs, at self-made entrepreneurs, successful artist, inventors, musicians, etc.,  then there is absolutely no clear dominance of the Chinese. There is no proof that this system based on ten rigid rules produces better results.

The focus of the book to me seems off centred. There are continuous references to how hard it was on her to make her children do what she thought was right. See, I don’t think raising a child is about you, the parent, it isn’t about moulding them into a preconceived idea, but about helping them become the best version of themselves, and that requires letting them explore  in order to to understand who they are and where their strengths lie.  (rule #6, never allowed to choose their own extracurricular activities)
Recent research on business shows that people benefit most from focusing and building on their strengths  rather than their weaknesses.

There is also a misguided assumption that western parents tip toe around their children, somehow afraid of them while, in her words, “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.)”

I chose to have children, just as I chose my husband and my career. I don’t expect anyone else to take responsibility for my life choices, least of all a child. I believe in taking responsibilities for your actions, and believe that consequence and accountability is a crucial lesson I hope to teach my children early on in life. I hope my kids will look after and accompany me in my old age, but I’d rather they do it out of love and respect and not a sense of debt and obligation.

Research is also consistent on the benefits of having musical training early on, (rule #10: never allowed not to play the piano or the violin) as is the acquisition of a second language, but this applies equally to the violin, the piano, the guitar or the drums. (rule #9 never allowed to play any instrument other than the piano or the violin,) but I guess you can’t get into Carnegie Hall playing the drums. I don't view my kids as something that’s there to make me proud. They are not a trophy or something for me to brag about at parties. I view parenting as a responsibility I’ve taken on, and to believe it is any easier to be a western parent, just because we don’t impose ourselves and our beliefs forcefully, is both simplistic and naïve. We both have 24-hour-long days which are mostly dominated by our parenting choices. Whether they are spent screaming at the piano or playing at the park.
Most psychology professionals agree that theatre provides training on both                   management of tone, delivery and body language, (Rule #3: never allowed to be in a school play. Rule #4: never allowed to complain about not being in a school play) and is great training  for public speaking, be it for business or political life. Further, there are proven benefits in regards to emotional expression and ability to empathise.  Research also consistently shows that ability to socialise and communicate with friends is a key indicator for healthy manage of stress and to overcome trauma. These skills, like playing a violin, need to be practiced and developed. (rules #1 and 2: never allowed to have a playdate or attend a sleepover.)
Increasingly  the ability to adapt is cited as a key skill necessary to survive in this fast changing world, and you don't get that from rigid discipline. Social skills and emotional intelligence account for the fact that many not-so-great, and even flat out crappy students become a success once they leave the school system. (Rule #7 and 8: never allowed to get any grade less than an A, and never allowed to not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama).
I see parenting  as my job, and the goal is to help my children  be all that they can be, regardless of what I would like them to be.  I have a responsibility to model the values that I hope they will inherit, because in the end they will make their own choices, and it is my job to give them the necessary tools to help them make good ones.  My goal is to make happy, successful and fulfilled individuals that can question the status quo and go against convention if need be.  Notice the difference,  my focus in on “them” not “me”.

There is also something to teaching children about tolerance, and modelling an authority figure based on always being right and imposing your way even if it is through force, well, isn’t that what the religious and cultural intolerance that is causing so much suffering these days is all about?

We are all different, our children are all different, and all we can hope for is that our chosen parenting style works for the both of us.

Yes, my mom was a softie, but I still got accepted into an ivy league university, and then went on to have a fulfilling career as well as a loving family. I’ve found plenty of time to focus on me, but not through my parenting, rather  through those hobbies that were nurtured in my childhood, like reading, painting, playing instruments and photography.  Apparently there is time to do both, and although I did miss out on playing in Carnegie hall, I’ve been part of discussions at the Security Council. You win some, you loose some.

*this is the author’s use of “Chinese”  not mine