Unfortunately all of the media attention in the last several weeks on “Tiger Parenting” has polarized the discussion regarding the role of parents to wrongheaded extremes. On the one hand it makes no sense to argue for the hyper-competitive, my kid can top your kid, psychological hazing that views kids as a resource to be developed and exploited. I have never met a person who was raised in this environment that I trusted as a colleague or respected as a person. Invariably this approach results in a selfish, temperamental prima donna lacking essential interpersonal skills for being a good team member, and lacking courage and grit in the face of challenge. It may seem like tough love designed to prepare kids for the “real world”, but in reality it’s a lethal combination of human neglect and overt coddling resulting in a cat without claws that is at the core soft and insecure.
On the other hand, I see no evidence to argue for the opposite extreme, creating a young person who is removed from preparation for independence in the real world by essentially giving the child license to not work hard, fend for themselves, or do basically anything that they do not want to do. I’m all for preserving childhood—by which I mean, monitoring media, preserving unstructured play, not over scheduling, not trying to join or compete to keep up with other kids, and fundamentally nurturing your child’s unique talents and gifts without comparison to others.
However, I don’t’ see evidence that a child raised in this environment built to accommodate the child’s learning style, dietary likes, sleep preferences, and leisure priorities produce anything but a selfish, self-centered person. They come to believe that the world and all those around exist to make their life enjoyable and satisfying. Teacher is too tough, switch classes. Coach challenges you to develop your weaknesses, switch coaches—or sports. Boss needs you to work over vacation, quit—and get the money from your folks. The result of this extreme is again a cat without claws incapable of existing outside of the safety and resources of the environment created by parents. (This may explain why today so many young people now return the safety of home—or who survive “on their own” with underwriting from home).
This is the truly unfortunate part of the polarizing discussion that has, in my opinion, resulted from Chua’s work on Tiger Parenting: it has entrenched parents on opposite ends of equally wrongheaded approaches to developing the excellence and ethics needed for success in school work and beyond.
Here are 5 suggestions, offered as different vision for parenting, drawn from our work on developing Intentional Cultures of Excellence and Ethics:
- Love your children as an end, not a means. Don’t see in them as a scholarship. Don’t use them to achieve your hopes and dreams—past or future. Don’t play them as pawns in your game of social climbing and competition. Love them—with their unique personalities and temperaments, with their unique talents and abilities, and with all their unique character strengths and weaknesses.
- View life as resistance training. Developing the mind, body, & soul of a child is fundamentally about developing muscles. Consider your job as teacher and coach one of structuring just the right amount of resistance to keep your child’s muscles in a healthy tension, so they grow, develop, and are prepared for greater challenges. Don’t hurt them by piling on too much; don’t hurt them by taking the weight off every time they sweat or complain or hurt. Is this teacher or coach or boss hurting my child? Or are they stretching their muscles? If they are hurting them intellectually, physically, or emotionally by all means it is your duty to intervene. But if your child is simply unhappy, uncomfortable, or simply unfamiliar with the way their muscles are being challenged, support them, encourage them, stay close to them—but don’t rescue them. Viewed as resistance training, helicopter parenting and Tiger Parenting are equally detrimental to development. It’s not about being mean or tough, easy or loving; it’s about promoting development. Promoting development requires knowing when and how to change your style and approach given the particular child and situation.
- Stop looking at the scoreboard at the game and start paying attention to practice field. Too many parents are looking at the outcomes and wishing and hoping and worrying. Forget about the grades, the test scores, the final score or final standing. It’s not that those outcomes don’t matter. They do. But what matters more are the habits for excellence that you are creating each day. The research on deliberate practice (and lots of other very solid research on talent development, motivation, and the cultivation of expertise) indicates that if we teach our children to practice with focus, intensity and consistency, if we teach them to find the will to start and the grit to stick with it, if we help them seek capable coaching and constructive critique—then our children will (1) reach their potential for excellence, (2) do just fine as measured by the “scoreboards of life”. Replace “did you win?” “did you beat?” and “how do you rank?” with “Did you do your best?” “Did you improve and grow?” “Did you push outside your comfort zone?”. The rest will take care of itself.
- Form in your children an ethical conscience and a conscience of craft. In writing on the formation of conscience, Thomas Greene introduced these distinctions; our children need both. Our current economic struggles are a perfect storm of poorly formed ethical conscience—greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, dishonesty—and poorly formed conscience of craft—shoddy craftsmanship, lack of work ethic, lack of thrift, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The three A’s of performance and moral character (originally in our Smart & Good Report) provides a self- inventory to help ensure that we develop an ethical conscience (an internal sense of right and wrong) and a conscience of craft (and internal sense of what it means to do our work well).
- Develop the whole person. It’s an over-used cliché—but it’s still true. So many years ago Aristotle argued that happiness was the goal of a life well lived. Regardless of the parent, I truly believe that happiness is what they desire for their children. However misguided their processes, this is their desired outcome. In order to help our children achieve happiness we must build in them a diversified portfolio of assets: they need to be able to develop positive and productive relationships; communicate and collaborate with efficiency and effectiveness; manage priorities and stress; commit to high standards and continuous improvement; demonstrate emotional intelligence, integrity and responsibility; exhibit creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving; lead and serve others; and, live a balanced, purposeful, and fulfilling life.
The single greatest thing we can do for the educational and economic prosperity of this country is to raise our children well. All the talk of Tiger Parenting brought the discussion back to the forefront; I hope that it does not distract and polarize. We simply must recommit, beginning at home, with a commitment to intentionally building the culture of excellence and ethics.