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Tiger Mom: Are There Alternatives?

Tiger Mom: Are There Alternatives?
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Amy Chua, in her new book, blatantly extols the Tiger Mother approach to par­ent­ing – implaca­bly insist­ing, demand­ing, and con­trol­ling her children’s lives. Rules, expec­ta­tions, and no sugar-coating the crit­i­cism – that’s what really works. It explic­itly rebukes the focus on “self-esteem” that, for her, is the regret­table group-think of mod­ern life here in the West.

Frankly, I love the bold­ness – even despite her delib­er­ate provo­ca­tions – and I’d be thrilled if her book actu­ally gen­er­ates a use­ful con­ver­sa­tion about good parenting.

Her big point is that par­ent­ing through a chaotic world is a job that requires Mom to be fiercely, unapolo­get­i­cally focused on actively direct­ing her kids, and that Chi­nese moth­ers have a leg up: they deploy the back­bone and emo­tional lever­age con­ferred by a 5000-year-old cul­ture – ascen­dant again. Tiger Mom’s clear duty is to demand that her chil­dren nav­i­gate excel­lently in a remorse­less world they’re both mov­ing through – and also shaping.

In my work, I par­tic­u­larly notice two styles of par­ent­ing here in the U.S. – nei­ther of which would meet Ms. Chua’s approval. One style is to be so busy and over­whelmed that the par­ents are just barely run­ning in place well enough to main­tain mid­dle class respectabil­ity – career, house­work, cash flow, and the end­less, accel­er­at­ing choices. They’re just too busy, too exhausted, and too stressed to even try to min­i­mally go toe-to-toe with their kids over “stuff” like cell phones, TV, video games, and the inter­net – let alone atti­tude, dis­re­spect, and dubi­ous peers. They’d be offended to be called neg­li­gent, but they just wring their hands or cross their fin­gers in hopes that the kids won’t turn out to be what we’re all wor­ried they’re becom­ing: shal­low, self­ish, obliv­i­ous – and unemployable.

The other kind of par­ent­ing style is to be the totally-engaged “heli­copter” par­ents who hover – pick up and drop off the kids at school five days a week, com­pletely chore­o­graph the extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties, fuss about the friends, and mon­i­tor home­work as well as the com­ple­tion of any other school assign­ments and projects. They’re pseudo-Tiger Moms. They’ve got the energy, but they’re not as solidly con­fi­dent about insist­ing on sus­tained effort and achieve­ment, and don’t want to be totally con­trol­ling – for fear it will dam­age the child’s self-esteem.

I should also add that either style can pro­duce par­ents who think “being there” for their child means being auto­mat­i­cally, aggressively adver­sar­ial toward the school if it dares to dis­ci­pline or give their child a low grade – an unintended consequence being the continuing, dimin­ish­ing “author­ity” of the school.

My biggest beef – and the focus of my coach­ing and con­sult­ing to par­ents – is the absence of sober, clear-eyed parental learn­ing. Yes – some chil­dren need, and thrive under, close parental super­vi­sion, direc­tion, nudg­ing, and con­stant involve­ment. If that’s what they need, and what helps them, that’s far more impor­tant than stay­ing late at work.

Other chil­dren need looser reins and less pushing, not micromanagement-level con­trol. But the par­ents of those kids still have to stay “on duty” – engaged, having expectations, and therefore notic­ing whether those loose reins are get­ting results rather than being the cover for avoidance, poor performance, excuses, and wishful thinking. The obvi­ous point is that chil­dren need what they need, not what par­ents want them to need, which is only figured out by parents who are active learners themselves. Children need active engagement by parents who are sending a firm message: we have expectations and we’re here with you for the long haul.

Finally, one of the most important expectations parents should have of their chil­dren is that they behave. Poor behav­ior at age seven is not the sign of an artis­tic tem­pera­ment or a free spirit. It’s avoid­ance – rude, dis­rup­tive, not nice, not right, and, most impor­tantly, hurt­ful to the child allowed to behave badly. There’s plenty of time to develop indi­vid­u­al­ity – later.

Acting out and sabotaging school due to lack of self-control fic­tion­al­ized as the child “being dif­fer­ent” isn’t just wrong – it’s ridiculous.

Apart from the clearly unrealistic and provocative things Amy Chua advocates, having expectations and making them stick is crucial. You don’t have to be a Tiger Mom, but your kid needs to know he or she can’t outlast you, just wear you down. Manners, cooperation, and effort should be non-negotiable – it’s not that you’ll scream and yell; it’s that you won’t let go of it until your reasonable expectations are met.

One of my pet phrases is: “Good par­ent­ing is hard, inept par­ent­ing makes everything even harder.”