Category: Parenting strategies
The Battle Hum of the Tigger Mum
Most Western parents who read Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” book read in horror. For those who have not read the book, it recounts the strict disciplinarian parenting style and relentless focus on academic and musical achievement of a Chinese parent. For people brought up in the Far East, it’s different. On a visit to a friend in Hong Kong, I asked her if she had read the book. She looked at me hard to decipher whether I would judge her if she were honest, before replying; then we both laughed in agreement that for us “What she describes is just normal.”
I’m not saying it’s normal to timetable your children’s free time so that they are working all day and collapse exhausted at night, or to emotionally blackmail your children into 4 hours of piano a day, but the tiger parent ethos of involvement in your child’s education and emphasis on scholastic achievement is part and parcel of Chinese, and many other cultures. In reality, I don’t think that this is too far removed from Western values. There are also many Western parents who “expect” their children to achieve; the difference is that they “expect” their child’s school (particularly if it is fee paying) to deliver this expectation rather than to be personally involved. To this end, if Johnny does not get into “the best school/ university”, the teachers can expect a parental rant, whilst for the Chinese parent, either the child would have delivered the expectation (due to the parents’ support) or the parents will feel like complete failures and blame no one more than themselves. To the Chinese parent, the Western attitude of abdicating responsibility for education to schools is rather strange. To the Chinese parent, the school (however good) is only one arm of the education battery, rather than the entirety and personal responsibility is taken for education.
This usually involves extra work at home (to a varying degree from acceptable to bordering on abusive), educational outings (museums, libraries, art galleries, historical landmarks), educational conversation (ranging from fully answering any question the child asks (possibly involving graphs, Venn diagrams and how to construct a computer program to answer that exact question…), to grilling on times-tables and “What’s the capital city of…”) and mostly an extreme nosiness on the state of their child’s performance in relation to other children (whereupon, if there is a hint of not keeping up, efforts are redoubled). When test scores come back less than perfect, there is a focus on the mistakes made rather than correct answers, not necessarily because anything less than perfection is acceptable (although there is this too!) – but because the parent is trying to understand where the child requires additional help so that they can provide it. All this is quite frankly a lot of hard work, but a Chinese parent will feel somewhat a failure if they do not do this (to greater or lesser degree) as it’s practically in their blood.
Understanding where this parental drive comes from is important as it is purely a case of Darwinian adaptation to environment and survival of the fittest at its best. Historically in the East, as was the case in Jane Austen’s times, the future of your family and your predicament in old age was dependent on either securing a good job for your son or a marital match for your daughter. In the West where these were achieved by birth right or having refined manners, children were encouraged to look down on lower social classes or were indoctrinated to sit up straight, know their soup spoons from their dessert spoons and make gentile conversation lest Mr Darcy be in the vicinity. In more meritocratic societies where a peasant with a PhD could become better regarded than a banker’s son without, having academically accomplished children is an economic investment. Generations of positive selection for successful “tiger mothers” has led to a society where tiger-parenting is the norm. Interestingly enough though, now that the job market is becoming increasingly global, “Who your parents are, or which school you went to in the UK” is paling in significance to university degree obtained in the worldwide jobs competition, and as such I have witnessed more and more British tiger parents emerging. For example, in my children’s Mandarin class (which my children are sent to purely to be in touch with their cultural identity), half the children in the class are European, sent to learn mandarin at age <4 years to enable them to be “competitive” in the future jobs market. There are also parents living in tents overnight to be the first in the queue to obtain application forms for sought after academic schools and gymnastic classes. I think tiger parenting has definitely arrived in the UK.
My personal view is that achievement is important. Achievement, “developing to the fullest” and “achieving potential” is a ratified right in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (alongside the right to healthcare and education). Encouraging work ethic in children to obtain achievement is not a sin. To this end then, I fully put my hands up to being a tiger mother. Do I check my children’s homework? Do I stress the importance of getting all their spellings right? Do I make them do 10 minutes of a workbook each day on top of work set by the school? Do I supervise their reading every day? Do I coerce my daughter to practice piano for 10 minutes at least 4 times a week? Do I insist (with varying success) this continues in the holidays. Do I express disappointment if I do not think they have really tried? Do my children think that my favourite hobby is doing workbooks with them? Do I pack a “Make your own volcano kit” in our suitcase for a holiday to Sicily as I know we will be going up Mount Etna and I want to explain how it works to the kids? When I go to their school, do I scrutinize the work of other children in the class and compare it to that of my own kids? Yup.
However, I would also agree with Western values that scholastic achievement is not the be all and end all for success. It is interesting that in the UK the Chinese population outperform other ethnicities in school exam grades, yet they continue to under-perform in employment thereafter considering their academic qualifications. The Guardian 2011, reporting on findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Report stated “British Chinese youngsters are the highest performing ethnic group in England at GCSE”, and “British Chinese men and women were twice as likely to be in professional jobs as their white British counterparts. But average earnings remained around 11% lower throughout the population than for those classed as ‘white Christian’”. I would argue that this employment underperformance of the British Chinese is in large part due to the fact that their critical period of development (childhood) was too focused on academic attainment at the cost of interpersonal skills. Play-dates, parties, drama club, debating team, sports teams afford regular opportunities to practice social skill. What better way to learn the diplomacy and politics of the board room than years of practice in the locker room? Whilst largely attainment alone will get you into a top university, it is interpersonal skill and political savvy that will get you into the Western boardroom.
Further the cultural focus on respect for elders, authority and hierarchy indoctrinated in Chinese homes that facilitate academic achievement and lead to success in the workplace of the East, inhibit the free thinking, challenging of norms, stepping outside chain of command and assertive attitude required in the Western workplace. Transplanting elements required to succeed in one environment (the East) into another (the West) can only get you so far, and again, harking back to Darwinian theory, adaptation to new environment is required for success. Another approach to think about this adaptation to environment is in relation to Westerners hoping to crack it with the Asian premiere league now that China is touted to be the next super-power. Your received pronunciation won’t get you noticed, but it generally helps if you have a PhD from a top global University.
Further, although “success” is paramount to the tiger parent, this is measured purely in terms of academic/ career and financial success. What of “happiness”: my preferred measure of success? In psychiatry you have the rare position of seeing the psychological mess behind the veneer of many successful people, and you quickly realise that “happiness” is a much better yardstick for success. In my clinical practice I have asked many a tiger parent that has taken things to the extreme: “What’s the point of your child going to Oxbridge if they commit suicide there?” (it does happen). Of course, achievement and money contribute to “happiness”, which is why I continue to maintain these are important, but self-esteem, integrity and robust personality take precedent in my book. None of this “inferiority” coupled with “superiority” package that Amy Chua is now marketing (this by the way, sounds like the professional description of a personality disorder not the secret to success). What I advocate is pure and solid (and highly unmarketable): self-esteem, self-respect, respect for others, positivity and humour.
How can this be engendered?
To a large degree by parents.
Parents that spend time with you, and enjoy spending time with you. Parents that prioritise you and make you feel special. Parents that care enough about you to tell you when you are out of line. Parent’s that give you a reality check when you need it. Parents that listen to you when you speak, or speak for you when you can’t. Parents that make time for you even when they have no time. Parents that pick you up when you are down. Parent’s that are always there for you. Parents that cheer for you even when you are actually pretty rubbish. Parents that include you. Parents that know you and try to understand you. Above all, parents that make you live, laugh and enjoy life.
Alongside my workbooks and volcano making kits, I hope to practice this ethos too. To this end, I would like to be a Tigger mother. A tiger none-the-less, but one that is soft, cuddly, laughs, and is full of fun.
And probably quite a bit annoying.
Mansell, W. (2011) Hidden Tigers: Why do Chinese children do so well at school? The Guardian, Monday 7 February 2011.
Amy Chua (2011), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Penguin Group; ISBN: 978-1-59420-284-1.
In praise of praise
Parents differ on their view of praising children. Some parents praise their children for breathing; “Wow son, you drew breath; and you’ve done it again. It’s amazing how you can keep doing that.” whilst for others, drawing a compliment requires Herculean feats. Proponents of the former are generally enthusiastic Americans (it’s a stereotype I know, but I’ve often found North Americans to be generally more positive and energetic than folk on our side of the pond). Proponents of the latter generally take the view that kids are bright and if you keep praising them for everything, then the praise will be de facto meaningless. They think praise should generally be used sparingly and reserved for impeccable achievement.
Where do child psychiatrists stand on the issue of praise? Well, definitely in the camp of the enthusiastic Americans. Praise is good and should be shared not spared! If, as a kid you ever received genuine praise for a job well done from your parents, then you will know that the warm fuzzy feeling is GREAT! “Making my parents proud”, is often mentioned as an aim for children, and even adults. Why should we deny our children this?
We may have come across parents who praise their child at every tiny step and thought to ourselves “Good grief, that’s a bit OTT isn’t it? I don’t want to be like that.”, but often, these parents are doing this temporarily for show as they know you are watching. Most parents actually praise too little rather than too much. Constant praising is really hard work, and not many people, even enthusiastic Americans can keep it up consistently. In our own working lives, praise is limited. When was the last time you were praised for your work by your boss? I can’t even remember. Would I like to be praised a bit more? Yup.
Thinking back over the last day, I would say that I probably only praised my children 3 times each (if that) and even then, the praise would have been a cursory, “Well done”, or “That’s nice”. When I remember to, or when there is clear reason to praise, I do praise more and more elaborately, but if 3 times a day is about the average for a parent who knows the benefits of praise and is consciously looking to praise, then I don’t think that we as a nation are in fear of over-praising our children. Having a standpoint of reservation towards praise, would mean that most days children are not being praised at all.
In child psychiatry clinics, we have the opportunity to view parenting interactions through one-way mirrors. Parents are asked to play with their children in a room with some basic toys provided, and a room full of psychiatrists and psychologists stand in the next room pouring over their interaction. Each physical contact made, eye contact given, supportive gesture and shift of body language is noted and meaning interpreted. In terms of speech, every tone, choice of word, supportive comment, criticism and praise is noted. And crucially the absence of praise when an opportunity to praise arises. It is amazing but often in a half hour observation, you can learn more about a family, and a child’s problems than hours of history taking from parents. For me, this is the best part of child psychiatry. This is the child psychiatrists’ version of a physical examination, of putting stethoscope to chest and hand to skin.
Sadly, in some families praise is not in the vocabulary. Often the parents have problems and may never have been praised themselves, or be suffering from depression. I remember seeing a family like this. I had been seeing an 8 year old boy for suicidal behaviour in a very deprived neighbourhood. On our recommendation, the social workers had organised for him to be involved in after school activity, and he had started football. I had heard that he was doing well at it and that the England football team had visited his after school club and he had played with them. When he told me this, I smiled and said ” I will watch out for you on TV in a few years time when you are playing for England for real!” It was obviously a joke, and the reality of this ever happening was very unlikely. Yet in my experience, most people that I would say such a thing to (and I say this sort of thing a lot in my line of work), would smile and think “Wouldn’t that be great?”, or laugh thinking “I know you’re joking, but thanks for saying it”, and parents would join in maybe with a supportive comment. Instead, I was met with silence and deadpan. Faces of mother and son spoke simultaneously “That is never going to happen. We are worthless and nothing good is ever going to happen to us”. It was a really depressing day, and the first time that I physically felt the emotional poverty of what it would possibly feel like growing up in a vacuum of praise and hope.
So praise, is definitely good. Erring on the side of too much praise is better than too little, particularly with young children. Self-esteem and “core beliefs” about one-self are built early on. The most beneficial time of unadulterated praise hedonism should be in the first few years of life. Luckily, for most parents, this comes naturally (e.g. “Look at his wee nose and those darling eyes, he’s the most beautiful baby in the world”, uttered to the most pug ugly baby you’ve ever seen). After that point, there does come a time when praise can and should be used to shape behaviour. Praise can and should be used as a reward for behaviour that parents would like to see repeated. It does not need to be reserved for the Nobel prize, a “well done for brushing your teeth without a fuss”, is more likely to ensure this is done again. Even if the reality is your kid should be doing this anyway. An attitude of “Why should I praise him for doing something he should be doing anyway?” won’t increase the likelihood that he will do it, but praise just might. Praise is one of the main tools in changing behaviour in children.
The most effective way to use praise is to be genuine about it. Then to make the praise specific to the achievement. So a “That’s a brilliant picture of me! That really looks like me, and I especially like the way that you did the bags under my eyes.” is always better than “Well done”. This is as it shows that you paid attention to exactly what was going on, makes the praise sound more genuine and also crucially sets in place exactly which behaviour was good, so that the specific behaviour can be repeated again. If you don’t believe it, think how much better you would feel if your boss said “Well done, you really understood the client on this one and I really liked the professional way that you handled their concerns and came up with an innovative solution.” rather than “Good job, thanks”. Pre-emptive praise can also be handy in influencing behaviour. If your boss said to you “Well done for always being at your desk on time every morning”, what are the chances that you’ll rock up late the next morning? So a well timed praise can help reinforce continuation of positive behaviour.
What did I do with the 8 year old boy?
Amongst other things, I taught his mother to praise. I gave her a bingo card of praises: “Well done”, “That was really good”, “Fantastic job”. I told her to channel a CBeebies presenter on uppers. We rehearsed together in clinic. This took some doing. She was asked to use all the phrases on her card in the next week, slipping them in natural conversation. Fake or forced praise, is still better than no praise, and with time, it was hoped it would become more genuine. She was asked to dedicate the 10 minutes before bedtime to praise each of her children on something good they had done that day. She was asked to encourage each of her children to praise each other.
Slowly by slowly, we can hope to bring hope.