Tiger Mothers: The Great Parenting Row

Battle of Ideas, 30th Oct 2011. Notes made by Harley Richardson.

These are my sketchy personal notes of debates at the Battle of Ideas 2011, which I attended in a personal capacity. I thought they might be of interest to folks who weren't able to attend. They're not comprehensive – I'm a fast typer but some of the speakers were faster talkers - and any quotes I give are from memory and may not be 100% accurate. I tried to capture the main points I thought each speaker was making, but if you're one of those speakers and you feel I've misrepresented you, please let me know. I've flagged up the names of questioners from the audience where I know them.

From http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2011/session_detail/5739/ The furore surrounding the publication of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother has shown the passion aroused by the question of what expectations we should have of our children, and the extreme heat generated by debates about how we should achieve those expectations. Are our aspirations for children too low nowadays? Do kids need to be pushed, and if so, by whom? Amy Chua argues parents, particularly in the West, are too liberal and too afraid of exercising their authority. By contrast, she writes, ‘The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.’ This seems reasonable and sensible enough, and yet Chua has been viciously attacked, particularly in the American press, for her particularly intensive form of parenting. Chua does attack many ideas Western parents take for granted, and can seem unnecessarily judgemental. She believes some activities are worthwhile for children - learning to play a difficult musical instrument, for example - and that others have no value – so no taking part in the school play. She believes children do not know what is best for them, and adults have a responsibility to make them do what they believe is best for them: ‘To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own will never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences’. It seems Chua has touched a raw nerve in a society in which self-esteem is prized above all else, and we are continually being told the important thing is to make our children feel accepted, respected and valued. There often seems to be an assumption that kids are so vulnerable any criticism or attempt to challenge them will damage them for ever. So should we toughen up and push our children to achieve? Or, against Chua, should we affirm the idea that giving children a bit of freedom to pursue their own interests is no bad thing? Perhaps the problem is the very fact that parenting is such a controversial issue in the first place. Some believe parents, whatever their parenting philosophy, are too intensely involved in their children’s lives today. Both Chua and her critics seem to agree that parenting is the single, key determinant of a child’s future success and happiness. But as long as children are loved and cared for, perhaps parenting styles are less important than we think?

Speakers (all parents)
Decca Aitkenhead, journalist, Guardian and G2 Stephanie Calman, writer and broadcaster, author, Confessions of a Bad Mother Founder of badmothersclub.com ('more fun than mumsnet') Tim Gill, author, No Fear: growing up in a risk-averse society Nancy McDermott, chair, Park Slope Parents, second largest parents advisory group in US; blogger, The Parenting Mystique Chair: Jane Sandeman, convenor, IOI Parents Forum

Intro (Jane Sandeman)
No policy issue these days that can't be brought back to parenting. Parents criticised for absence or overinvolvement. Riots – where are the parents? The current view of parenting is an extreme one.

Can parents win? Is there a right level of parental involvement?

Stephanie Calman
Main argument against tiger mothering is that it's very very boring and you have to find other people who are obsessed as you to talk to, as others will think you're an arse. Their parental vision ends with Yale or Harvard or Oxford. No idea of what comes after that. Tiger mothers - lives incredibly narrow. Kate Garraway: realised people using children as advertisements for their own achievements. Decided to relax. Anyway if you leave problems for a while, solution often comes. How many great achievers weren't bullied at school? We overidentify with our children – due to primacy of youth - no one wants to be middle aged - and diminshing interest in marriage – seen to be less reliable. Our role should be to bring up children who can separate.

Tim Gill
Arguing about how to bring up kids – is a way of putting blame on to parents. Parents should do a 'good enough job'... of giving kids a balanced diet of childhood experience. Includes opportunitiies to explore, play, have adventures, spread wings. Most parents support idea of giving degree of freedom. They understand there has to be a transfer of responsibility as children grow up. Amy Chua's book – effectively a memoir from a Harvard Law Professor, terrific read. She revels in the role of unreliable narrator. Self-consciousness, self-parody and exaggeration undermine what others say is her thesis. It's ultimately a tale of the failure of the Tiger Mother approach. Chua's battle with her younger daughter – daughter wins, mother backs down. Occasional glimpse of other values. Children need opportunities to feel what it's like to be a human being. As long as children aren't abused, they'll be ok. Everything else about parenting is a detail. Debates about parenting divert attention from political, technological changes that make life more difficultfor parents: deranged, institutionalised risk aversion, a planning system that fuels car dependance (and seeing the world through a windscreen), intolerence of children in public places, high stakes testing regime. We should resist the pressure and the premise that parents are in competition with each other. View role as collective, and resist attempts to put the blame on parents.

Decca Aitkenhead
Grew up in clichéd 60s liberal household, calling parents by first names, being allowed and encouraged to swear, etc. Laughed at idea that teacher was always right. Thought conventional parenting involved endless lies to children, reactionary. Now 40 year old mother of 2, still holds same ideas, but doesn't disagree with much of what Amy Chau says. Somethig odd has happened in last 30 years. Stuff her parents talked about now the mainstream. Result is

worse than the 1950s. If she had the choice, would go back to traditional approach. What happened? A lot of the progressive ideas were adopted but were misunderstood. Child-centred does not mean putting children in charge. Treating children as adults does not mean letting them do anything. Self esteem does not mean say anything they do is good. Ended up with an inversion. Doesn't think it's good that children spend all their time in front of the TV or Facebook. Parents have abdicated responsibility. There is such at thing as good or bad parenting. Everybody loves their children, that's stating the obvious If more people did good parenting, things would be better. Disagree with Amy Chua's proposed solution. A hothouse childhood might get you a good job but wil not make you happy. We should re-explore principles that people were pushing in the 60s. If a child succeeds in the Tiger Mother environment they can never claim credit for it. Self esteem is the key to everything. Self-evident. But not same thing as self-delusion or self-entitlement. Do not just get it from own achievements, do need to feel some involvement.

Nancy McDermott
Spent last decade writing for Park Slope Parents. Observed that there's some caché in being a Tiger Mother but none in being a helicopter parent. When you decide what type of parent you want to be, you're making a calculation that wasn't made in the past: If I give this child a cheese noodle, will I ruin his palette? Will he become obese? Will he have problems forming relationships? etc etc. If I do X with my child then Y will happen. Not far back in history parents didn't think in terms of long term consequences. 'Everything you do matters'. Even if you reject this, you're continually made with the choices you've having to make. In past parents worried about horror movies giving children nightmares, now they think they're going to be scarred for life. Nancy walked home from school on her own when she was six... there was a collective sense that parents would intervene if a child got into or caused trouble. Modern attitudes lead to some crazy behaviour from parents. Colleges and parents having problems getting parents to leave. Orientation programmes for parents – luring parents away from kids, getting them together with psychologist to talk about the need to let go. A practical response because parents were staying and registering children for classes, deciding which classes they should take. If children (and parents) aren't prepared for separation, you can't just do it in one big step at uni. No conduit for children becoming members of society.

Audience member: If you listen to children they want their independence. Your job is to let them have it incrementally. Gets more intense as teenagers. Audience member: Wishes he'd been forced to carry on with music studies – gave them up because didn't

enjoy them age 11. Audience member: Didn't have 'a baby', had her daughter. Parenting is a relationship. How you react to a child largely depends on who she is. Audience member: Is the most important relationship parent-child or parents-child? Audience member: Seems to be either parents have too big a role or an insignificant role. The point is to choose what's important. She's a sometimes Tiger Mum. She has more experience than her daughter and so she imposes it on her. Presence of extended family in holidays dissipates tension, kids get on with each other. Be careful about informal support, official help for parents. Tends to normalise. People do spontaneous altruistic stuff left to their own devices. Tim Gill: Collective action by parents – can't be just in holidays. Only playmates a lot of children have is their parents – and we're crap at it. Playing Out campaign (http://playingout.net/)– parents gang together to organise road closures, once a week/month so children can playing together on the street. 'Kids growing up older sooner' – bollocks, this is confusing appearance with reality. In fact we're infantilising them. Teenagers always think they know best, the problem is that parents today think it as well. One part of a balanced diet of experiences is adults telling you what's good for you. Nancy McDermott: Re music – we should think about what a well-educated person is. Once upon a time everyone 'cultured' had to know how to play a piano. So perhaps, not just down to the parents. Decca Aitkenhead: Need to push your children, make them keep trying the lessons for a little longer. Most important thing for a parent to be is on their child's side. This has been mistaken for trying to be your child's friend. Easy to get caught up by anecdotes of crazy parenting and just say 'we give up'. But a lot of parents do need help. Although New Labour idea to teach good parenting didn't work. Stephanie Calman: Originally envisaged her site as satirical, but no one read the articles, just wanted to talk to each other. Best thing you can do to help other parents is just to hang out and be their mate. Choose your battles. Tell kids they can't change what they're doing every minute... no one tells kids they have to finish stuff. Parents unable to bear kids saying 'I hate you'. Kids don't need you to teach them to do everything... Audience Member (piano teacher): Don't choose piano, it's the least sociable instrument. Can't join orchestra unless you're really good. Sally Millard (IOI Parents Forum): Street she lived on has closed a couple of times. First time was great, met neighbours, etc. Now her child complains 'why don't you ever come out and play with me?' But often if you let your kids out to

play other parents will follow. We do think children are extremely fragile. Much more important to focus on fostering independence than self-esteem. You have to gain the latter through the former. Audience member: You don't have to do everything as a child, can take up piano later with amazing results. Had to admit own daughter didn't enjoy oboe lessons, and let it go. She hasn't gone back to it, but might do as an adult. Might not be a concert instrumentalist but so what? Any of her attempts at Tiger Mothering were mediated by father's 'alternative' laissez-faire approach. Jennie Bristow (author of Standing up to Supernanny): It's a 'crisis of causality' (Furedi) – thinking that 'this leads to that'. But also a crisis of morality in parenting. Stephanie Calman: There are people who do need help. Audience member: Piano lessons cost a lot of money. There's been a lot of talking about good and bad parenting, but not about class or money. A lot of the problems parents face are down to lack of money. Audience member: Loss of extended familes is a major contributory factor to problems. Decca Aitkenhead: Self-evident that class and money come into it. Don't get self esteem by being told that something you've done is brilliant, children see straight through that. Your own achievements give you a sense of self esteem. Stephanie Calman: Also comes from people saying 'no you're wrong' or 'you can't do that'. Need boundaries. Often the most imaginative charming children had lots of boundaries. Nancy McDermott: Absolutely nothing that parents can do to solve problems of poverty. Failing schools now blamed on lack of parental involvment... so led to classes for parents to read to their children. Should decide that, no matter what a chldren's background is, we should educate them. Set collective standards for what is expected. Parents instinctively understand that unless they put pressure on their children, no one else will. Constantly underminded by various institutions and policies. Tim Gill: Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption – parents aren't the most important factor, it's the peer groups. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities. Chapter 4 about urbanism: 'The Use of Sidewalks: Assimilation of Children'. How do children become rounded citizens in big cities? Cities work to the degree to which people take modicum of responsibility for each other even if they don't know each other. Intersection of above two ideas is in morality. Get this from venturing beyond the institutions they live in. Otherwise starved of experiences of everyday morality (not just the big stuff - eg don't steal - but when to step in). The art of parenting is to learn when to turn away and let children make their own mistakes and live with the

consequences. Now seen as a bad thing. Audience member: There are bad parents out there. Is there ever a role for intervention? Audience member: State-run programmes aimed at helping parents – end up disempoweing them. Eg extreme case - taking children away from parents because not eating correct food. Audience member: Is there a trade off between academic success and general wellbeing? Are you happy to be outperformed by children from Singapore or Korea etc? Audience member: Knew one mother who lived in hall with her son. 'Tiger Cubs'. Stephanie Calman: Upsets her when children who are being massively neglected and nobody does anything because so worried about how to behave. Occasionally the state does to have to intervene. You never read about the number of kids who are saved and looked after by social workers. Parents are sheep-like – churning out party bags etc. Do your own thing. Tim Gill: Digby Jones often says 'if we aren't competittive, the Indians will take our lunch, and the Chinese will take our dinner'. Very irritating. Decca Aitkenhead: Children have grown up without work ethic – casualty of parenting culture and economy. If you hold your nerve, people tend to come round to your way of thinking. If you take responsibility for other's children, others will follow. Nancy McDermott: Fantastic that Singapore is doing well. Need to take education seriously. Not a race. Don't fetishise piano playing or reading. Yes bad parents exist. But being used as an excuse to educate all parents. Intimidation from child services. People thinking they'll get into trouble. Let's talk about the real problems.