IN 2011 a Yale law professor wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a clarion call on raising children to succeed. The controversial bestselling parenting bible detailed Amy Chua’s threats to punish her two daughters — including burning their soft toys — if they didn’t do well at school or keep up piano practice.
The tough-love approach delivered impressive results: her eldest daughter performed in Carnegie Hall aged 14, the second got straight As.
Now the British prime minister David Cameron wants parents to take a leaf out of Chua’s book and to raise the bar for children.
“Character — persistence — is core to success,” he said in a speech last week. “Children thrive on high expectations: it is how they grow in school and beyond.”
He even went as far as to suggest parenting classes for all.
But it is it fair to expect parents to adopt a results-based approach to rearing their children? And will pushing children to extremes only serve to distance them from their parents?
Yet without setting standards for children are we are at risk of accepting mediocrity and failure?
It’s widely acknowledged that values such as discipline and endurance are key to our success in life. So are we letting our children down by not pushing them to do their best through hours of practice?
Olive Fogarty, director of eumom.ie, doesn’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“Styles of parenting are as varied as there as families,” she says. “And often can even vary for different children within the same family, as it does with my own kids.”
But surely children thrive when parents have high expectations? “I think it depends on the age and stage of the child. In my own experience as a mum, younger children need to be taught how to participate and play as a group or a team. So when kids are small participating is more important than winning.
“Then as they develop, and especially if a child shows a talent or interest in a particular sport or hobby, I would support them wholeheartedly in improving or competing in this area.
“Equally in school, from first class onwards — I would regularly keep an eye on test results but not in a Tiger way. It’s all about balance.”
She believes that every parent wants their children to do well, to achieve the full potential, and to learn resilience. However there is a danger, she says of being labeled as either “a tiger mum or a total parenting pushover” with nothing in between and missing the nuances and complexity of modern parenting.
Parenting coach Val Mullally agrees that children thrive on challenges but warns of vicarious parenting or “trying to live our own dreams through our children, instead of supporting them to grow into their uniqueness and fullness”.
“Children are more likely to believe they are able when they get the message through our actions, as well as our words, that we think they are capable,” she says.
“But sometimes our high expectations are about our need to look good as parents, rather than about the child’s needs. Think about the child who tells her parent she has 95% for her test and the response she receives is, ‘What about the other 5%?’
“A parent might think that is motivating the child to work harder, but it’s far more likely to discourage a child. The child may get the message that they are only seen for what they do, not for who they are — that ‘Me being me isn’t good enough’.”
Rather than focussing on hard work, parents need to focus on concentration and effort to develop their potential, says child therapist Helen Sholdice.
“A parent’s attitude toward their child is the vital ingredient here,” she says. “At birth, children come full of potential. How they are nurtured, loved and responded to in their early years is crucial to how they develop in later years.”
Yes children thrive on high expectation but only if it’s child-centred, she says. “Children do not thrive if parents are pushing their own agenda. Wanting children to study hard, do well in exams, play a musical instrument and excel in sports are worthy values, but they must be tempered by a knowledge of a child’s own desire to move ahead and this must be accommodated in the parents’ mind.”
Encouraging children to compete at a young age is not a good starting point. “Children are made to compete when they are unable, developmentally to cope with the feeling of failure. We must help them develop inner resilience so that as they grow up, they can manage the feeling of not always succeeding,” says Shouldice.
Few parents will argue against going to classes to improve their skills but what about the line between theory and practice? Val Mulally says the focus needs to be on the parents.
“A helpful parenting course is not about giving advice but rather it is a facilitated group where members are perceived as intelligent, mature adults interacting together to reflect on what their children, and what they themselves, need to thrive.
“Courses that tell parents what to do and how they should do it are not going to be helpful.”
Shouldice echoes this point.“In my experience, the best parenting advice is advice that is sought voluntarily by parents. No amount of compulsory parenting courses will change a parents’ attitude unless they seek the change themselves.”
Instead of following results-focussed parenting manuals, which put children under pressure to perform, Mulally suggests we consider the words of poet Kahlil Gibran:
‘Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.’