Feb 17, 2011

Five Tips for a Prospective Tiger Parent

From Picassa
My sister mentioned that her son seems to be consuming a lot of food these days. At 5 months, that either means a physical growth spurt or a new developmental milestone. I like to think it's because I have been coaching him to crawl.

"Can't you do nap-coaching or sit-up-coaching instead?" my sister pleaded, dreading the baby-proofing that will be required when he becomes mobile. But since I only see him every few months, I have to work on the more advanced stuff. He's already getting better at napping and sitting up, so we have to raise the bar again. Crawling seems an appropriate goal.

My sister will come to terms with her son's fast-paced learning. After all, we are both children of Tiger parents (as Amy Chua has coined) -- parents who pushed us to achieve all that we could.

I haven't read the book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) in detail, but from the many "excerpts out of context", I feel that I need to offer advice to those who wonder if they can be a successful Tiger Parent. It certainly has influenced how I teach computer science and engineering to my college students and in-service teachers.

  1. Believe in your child's ability. In my post, Help Them Believe, I mentioned that a teacher needs to help children believe they can do it. However, that belief must start within the teachers (or parents) themselves. This is what Amy Chua alludes to with the Tiger image. As a Tiger parent, you must believe that your child is capable of great things. I recall my father-in-law's words after he saw his new granddaughter: "She's the prettiest baby ever." The pride was not surprising to me, but the words were. If it were my parents, they would have said "She's so smart; she lifted her head up in one week!" To them (true Tiger Parents), their children would be smart to do anything. The words you say to your child will make them believe that they can (or can't) do something, so make sure what you say reflects what you believe.
  2. Remember that it takes time. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of anything. There is no shortcut. Some of that time can be optimized with coaching. With two working parents, Mom and Dad had to make their hours with me count. It was not uncommon for us to be working together on math problems, practicing skills with games, and discussing why things worked the way they did. Eventually, I worked on my own, proud to be able to continue without them and stepping that much closer to becoming the "grown up" I wanted to be. Maria Montessori, who developed the Montessori system of education, realized that children at a very young age want to emulate the adults in their lives. Practical tasks such as setting the table, preparing a meal, and organizing a room give them a sense of self-worth as well as develop essential skills and intellectual growth. Use your time wisely to encourage the hard work needed to get your child to mastery levels.

  3. Share your passion. My sister's thoughts on being a Tiger Mother hints at another element required of a Tiger Parent: passion. My sister, as an author, admits she would be sorely disappointed if her son did not love to read. But, as my literacy education colleague noted, she's on the right track. While reading to a child helps with literacy, it is essential that the child sees you reading. This can be generalized to whatever you want your child to learn -- reading, math, sports, or figuring how things work). As a budding Tiger Parent, I would advise you to use your child's desire to emulate you while you can. My husband became a master chopper at the age of 3 because he wanted to help his father clear the grounds for their new house. His father armed him with a small hatchet, a short lesson in safety, and a small collection of trees that were his responsibility. The skills, success, and confidence learned from this experience stick with him today as an engineer.
  4. Don't be afraid to be sneaky. My sister-in-law questioned me recently on how my parents got me to work on math for hours on my own. I have to admit that I was tricked. Mom and Dad allowed me to stay up 15-20 minutes later than normal if I spent that time working with them on math. My sister-in-law exclaimed, "That's so sneaky!" followed promptly by the observation that her daughter would probably "fall for it." She reported recently that "Operation Sneaky Mom" worked with great success -- with her daughter willingly doing 20 minutes of mathematics. The secret is that not only does your child want to be like you, he or she wants to be with you. You are their rock star - so like any good groupie, your child savors every moment spent with you. Don't be afraid to use this hero-worship to "trick" your children into doing things that are beneficial. They will thank you later.
  5. Remember, it's not about tough parenting, it's about being a parent. You are an adult who has a world of skills, experience, and wisdom to share, in that order. In the early years, your job is to provide your child with skills. They can do well at math, reading, learning -- you can help them learn. Elementary school is not the time to share insecurities you may have -- like the time that you froze on a math test or when you couldn't figure out how to multiply. If you don't know it now, learn it now (you can do it!) and present it as a given to your child. Now is a time to be strong for your child; time to be a Tiger. When your child ages, and the teen years reveal shades of gray, you can share your experience and wisdom about school, struggles, and confidence as appropriate. But remember, sharing is to help your child, not help you feel better. When I was struggling in graduate school, Mom shared with me her own tough times, but more importantly, she shared how she grew from them. The stories' purpose was to help me work through my situation, not to make her feel better about her own self-worth. I am not her therapist; if anything, she is mine. She has always been a pillar for me to lean on when I need her, but not a crutch. This is the role of a Tiger Parent.

I'm not quite sure why the nation is inflamed with Amy Chua's book. It's just another parenting book, with a bit more drama in its presentation. But if you've read any Chinese classics, the literary tradition is based in hyperbole as evidenced by all Chinese movies ending in death (as my martial arts colleagues point out).
It's hard for those who haven't grown up with these exaggerations to understand the way a Chinese parent motivates their children. We are constantly bombarded with "extreme stories" of love and consequence: girls who dressed up as men to fight in their father's place (Mulan) and boys who studied to pass the exams and become city magistrates. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jen realizes by the end that her own selfish desires brings sorrow and pain to those around her. The hyperbole is a way to say "Hey, wake up, this is serious!"I feel lucky that Mom and Dad were transparent about the fact that they were speaking from their own Chinese cultural background. Dad's favorite response to my whining about a seemingly strict decision was "We are not like other people." I certainly had my rebellious issues as a teen, but as an adult, a teacher and a pseudo-parent to my students, I realize now what they were really doing with the stories and the demands. I also appreciate the strength and clarity that had to be Tigers for my sister and me despite the struggles they faced themselves personally.

I think my nephew will turn out okay, despite the Tiger personalities in his family.
I have every confidence he will crawl; he's smart enough to figure it out. I will supplement his day care practice time with coaching on some of the essential elements of crawling (like keeping hands in front of his body, not flailing out like he's superman). I share my passion for "mobilating on all fours" by crawling around him. I exclaim loudly and pat him enthusiastically when he does a key essential piece on his own which motivates him to do it again. And I keep reminding him through body language and voice inflection that this is something that is just done. No angsting or wondering if it's possible, worthwhile, or fun. Crawling is to be done, not debated.So endeth the lesson.

Related links: