I’m late again. It seems like I’m always late getting to and from piano lessons soccer practice, and swimming lessons. My mind is racing with everything I need to do. I’ve got emails to send, deadlines to meet and food to pick up. It feels like the list never ends. I’ve got to get some caffeine in me! I think. Maybe I even say it out loud. As my anxiety builds, my nerves become jangled and my head starts to tighten.
I look in the rear-view mirror to change lanes and catch sight of my son in the backseat. He looks so flat, empty, and lost that my heart breaks a little—maybe more than a little. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” I ask.
“Mom,” he sighs wearily, barely audible, “I don’t wanna go to piano. I just wanna go home and play.” My heart breaks a little more. My son just wants to play and be a kid, which is the way I grew up. It hits me: with all the activities, teams, camps and programs I’ve scheduled for him, I was turning my six-year-old boy into an overworked, middle-aged man.
What was going on with me? Why had I been such a tiger mom lately? You know, that authoritarian brand of parenting made famous by Amy Chua in her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?
Somehow, I had adopted that same style, even though it runs counter to nearly everything I value and believe in. Then and there in the car, and in a precious moment of clarity, I vowed to make some big changes. I was going to let my son be a kid again instead of some programmed robot. I wanted to be a human again—with vitality and joy, instead of someone running on automatic. So we ditched piano. I confess that I was probably just as thrilled as my son about this new-found freedom.
Once I realized my tiger tendencies, I had to deepen my own journey, not only into neuroscience, behavioural health and clinical practice, but also into my own intuition and deep-rooted values, to come to any conclusions about how to parent the next generation. You would think that, with my professional experience, I’d have a clear plan on how to best raise my own children.
But like so many other parents, I often feel conflicted between my intuition and my fear. If I heard that my son’s classmate won the regional spelling bee, my fear would urge me to drag my son from digging for worms on a sunny day back inside for some pre-pre-pre SAT prep—despite my intuition telling me not to.
I’ve come to believe that the activities of tiger parenting—the over-scheduling, over-instructing, over-directing, over-pushing and over-paving—do not represent “over-parenting,” as tiger parenting has also been called. They represent serious under-parenting. If parenting means preparing your children for a rich, rewarding life, then tiger parents are doing far too little rather than too much.
I don’t mean to accuse any particular parent of getting it wrong. I’m the first to admit my own tigerish behaviours. What I want to emphasize is that there’s good news for all of us. Parents don’t have to be control freaks or treat their children like fragile royalty. They don’t have to choose between a low-achieving happy child or a high-achieving miserable child.
I know it’s possible for children to be balanced in this very imbalanced world—to be smart and happy, competitive and principled, practical and passionate. To be skilled and grounded, safe and independent, persistent and innovative, ambitious and altruistic. Yet, this balance can’t be achieved if children are not of healthy mind, body and spirit.
The key ingredients our kids need are creativity, critical thinking, strong social skills, positive character and the ability to adapt. All children should have the opportunity to excel, have a sense of well-being and to be fulfilled with a life that has meaning for them. I think we would see a lot more children grow up into well-balanced adults, depending on how we choose to parent them if this were so.
The three areas of parenting that I believe are greatly undervalued and absolutely necessary for success and happiness in the 21st century include: the world of play and exploration, the importance of community and contribution, and the necessity for self-motivation rather than external motivation (which comes from outside the individual, such as awards and money).
The tiger metaphor has become part of the vocabulary of many parents. I’m hoping to give the dolphin its due. Dolphins have a lot to teach us. They are, after all, known for their intelligence, social nature, joyfulness and sense of community. By tapping into our inner dolphins, my hope is to inspire a global community of parents to value a balance between structured activities and unstructured play, between competition and community spirit, and between protection and independence.
I also wish to encourage parents who are driving their children from the outside to give children the opportunity to develop their own strong, healthy self-motivation.
All of this is actually simple and easy as long as we tame that tiger within. So, if you’ve ever looked into your rear-view mirror and known in your heart that your son or daughter would be better off just playing than strapped in and hurried off to yet another lesson, it’s okay. It’s not too late to turn the car around.