Forget pushy parenting – it's time to set your child free
A new book argues that building character, not achieving goals, is what's really best for our children. Judith Woods reports
Stop all the tutors, cut off the extra science, prevent the child from playing Maths Whizz on your laptop. Silence the violas and ground all helicopter mothers for hothousing is no more.
A provocative new childrearing book, How Children Succeed, is sweeping America and devastating the pushiest parents, who are being told, in no uncertain terms, that they are doing more harm than good.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough has given pause to the seemingly inexorable march of Tiger Mothers.
According to Tough, who has investigated everything from neuroscience to educational psychology to discover the true predictors of high achievement, as a society we are so preoccupied by exam results that we are not bringing out the best in our children.
Even as we ferry them to ballet classes and revision lessons, we are failing them, because what they need in order to shine is emotional nurturing and parental attention – not outsourcing.
It isn't top grades, but a bedrock of solid, loving relationships that will provide them with the foundations for success – which some of us find especially gratifying, as love is free, whereas a tutor costs €35 an hour.
Data gathered from studies shows that while there is a clear link between IQ and academic success, the correlation between high achievement and the character traits of conscientiousness and self-discipline is even more pronounced.
Due to be published over here in January, How Children Succeed advocates what, to many modern parents, is the unthinkable: giving children the opportunity to take risks and to fail.
Tough says in his introduction: "We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills."
The skills he cites include "grit, zest, social intelligence, gratitude and optimism".
Pushy middle-class parents, he posits, are likely to be emotionally distant from their children. That chasm, combined with pressure to achieve top-of-the-class status, leads to a "potentially toxic" blend that leads to feelings of shame and hopelessness.
Tough's approach may be considered radical across the Atlantic, but over this side of the pond, the pendulum has already started to swing back towards more perceptive parenting.
In his book, Love Bombing: Reset Your Child's Emotional Thermostat, psychologist Oliver James argues that we need radically to rethink how we treat our offspring, particularly in troubled times.
"Love bombing entails spending a period of time alone with your child, offering them unlimited love and control," says James.
"This is not the same as 'quality time' – just hanging out with your child. When you love bomb, you create a special emotional zone wholly different from normal life, with new rules."
James stresses that love bombing aims to make a child feel central and centred; they decide on the activity and feel empowered.
"I have lots of examples of children who were underperforming at school and who went to see educational psychologists and were tested for dyslexia and had their cognitive capabilities measured and remeasured," says James.
"But after the parents tried love bombing, the children felt loved and in control and started to achieve more."
In How Children Succeed, Tough opines that cultivating self-knowledge and self-confidence is crucial in bringing up free-thinkers who can meet challenges creatively.
"I've never signed up for this idea that if parents push hard and long enough, their children will be propelled to the top of the pile," says Tamsin Kelly, mother of three and editor of the parenting website Parentdish.co.uk.
She believes most parents would agree with Tough's notion of letting your children know that you love them always, while allowing them to get on with making their own successes and mistakes.
"That's certainly the way many of us were brought up," says Kelly. "My mother wouldn't have dreamt of checking my homework, and neither would I for my children.
"That doesn't mean I don't care about them or have high expectations of them, it just means I think they will get to where they want to be by themselves and nagging won't get them there any quicker."
Children need a mix of nurturing and pushing, boundaries and freedom. Finding that balance is seldom easy.
"Some children really enjoy independence and it improves their maturity. Others can't cope with it and go off the rails," says professor of psychology Frank Furedi. "Flexibility is a key attribute of parenting; knowing when to let go and when to pull a child back into line."
If anything is to be learnt, perhaps, it's that all parents – and I include myself – should spend less time poring over how-to manuals and more time just tuning into their instincts.