Tiger Parenting: How to loosen the tight reins on your children
Anna Tyzack meets the driven mother who has decided to rein in her pushy behaviour and instead prioritise her daughters’ emotional well-being.
Tanith Carey can spot a tiger mother a mile off. The parenting author was one herself, settling her newborn baby in front of Baby Einstein DVDs to stimulate her tiny brain and investing in expensive educational toys.
From the age of six her oldest daughter Lily, now 12, was being tutored once a week and learning Mandarin Chinese and ballet. “I firmly believed that I could turn my child into a genius if I put enough work into it,” Carey explains.
But Lily didn’t play ball. Despite Carey’s best efforts, she became increasingly withdrawn, complaining that she was “rubbish” at her schoolwork. Frustrated that her once bubbly daughter was pushing her away, Carey, who is married to journalist Anthony Harwood and has another daughter, Clio, nine, consulted an education specialist who told her that she was the problem, not Lily.
“She warned me that Lily was internalising everything I said and felt very criticised by me,” she says. “She’s a sensitive child and imposing my own motivations on her wasn’t helping.”
In her new book, Taming the Tiger Parent, Carey describes how damaging competitive parenting can be, and shows tiger mothers and fathers how to shed their stripes and rebuild relationships with their children.w Her advice provides an antidote to the heavy-handed techniques of the original tiger mother, Amy Chua, described in her book Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother.
Chua would hover next to her daughter, Louisa, as she practised the violin for two hours every evening, threatening to burn her soft toys if she played a wrong note. Carey, meanwhile, whose daughters also play the violin — I arrive at their house in London to the sound of Lily’s scales wafting from upstairs — now trusts them to practise on their own. “Lily doesn’t need me to be there watching over her all the time. I let her develop her own motivation rather than imposing mine,” she says.
Her book encourages parents to prioritise their child’s emotional wellbeing over academic achievement. Unlike Chua, who considers children to be tough enough to cope with harsh criticism, Carey stresses the importance of building a child’s resilience to cope with the pressures of school and exams. “You don’t want them believing that their parents love them more when they do well and less when they don’t,” she says.
Competitive parenting is infectious; Carey first realised this when Lily was two and she was pushing her on a swing in a playground. “I was reciting a letter of the alphabet for her to repeat each time I pushed and a few minutes later I noticed a father had started doing exactly the same thing with his toddler,” she says.
Most tiger parents are slicker than this and will go to great lengths to conceal the fact that their beloved is receiving extra coaching, giving the impression that their child is just naturally brilliant. “We all saw how Amy Chua was vilified — it’s uncool to be a tiger mother,” she says.
This doesn’t stop us, though. Aware that children need great academic results to get into the best schools, universities and careers, some regard parenting as a race and their offspring’s grades as their responsibility. “I was horrified to discover my children’s nursery classmates had been playing with the same educational toys and watching the same Baby Einstein DVDs,” Carey admits.
The most dedicated tiger parents monitor “rival” children on the sly, rifling through book bags while sharing the school run to gauge which Biff and Chip book they’re on. “One mother gave Lily a spelling test on a playdate,” Carey recalls.
By training children to compete, parents damage their relationships with other parents and compromise their home life as they scurry to take their offspring to various activities, rarely spending time together as a family. “How fondly are our children going to remember their childhoods if they’re going from one activity and tutor session to the next?” Carey says. “With competitive power plays, you ruin the experience of parenting for yourself and force your child to work harder and harder.”
With a more pastoral approach, Carey now enjoys a happy and healthy relationship with both daughters. In her book she suggests parents spend time alone with their children away from the pressures of school — a technique called “lovebombing” — and underlines the importance of good time-managing skills to allow for fun and relaxation as well as homework.
“Children shouldn’t be working until 10pm and getting up at 6am; if they can’t complete their homework in the designated time then there’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” she says, urging parents to think twice before drafting in tutors – who can actually harm a child’s confidence.
As she sought to repair her relationship with Lily, she cut down on her extra-curricular activities and worked at finding her “spark”, a subject, sport or activity that came naturally to her. “It could have been anything; it just happened to be the violin,” she explains. “She’s made friends through playing, and went on a chamber music camp this summer which she said was the best week of her life.”
She also focused on maintaining a comfortable and calm environment for her children out of school. “The home can become very tense with parents working around the clock as well as worrying about children’s education,” she says. “When I de-stressed and did less work, I became less panicky and reactive to Lily’s performance. The atmosphere in our home calmed down.”
By widening their definition of success, parents are more likely to help their children become happy, thriving adults, according to Carey. “We all value the same jobs and universities, which is putting too much pressure on the system,” she says. “What about creativity and individualism? The last thing we need is a generation of cookie-cutter people who all do the same thing.”
Five warning signs that you are a tiger parent
1 When you see another youngster do well, is your first question to yourself: “Why can’t my son/daughter do that?”
2 Are you very nervous before a child’s exam, match or parents’ evening?
3 Have you ever inflated your child’s achievements to other parents?
4 Do you lack meaningful relationships with other parents?
5 Do you turn things into a competition for your children when they don’t need to be, like “Who’s cleaned their plate first?”
How to retract your claws
Ask yourself what you’re competing over and why.
Take the High Road
Just because another parent is talking fondly about their child doesn’t mean your child isn’t good at that particular thing, too.
Be Sparing with your advice
When friends express concerns about their children, restrain yourself from rushing in with comparisons and solutions.
Silence the parenting voice
The smug – usually loud – parenting voice when talking to our kids in public gives competitive parents an even worse reputation.
Don’t showboat your child’s skills
Treating them like a show pony sends them a dangerous message.
Competitive parents come up with many ways to excuse their behaviour.
Separate child and achievements
Get some perspective: we don’t need children to bring home certificates to validate our worth as parents.
Be the best parent
By raising a balanced, self-accepting child, not one who is superficially successful.
Realise we are in this together
Your child will never be happy or secure if you raise them with the idea that it’s them against the world.
Get a pet
Pets can teach children about responsibility and unconditional love. They get children and parents out of the house, reduce cortisol levels and release feelgood endorphins.