Resisting the tiger

Matt Davidson, of the Institute for Excellence and Ethics, today posted a thoughtful response to the current polarized discussion about childrearing that’s resulted from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With thanks to Matt, we excerpt below his five suggestions for a different vision of parenting, drawn from the Institute’s work on developing “intentional cultures” of excellence and ethics. Our own focus on deliberate practice draws us particularly to his remarks in #2, #3, and #4.

1. Love your children as an end, not a means. Don’t use them to achieve your hopes and dreams—past or future. Don’t play them as pawns in your game of social climbing and competition.  Love them—with their unique personalities and temperaments, with their unique talents and abilities, and with all their unique character strengths and weaknesses.

2. View life as resistance training.  Developing the mind, body, and soul of a child is fundamentally about developing muscles. Consider your job as teacher and coach one of structuring just the right amount of resistance to keep your child’s muscles in a healthy tension, so they grow, develop, and are prepared for greater challenges. Don’t hurt them by piling on too much; don’t hurt them by taking the weight off every time they sweat or complain or hurt. Is this teacher or coach or boss hurting my child? Or stretching their muscles?  If someone is hurting them intellectually, physically, or emotionally, by all means it is your duty to intervene. But if your child is simply unhappy, uncomfortable, or simply unfamiliar with the way their muscles are being challenged, support them, encourage them, stay close to them—but don’t rescue them. Viewed as resistance training, helicopter parenting and Tiger Parenting are equally detrimental to development. It’s not about being mean or tough, easy or loving; it’s about promoting development. Promoting development requires knowing when and how to change your style and approach given the particular child and situation.

3. Stop looking at the scoreboard at the game and start paying attention to practice field. Too many parents are looking at the outcomes and wishing and hoping and worrying. Forget about the grades, the test scores, the final score or final standing. It’s not that those outcomes don’t matter. They do. But what matters more are the habits for excellence that you are creating each day. The research on deliberate practice (and lots of other very solid research on talent development, motivation, and the cultivation of expertise) indicates that if we teach our children to practice with focus, intensity, and consistency, if we teach them to find the will to start and the grit to stick with it, if we help them seek capable coaching and constructive critique—then our children will (1) reach their potential for excellence, (2) do just fine as measured by the “scoreboards of life.” Replace “did you win?” “Did you beat?” and “How do you rank?” with “Did you do your best?” “Did you improve and grow?” “Did you push outside your comfort zone?” The rest will take care of itself.

4. Form in your children an ethical conscience and a conscience of craft. In writing on the formation of conscience, Thomas Greene introduced these distinctions; our children need both. Our current economic struggles are a perfect storm of poorly formed ethical conscience—greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, dishonesty—and poorly formed conscience of craft—shoddy craftsmanship, lack of work ethic, lack of thrift, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The “three A’s of performance and moral character” (originally in our Smart & Good report) provide a self-inventory to help ensure that we develop an ethical conscience (an internal sense of right and wrong) and a conscience of craft (an internal sense of what it means to do our work well).

5. Develop the whole person. It’s an over-used cliché—but it’s still true. So many years ago Aristotle argued that happiness was the goal of a life well lived. Regardless of the parent, I truly believe that happiness is what they desire for their children. However misguided their processes, this is their desired outcome. In order to help our children achieve happiness we must build in them a diversified portfolio of assets: they need to be able to develop positive and productive relationships; communicate and collaborate with efficiency and effectiveness; manage priorities and stress; commit to high standards and continuous improvement; demonstrate emotional intelligence, integrity and responsibility; exhibit creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving; lead and serve others; and live a balanced, purposeful, and fulfilling life.

“The single greatest thing we can do for the educational and economic prosperity of this country is to raise our children well,” Matt concludes. “All the talk of Tiger Parenting brought the discussion back to the forefront; I hope that it does not distract and polarize. We simply must recommit, beginning at home, to intentionally building the culture of excellence and ethics.”