Liz Fraser discovers how to be an encouraging parent without turning into a tiger mum
From the moment our children are conceived our heads become filled with a constant stream of worry. Are they growing enough, eating enough, talking enough, learning enough, sleeping enough..? And before they’ve learned to say, ‘Mum, that’s enough!’ we are already worrying about one of the biggest modern parenting worries of all – are they doing enough?
Which leads, of course, to another worry – are they doing too much?
This fine line between idleness and overkill causes no end of grief for many well-meaning parents. While few of us want our kids to sit around doing nothing all day, on the other side of the line lurks the dreaded, often vilified pushy parent, whose exhausted, burned-out children are already signed up to chess classes, Spanish lessons and Taekwondo before they’re even born.
The undisputed queen of pushy parents is the American author and academic Amy Chua, whose book The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother caused no end of controversy. It charts how Chua raised her daughters the hard-line Chinese way, where no amount of music practice was too much and no academic achievement too great. Striving to be the best was the only option; punishment was severe, and little, if any, praise was given for successes. It caused uproar among ‘Western’ parents, who accused Chua of unkindness and even cruelty. Some suggested her methods could cause psychological trauma and rob children of their childhoods.
But who is right? Isn’t it the duty of any good parent to encourage their children to achieve the very best they can, to teach them the value of working hard and striving to be the best they can be? Or is all of this ‘encouragement’ merely pushing children beyond their limits, exhausting them and creating huge amounts of dissatisfaction and stress?
‘When parents find that their child’s schedule is so full that it doesn’t allow any time for unstructured play, then they are pushing their child too much,’ says Dr Marilyn Wedge, a family therapist with more than 20 years’ experience. ‘In our goal-oriented culture, parents often forget the value of free play in the learning process. Studies show that children who are pushed into academics in the pre-school years later fall behind their peers who attended play-oriented pre-schools. Young children learn important things through play, such as social skills and problem-solving.’
This apparent ‘doing nothing’ time, or play time, is not wasted time at all. In fact, it’s when some of our most formative, important thoughts can occur. Just look at Archimedes. He didn’t discover his principle about weight and water displacement while cramming for a physics exam. No, he was lying in a bath – or so the story goes – when his free, wandering mind had its famous eureka moment, and off he went, running down the street naked. (Oh for some YouTube footage of that!)
Similarly, penicillin was discovered by accident, when Alexander Fleming noticed something peculiar about bacterial growth as part of a completely different experiment. Had he not had the time to stop, think and ask why, then antibiotics might never have been discovered. And most of the best poetry, music, literature and art was created while staring out of a window dreaming, or drinking, or being very depressed – or all three. But certainly not by being forced into it.
I met Amy Chua on a television talk show last year, and was surprised to find her charming, and even friendly. No tiger claws here, just an intelligent, driven woman who wanted to raise her children according to the beliefs and values that she herself had been raised with. In her eyes, and in the eyes of all pushy parents, those who let their children watch The X Factor instead of documentaries, have lie-ins instead of going to hockey practice, read ‘trashy’ books instead of literary fiction, are inexcusably lazy and should be ashamed of how they are letting our children down. I see their point, but they are missing a far greater one – the importance of balance.
For my book A Spoonful of Sugar, I interviewed my grandmother about her experiences of motherhood and asked her what she thought the most valuable thing about childhood was. With her strong academic background, I expected the answer to be ‘work, study and achievement’. I was so wrong. ‘Time,’ she said. ‘Time, and the freedom to think, learn and dream. Childhood is not about shoving everything in. It’s about drawing the potential out of a child, and you can’t force that.’
My father, a professor at Oxford University, surprised me as well. ‘Childhood is for staring at clouds,’ he said. ‘Then you can start to think, and ask, “What is a cloud? How does it form? Where is it going? What is it made of?” And then you can go and find out, and discover how fantastic it is to learn. Not by being pushed but by asking questions, and wanting to know the answers.’
I try to remember this, and to let my three children, who between them do six dance classes, seven sport sessions and nine music lessons, orchestra and choir practices a week (because they want to, not because I make them), have time to watch Strictly, to have sleepovers with friends, watch DVDs and play computer games… and do nothing.
It’s all about balance.
As Dr Wedge says, ‘Parents have to think carefully about what they really want for their child’s future. Do they want their child to have a happy, well-balanced life, or do they want her to be successful at all costs, even if this makes her anxious or depressed?’ I’m not sure any of us gets it right but, for me, pushing my children all the way to the top is certainly not the best way to get them there.
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