Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Wisdom of Letting Kids Fail

I think that many Americans have known for a long time that indulgent, Helicopter-style parenting leads to entitled children. Of course, when it’s spelled out that way, the truth seems implicit and obvious, but it’s a truth that’s been lost on a generation of middle class parents who only wanted their children to avoid all of the discomforts that they experienced, and to have all of the advantages that they never had. While that sentiment is certainly one that anyone can empathize with, it seems like we’ve finally reached a point where public angst over the consequences of entitlement has boiled over into the mainstream. Whether in the form of Amy Chua’s strident promotion of the other extreme, or my own endorsement of a more balanced approach, a growing chorus of voices is arguing that children need not and should not be sheltered from adversity.

The latest proponent of this view is Lori Gottlieb of The Atlantic, who argues in “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy” that over-attentive, coddling parents are, despite their best intentions, destroying their kids’ chances at a normal life by being too concerned with their short-term emotional well-being and never letting them experience failure. By the time these children become adults, they’ve become so attuned to the implied message that they’re entitled to a perfect life that they have trouble dealing with normal, everyday levels of adversity. Because their Helicopter parents always praised them for the slightest accomplishments, and allowed them to quit their sports or musical instruments as soon as they lost interest, they never developed the drive and perseverance necessary to succeed in the real world.

These points are very similar to the ones I made in Our Entitled Children: An American Tiger Mom’s Story, and I’m glad that more and more parents are coming around to the idea that the more you shelter your children, the worse off both of you will be when they grow up. But while lots of attention plus low expectations is indeed a toxic mixture, I disagree with Ms. Gottlieb that the problem is too much parenting and emotional support in general. That’s sliding dangerously close to Tiger Mom territory. Rather than backing off and becoming less “attuned” to their children’s needs, I think that parents just need to refocus their energies on more productive avenues. You can and should support their hobbies and interests, but also make it clear that once they start something, they have to finish it. Praise their effort and give them abundant love and support, but also set and enforce high academic standards. Let them have the things that they really want if you can afford them, as long as you teach them how to save and earn money so they can buy it themselves in the future. In short, it’s ok to be attentive to your children’s needs as long as you balance it out with high expectations. And yes, let them experience failure once in a while, and they'll see that it's not the end of the world.

That’s how an American Tiger Mom does it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What to do About "Boomerang" College Graduates?

Summer has traditionally been a time of pride and optimism for new college graduates and their parents. But these days, when college seems less like a gateway to a bright and lucrative future and more like a temporary break from living at home, graduation can be a somewhat anticlimactic experience.

Even amidst signs that the job market for recent grads is improving, unemployment for people in their early 20’s still stands at almost 15%. Faced with such discouraging prospects, as many as 80% of this year’s graduates will be moving back home. Not only will this increased burden almost certainly hurt their parents’ retirement plans, it can also lead to vexing delays in the normal maturation process that 20-somethings go through as they learn to take care of and be responsible for themselves. Parents are often frustrated to find that the supposed grown-ups who come back are not too different from the entitled teenagers that they sent off to college.

These “boomerang kids” might seem to be the ultimate vindication for those who would proudly call themselves Tiger Moms. After all, the very reason that Tiger Moms are harsh disciplinarians, don’t allow a lot of freedom or choice, and relentlessly push for academic excellence is so that their children will have secure futures, and ultimately, happy ones. But upon graduation, many of these “Paper Tigers” run into limits of a different sort. Having grown accustomed to a lifelong paradigm where good grades automatically translate to success, these kids often find themselves entering unrewarding careers and resenting their scant prospects of advancement. They and their Tiger Moms realize too late that the endless drilling of rote knowledge was no replacement for being taught how to be creative, proactive, and ambitious.

In my new book Our Entitled Children: An American Tiger Mom’s Story, I introduce the concept of the American Tiger Mom to describe a mom who emphasizes the instilling of these traits, along with independence and personal responsibility, within her children. The American Tiger Mom is more than just a sensible compromise between the ferocious Tiger Mom and the indulgent, permissive Helicopter Mom. She is a mom whose one simple, overarching goal is to endow her children with the skills and knowledge to go off into the world at age 18 and experience a future with no limits.

In my experience, the single most effective way to work toward that goal is to encourage your teenager to do an original Project outside the classroom. A Project can take many forms, as long as it reflects your teen’s passions and aspirations; my own daughters’ Projects involved building a hydrogen fuel cell and starting a nonprofit for alternative fuels. Not only did Projects help them get into their dream schools of Stanford and Claremont McKenna, as well as obtain 80% of the scholarships they applied for, it also gave them a wealth of insight into what careers they were best suited for. If every young adult gained that kind of insight, it would eliminate a lot of the doubt and indecision that normally comes with life in and after college. They would have the skills and knowledge to take control of their lives after graduation, saving themselves a lot of time, and their parents a lot of money.