Monday, November 7, 2011

How to be an American Tiger Mom

Only extremely gifted children are capable of thriving regardless of their circumstances. For the rest of us, raising children to realize their full potential requires 18 years of proactive, creative, and dedicated parenting. My daughters were no exception. My husband and I are normal people of average intelligence, so Nicole and Jaclyn certainly didn’t get any super genes from us. How, then, did they get accepted to the most selective colleges in the country? Personal drive and tenacity.

Instilling these values within my girls has been my life’s work, and it wasn’t always easy. Because we were raising them in sunny, laid-back Santa Cruz, where terms like "First Place" are frowned upon, I found it especially difficult to ensure that they received a strong academic foundation. But I wanted to give my daughters the best. Despite the dispiriting state of education here in America, I’m not the type to sit back and blame others for our system’s lousy outcomes, nor was I about to let my daughters become just another statistic.

When Nicole was two, I decided to start a preschool program for her, which got a lot of raised eyebrows from other moms. At a time when other children were only encouraged to play, with the understanding that learning to read was something that would happen once they got to kindergarten, I found that both Nicole and Jaclyn enjoyed playing educational games that taught reading, math, and science readiness skills at an early age. They adored their preschool program, and the joy that they got from mastering these early challenges stoked the love of learning that all children are born with. Encouraged by these successes, I invited other children to join the program so they could play together and learn to socialize.

Eventually, Nicole started kindergarten at a private school, where she enjoyed the social interaction but was bored with the academics. One day, she asked why she learned more at home than she did in school. Realizing that I had no good answer for her, I decided then to start my own private school – Merit Academy – for my daughters. Once again, they thrived in the small classes of 3 to 6 students. As the director of the school, I was able to tweak the curriculum to meet their exact needs. They studied grammar, history, literature, and math at an accelerated rate, and were writing research papers by third grade. Once they’d reached high school, I reduced the class size to just one student so they would be able to engage with their teachers without the limitations of peer pressure.

My daughters and their classmates got an incredibly rich education at Merit, which not only consisted of individually tailored lectures, comprehensive research papers, and opportunities to acquire in-depth knowledge, but also included frequent field trips all over the world for them and their teachers. Most importantly, I designed their curriculum so that by the time they turned 18, they would have the academic, social, business, and professional skills to become anything they wanted. The girls helped me design the classes, and each trimester, they would select their own courses and teachers. While all of this may sound extravagant, it didn't cost me a penny because the costs of running the school were covered by the other students' tuition.

The girls were already flourishing at this point, but as Merit Academy’s college advisor, I encouraged each student to further demonstrate their creativity, initiative, and tenacity by doing an original, independent project. Nicole's first project was building a hydrogen fuel cell, and Jaclyn's was starting a videography business. Developing these projects on their own was the ultimate step to the girls’ empowerment. They had to learn how to overcome real-world obstacles, communicate with adults, and manage their time by balancing their multiple dance classes with their academic load.

Each success only further bolstered their confidence. By the time they’d started to apply to colleges, they both had four-page resumes that included the businesses and non-profits they’d started, the articles and books they’d published, and the research they’d conducted. Not only did they breeze through their college interviews with all of the interesting stories they had to share, they also received 80% of the scholarships they applied for. Nicole is currently in her third year at Stanford Medical School and Jaclyn has accepted a job offer as a newly-minted graduate of Claremont McKenna College.

While I certainly did my best to give my daughters everything (within reason), I’m no Helicopter Mom; I neither tried to protect them from failure nor did any of their work for them. Likewise, I might seem like a Tiger Mom on the surface, given how actively and fiercely I was involved with their education, but that label doesn’t fit either. My girls had the freedom to choose their own classes, interests, and social activities, and they always knew that they had my unconditional love and support. I was neither an enabler nor a martinet. Rather, I believe I found the happy medium between these two extremes, a place from which I could be a guide to my children and provide them with the opportunities they needed to become accomplished, intelligent, responsible young adults. I am an American Tiger Mom.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I was interviewed recently by Christine McFadden at, about my thoughts on Tiger Parenting. The article took looked at the scrutinized parenting style from a new perspective: from that of the Tiger Cubs.

In response to Christine’s questions, I helped her differentiate between Tiger Moms, American Tiger Moms, and Helicopter Moms. While each of these parents sincerely has their child’s best interest in mind, I was quick to point out that often parents’ actions do more harm than good. We hear these terms thrown around, yet surprisingly many people don’t actually know what they mean. So, what is the difference between a Tiger Mom and a Helicopter Mom; and why is being an American Tiger Mom better? I am happy to explain.

The most widely used example of a Tiger Mom is a woman by the name of Amy Chua. She, along with other Tiger Moms, boast that their children are deprived of having any sort of social life. They must master either piano or violin, but if they are interested in learning any other instrument, they are strictly forbidden. They are also not allowed to play with other children, explore the arts, attend parties, or any other form of “normal” American social interactions. While this style of parenting may have been the norm in the past in Eastern societies, it is widely viewed as cruel and unusual in today’s societies.

The Helicopter Mom… well, she hovers. She is always two steps ahead of her child to prevent them from failing in any sort of manner. She fights their battles, argues with their teachers, does their homework, and essentially coddles them so to avoid any discomfort. She thinks she is being a good mother by ensuring their happiness, when in reality she is doing them a great disservice. How on earth are these children supposed to make it on their own as adults when their mothers did everything for them? These are the type of kids that end up living with mom and dad well into their thirties; and to be honest, the Helicopter Mom couldn’t be happier about that.

The American Tiger Mom is different. I proudly place myself in this category, and with good reason. Unlike the Tiger Mom, I allowed my children to have social interactions and to pursue their passions. They were allowed to play any instrument and they deeply loved theatre and dance. They were encouraged to do the things they found interesting, with the understanding that they would do each and everything to the best of their ability. They would give each project and interest one hundred percent of their time and effort. They were not allowed to drop something if they became bored, but knew they must stick it through till the end. Unlike the Tiger Mom, I never saw the need to call my children degrading names in order to get them to succeed; and rather than denying them socialization, we were the party house. By throwing all of the parties, we got to supervise the girls in a safe and healthy environment.

I am confident that my parenting style contributed to both their happiness and success. They are both well-rounded, well-educated and happy adults who are able to move around in the world without their parents hovering over them, or insulting them.

I understand that long ago, Tiger parenting was the norm in Eastern countries like China and Japan. Today, those countries are utilizing western parenting methods instead, with the hopes of fostering happy and passionate children rather than successful work-machines devoid of personalities. For a mother to bring her children up today under the Tiger Mom style, is in my opinion, both cruel and unusual. Parenting has changed so dramatically that to utilize that old style is just plain counterproductive and mean.

I enjoyed McFadden’s article because it provided the children of Tiger Moms’ perspectives. While some of the children (now young-adults) say that they will likely follow in their parent’s footsteps, I have to wonder: do they truly believe that this form of childrearing is productive and healthy, or are they approving of their parent’s actions because of the natural instinct children have to protect their parents? Similar to children that have been abused by their parents, and even battered wives, it is common for the victim to justify the wrongs done against them as an attempt to deflect attention to the abuse they’ve received. I believe that is the case here, and not that the children of Tiger parents actually appreciate the abuses they’ve been inflicted over the years.