When I published ‘Taming the Tiger Parent – How to Put Your Child’s Well-Being First in a Competitive World’ last month, I didn’t know what sort of reception I would receive. As the author of six books, I had sensed it was the most provocative and hard-hitting of anything I had written so far. I also hoped it was the most powerfully argued because I believed so passionately that parents need to face up to the how children’s well-being is suffering in the hot-house atmosphere of today’s mainstream education. But at the same time, I was preparing to brace myself for critics to oppose the book by saying that what this country needs is MORE pushy parenting, not less.
After all the UK is lurking at 23rd for reading, 26th for maths and 20th for science in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables, far behind our Far Eastern counterparts. Our newspapers also regularly publish shock horror stories, as they did last week, about how as many as two in five five-year-old’s lack the basic skills to start school, while failing to explain the reasons for this low achievement are that these kids are products of poverty, households where English is not spoken at home, or chaotic family backgrounds.
Yet despite the wide-spread coverage the book has received, no one has so much as quibbled with my central argument that setting children off on a race they didn’t ask to be part of is backfiring badly on us. Just one piece I wrote for the Guardian family section about why we needed to stop pushing our kids was shared no less than 17,000 times in the first week it was published. Even more rewarding have been the individual messages I got from parents saying the book had helped them question the received assumption in our society that all competition is healthy – without really considering where it was all leading – or what a lonely place this was creating for our children. Other parents have told me they wept when they recognised how their competitive urges were damaging their children, while others immediately took the foot off the gas about homework and entrance exams.
Of course, I am a relative newcomer, a late convert who changed direction the moment I saw the effects of hothouse schooling on my children and who was in a lucky position as a parenting writer to be able to join the dots. But in the time since I have become a slow parent myself, I have seen that already there are changes afoot – and that a blue-print for an alternative is becoming increasingly attractive to parents. Whether it’s minimalist parenting, free-range parenting – or the more bluntly named calm the f*** down parenting, there is a growing recognition that we need to resist the impulse to micro-manage.
During my on-going research, I have noted how in China, the most pressure-cooker nation in the world, Waldorf-Steiner schools have become a powerful counter-cultural movement with some schools having five year waiting lists. It seems to me that all around the world, slow parenting and education, once seen as a slow, vaguely and even risky move, was becoming more likely to be seen as the way forward and a healthier, more productive alternative.
Looking back, one of the most difficult and distressing parts of writing the book was researching the figures on the emotional toll this is having on our children. Over the next ten years, the number of children with symptoms of a mental disorder is expected to double. The World Health Organisation has warned that adolescents in the developed world have the fastest growing incidence of mental health problems on the planet. What’s even more concerning is that the stressed children of today will turn into the depressed adults of tomorrow. As psychologist Madeline Levine, who treats young people who are casualties of the mainstream cookie-cutter system, points out, the result is ‘a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims’.
‘They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.’
One of the reasons I found this so painful because I already know of many children in my children’s circle who are already casualties – who self-harm, have developed eating disorders, who are ‘depressed’ while still at primary or who refuse to go to school. But painful though they are, it seems that these collated figures about how vulnerable our children have become are serving a purpose. They are showing parents that ultimately it’s mental equilibrium, not A stars, that should be the real measure of our success as parents – and that without well-being, exam success adds up to nothing much at all.
Other ways from Taming the Tiger Parent – Putting Your Child’s Well-Being First in a Competitive World in which you can help your children grow strong and self-reliant.
Show they how far they’ve come: Tell children there is only one person in life who is truly worth besting – and that is themselves. Take time to go through your child’s exercise books to show how their handwriting has gone from giant shapes to well-formed cursive, scribbles have morphed into carefully crafted drawings or their first tentative notes on an instrument have turned into music. If they are shown how far they have come by themselves, they will also see how far they can go.
Eat together: Simply eating together on a regular basis not only bonds parents and children Kids who eat four meals a week with their families have been shown to higher levels of self-esteem. Other studies have found that children who eat with their parents have few conflicts during adolescence and are better adjusted in general.
One recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that family meals have a calming effect – and every meal young people have with their family leads to an improvement. It found they feel more included and valued, even if they do not say much at the table, because they are able to see the communication between other members of the family and feel that they are an important part of the unit.
Restrain the cheerleading: As much as you may want to show off your child’s talents to the world, be aware that you risk making your child self-conscious. You may think you are being encouraging (and showcasing what a good parent you are into the bargain) by plastering every scribble they do on the fridge – but let them decide what they want to share. Imagine if every tiny thing you did was filmed for posterity and made a fuss of. An innately modest youngster will feel much more comfortable with specific, low-key words of acknowledgement.
‘Taming the Tiger Parent: How to put your child’s well-being first in a competitive world’ is published by Robinson/Little Brown, price 8.99. To read more of Tanith’s writing on education and children’s well-being go to www.tanithcarey.com.
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Tanith Carey is the author of seven books, ranging in subject from biography to social history and parenting. She also writes opinion and features for a variety of publications including The Guardian, The Independent, and Sunday Times Style.
Tanith’s latest book, is Taming the Tiger Parent – How to put the Well-being of your Child First in a Competitive World was published by Constable/Little Brown.
Tanith’s parenting books aim to address the most pressing issues for parents and look at how the wider culture affects how we raise our children.
Her next will be Girls, Uninterrupted: How To Raise Strong Daughters, to be published by Icon in February, 2015.
Tanith lives in London with her two daughters, age 12 and 9, her journalist husband, Anthony Harwood, their dog and their cat.
Follow Tanith @Tanithcarey, join her Facebook page Where Has My Little Girl Gone? and read her blogs on www.tanithcarey.com.