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Success in Life is More Than Success in High School: Thoughts on the Tiger Mother

As I read about Amy Chua's Tiger Mother, I keep asking myself, why is it that the kids who excel in high school don't necessarily do well in life? Have you noticed that at reunions or by staying in touch with your classmates?
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Every so often, a book erupts on the parenting landscape and ignites a furor. Amy Chua has become today's firebrand with her Wall Street Journal article last weekend, and her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, sparking controversy over her criticisms of American parents and her dictums to her two daughters of no sleepovers, no playdates, no school plays, no TV or computer games, no grades lower than As, and no playing of any instruments other than the piano or violin. The flames of controversy have been fanned even higher by Chua's stories of threatening, punishing, and name calling (calling her daughter "garbage," for example) when these dictums weren't met.

I, like some of you, have read many of the words that she's written and that have been written about her. And, like you, I have had many strong feelings and thoughts.

To begin, a book like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother gives us all a chance to re-examine our own parenting -- and that is, in fact, a gift. Much of what has been written about the Tiger Mother has lapsed into incivility and I certainly understand why. Having someone else proclaim that how we have raised our own children is outright wrong and doomed -- whatever our ethnic backgrounds and however long our families have been in the United States -- cuts to our very core. Nothing is more painful or infuriating or provoking. But if we want civility in politics, we need civility in parenting. And as I read about Amy Chua, I think we need to turn around the debate and use it like a mirror to focus on ourselves, asking:

• What do we REALLY want for our own children?

• How can we BEST achieve our goals?

So here are my some of my personal and professional reflections.

As I read about the Tiger Mother, I keep asking myself, why is it that the kids who excel in high school don't necessarily do well in life? Have you noticed that at reunions or by staying in touch with your classmates? Thinking about what helps children thrive in life helps me think through what I REALLY want for my own children.

For me, thriving in life requires more than getting good grades. Good grades are important because they tell our kids that they can meet the requirements of society and succeed. But I have seen that the people who really thrive have their own interests, things they care about for their own sake, not things that they do just to please their parents and teachers. So when I ask myself what I want for my children, it is for them to have passions in life beyond themselves and contributions they want to make. As a parent, I need to help my children find and develop those passions. In thinking about the Tiger Mother story, those passions might be in playing the violin, but they might also be in acting in a school play or doing community service after school. Studies show that it's the focus, the motivation, and the commitment of working toward a goal children derive from these passions that help them in their school work and life, not the specifics of what these passions are.

Thriving in life requires doing what others tell us but ultimately it requires learning to make decisions for ourselves. So when I ask myself what I want for my children, it is to help them learn the skill of critical thinking, to learn to make decisions for themselves and then evaluate those decisions -- small decisions at first (not overwhelming choices) and then larger decisions later.

Thriving in life requires learning the skill of taking on challenges. And there is a great deal of research that shows that we don't help children learn to take on challenges by berating them (calling them garbage, as in the Tiger Mother book) or by over-praising them either: Amy Chua is right--that can really make kids feel like garbage. The studies of Carol Dweck of Stanford University show parents and teachers can help children have a mindset where they succeed by praising the effort they make or the strategies they use, not criticizing or praising their personal competencies.

Thriving in life requires learning to work with others, to learn what I call the skill of perspective taking. This is the point that David Brooks made in his eloquent column in the New York Times yesterday. This is something I clearly want for my children. And kids learn that by being with other kids -- and yes, sleepovers and playdates are good forums for those kinds of learning, but only if we use them as learning opportunities and help our kids understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Amy Chua says that she thinks that children should learn skills and on that we agree. I just would have a different list of skills than she does. Mine include focus, self control, perspective taking, critical thinking, and being a self-directed learner. That's what I would want for my children to succeed in high school and life.