Tiger mothers won’t raise stars of tomorrow

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Aaron Stewart, Proprietor of Boundary Oak School comments on Alice Thompson’s latest article in The Times;

“With countless books and now the Prime Minister adding his 2 cents worth of advice to parents, the PM endorsing tiger parenting, I like the simplicity of this articles conclusion.”

Tiger mothers won’t raise stars of tomorrow

Alice Thomson 

Cameron is right to champion good parenting but don’t forget that hardship has forged some of the brightest and best.

Years before I had children I once watched a toddler rocking violently in his highchair. “He’s going to tip over,” I warned, looking at the stone floor. “Leave him,” his German father replied, “he needs to learn a lesson.” Predictably, two minutes later the child crashed to the ground, biting his tongue and almost knocking himself out, but he didn’t do it again and is now a lawyer.

I have never been able to do extreme parenting; even the naughty step seemed a bit too Nanny McPhee. I stopped halfway through my first parenting book after it told me that my child at four months should be able to pick up a raisin and he couldn’t; I attended one school parenting class on teaching resilience to “little people” and gave up in despair.

Having interviewed Amy Chua, the leading advocate of tough love and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I still couldn’t get my children to do more than ten minutes of piano every day. But given that they do netball, fencing and tennis as well, I also failed as far as Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest were concerned. The authors of Minimalist Parenting, who advocate a no-fuss approach to child-rearing, told me they were appalled that mothers now do everything from correcting their children’s colouring-in (guilty, I’m afraid) to writing their personal statements for university (not guilty) and having their children tutored in skills from football to chess, as well as expecting A*s across the board. No wonder, the authors say, that teenage anxiety levels are out of control.

Intensively reared, free range or organic? It’s increasingly hard to know which is best. So it was brave for a man who once left his eight-year-old daughter in a pub to be advocating parenting lessons for the nation. The prime minister may be accused of being hypocritical, patronising and bossy but he’s right that some families need help.

The majority of parents in Britain are muddling through — they discipline, encourage, cajole and occasionally bribe their children, and try to support them while teaching them to be independent. They worry intermittently about their addiction to sugar and computers but can comfort themselves that teenage pregnancy and alcohol abuse is declining.

However there is a group of parents that is floundering — and their failure has costs for us all. Their children, if they get them to school, have not been taught to feed themselves or use the toilet. The children’s ties with the older generation have broken down and there is no structure to their lives. These produce what Michael Gove, the former education and now justice secretary, calls the lost boys who end up truanting, in care or in prison.

Convincing these mothers, and fathers too, to go to classes is as much of a struggle as getting their offspring to school. In Glasgow, the NHS abandoned parenting classes for disadvantaged couples because of the 60 per cent drop-out rate. Parent Gym, however, which runs courses on school sites in the southeast after morning drop off, is working by encouraging parents to have family meals, bedtimes and discipline. Quality of parenting, those taking part are taught, doesn’t necessarily correlate to wealth.

David Cameron wants to ensure that Britain is full of productive, engaged workers — chefs, accountants, computer engineers — so we don’t need to import them from abroad. That has to start with happy, well-reared, hardworking children, but although stability produces great worker bees it doesn’t create the queens, the real stars of the show.

This is the conundrum that faces parents and the prime minister. The most successful and creative people often seem to have had the most difficult childhoods. Over the past 20 years Rachel Sylvester and I have interviewed hundreds of people at the top of their careers — politicians, artists, writers, CEOs, doctors, architects and actors. Not one had a ideal upbringing, and nearly half saw a parent die before they were 25. Many suffered complicated or even abusive childhoods, were bullied or traumatised.

I remember asking Julian Lloyd Webber whether he was forced to spend 10,000 hours practising his cello as a child. “No,” he said, “I practised as a solace. I had a turbulent family and I was abused on the Underground at the age of nine. Music became my refuge.”

Some want to talk about their traumas, others barely admit it. This, far more than the school or university they attended, seems to urge them on. Many of their siblings sink under the strain, but adversity has an astonishing effect on some talented children.

Proportionally more successful people come from private schools, but even the most accomplished Old Etonians seem to have had difficult upbringings — the Archbishop of Canterbury’s father was a fantasist, fraud and alcoholic.

So Mr Cameron’s parenting classes have a tough job to do. They need to teach parents to be aspirational and explain that it’s worth putting in the effort to ensure their child gets a good education. At the same time we mustn’t forget that the exam system isn’t the only way of identifying talent, and we shouldn’t give up on those who appear to be messing around. They might just be the next entrepreneur, musician, thinker or artist.


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