What happens to Tiger Moms’ cubs?

I remember the hubbub—and the ensuing press coverage—when Yale law professor Amy Chua released her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. She not only shared her parenting style that pushed her daughters towards academic perfection, restricted their extracurricular activities, and essentially forbid socializing, but also held up their academic and college admissions results as proof that tiger parenting works. But what I remember even more clearly was that while many parents I heard from via this blog or at seminars expressed their disagreement and even outright horror at raising children the tiger mom way, plenty of others proudly embraced the label. To them, “I’m a tiger mom/dad” was a badge of honor, a sign that they were doing their job and raising kids with the fortitude to compete and the work ethic to excel. And while one of the criticisms of Chua’s book was that it stereotyped Chinese parenting in the United States, I found that the parents embracing the label came from all backgrounds.

It turns out, however, that the results Chua depicted might have been an exception. In the first major study released on the topic, children of tiger parents have worse grades, they are more depressed, and they feel alienated from their parents.

Now that I am a parent, I’m more aware of and sensitive to the reality that there is no one approved method of raising happy, fulfilled, successful kids. But I can say that Collegewise has helped over 10,000 families navigate the college admissions process. And I can tell you that if any version of tiger parenting consistently produced more successful kids, we’d have recommended that approach, especially considering how many students seem driven to achieve those outcomes, with or without a tiger parent.

“Honey, stop talking”

A Collegewise family I worked with years ago had an endearing dynamic. During our meetings together, the mother would routinely say to the father, “Honey, stop talking.”

It would be hard to find a couples counselor who would endorse a relationship where one partner routinely shut down the other like this. But here was the difference. Mom would only say that when Dad was talking for their daughter.

“She’s interested in. . .”

“She needs an environment where. . .”

“She’s very strong in math. . .”

“We need to highlight her strengths in. . .”

“Why is this school on the list? She doesn’t want. . .”

Every time, gently but directly, Mom would interject, “Honey, stop talking.”

And every time he stopped, it gave their daughter space to start.

Things worked out pretty well. Today, their daughter is a Stanford graduate, a successful talent agent in Hollywood, recently married and raising a (very cute) dog.

The more engaged kids are with their own college process, the more favorable the outcomes will be. And one of the best ways for parents to help is to occasionally remind themselves to stop—and allow their kids to start—talking.

When the talk turns towards college

I posted a reminder for parents earlier this month that there are far more fascinating conversations to be had with your teens than those that revolve around college admissions topics. And I still maintain that you have a far more important job than that of college application general manager in your house. But there are times, especially for parents of seniors at this time of year, when you just can’t ignore the application deadline elephant in the room. Done right, a related conversation can leave your teen feeling supported, encouraged, and well-reminded that your relationship won’t change based on which colleges say yes or no. Here are a few tips to help you handle those conversations well.

1. Trade judgement for empathy.
Yes, it’s possible your student has procrastinated, ignored advice, or made other decisions that have put them in a more stressful position now than they needed to be in. Guess what? Seventeen-year-olds are supposed to make those mistakes. In fact, they can learn from them. Believe me, they’re likely feeling judged enough by the entire process without Mom or Dad chiming in. So instead of judging, try empathizing. Make an honest effort to understand how they’re feeling. The truth is that you don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in the world today, much less one who’s applying to college. If you make the effort to empathize, you’ll find the conversation will change. You’ll ask more questions. You’ll listen more. And you’ll probably come away with a better understanding of your teen and what they’re experiencing right now.

2. Offer an invitation, not solutions.
You’re the adult in this relationship, and it can be tempting to offer solutions that you know will help your kids get completed applications out the door. But even the most well-intentioned offers can still be received by teenagers as a sign that you just don’t believe in them. Asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” seems generous and unobtrusive, but often doesn’t yield an affirmative response. So instead, try offering an invitation, like, “If there’s anything I can do to help, will you tell me?” This sets the table for a future conversation even if your teen isn’t presently in the market for parental assistance.

3. Don’t draw comparisons.
What other kids or other families are doing during this time just doesn’t matter. In a process that’s all about comparison between applicants, resist any inclination to compare what your student is or isn’t doing with the actions (or inactions) of other students. Even when meant in a positive way, these comparisons just heighten kids’ feelings that their college application process really isn’t theirs at all.

4. Build on good news.
Has your teen made progress with their applications? Do they have a list with at least a few schools their counselor said were sure things? Even better, has your student already applied to and been accepted at some colleges? Don’t ignore those wins in favor of focusing on what’s left. Instead, celebrate them. Remind your kids how far they’ve come, how much they have to look forward to in college, and how happy you are about the positives worth celebrating. Progress, wins, and good news are like emotional fuel to help your kids face whatever comes next. Don’t miss the opportunity to build on this good news.

5. Remind them what won’t change.
The stakes can feel so high during the college admissions process: first-choice schools, competition between friends, joy and despair when decisions arrive, not to mention the sea of change coming when kids inevitably leave high school and head to college somewhere. In your conversations, it’s helpful to remind kids of those constants that won’t change–most importantly, your love for them. Remember, it’s likely abundantly clear to you how much you love your kids and how little their grades, SAT scores, or college decisions are likely to change that. But it’s not always clear to the applicant in the house. Any step you can take, whether in words within these conversations or actions outside of them, will go a long way to giving a sense of comfort and resilience to kids who are immersed in a process that can chip away at both.

A seventh grader can do it

This post showed up on a local parent listserv last week (I inserted the “xxxx” portions to protect the poster’s identity).

Hi, my name is xxxx and I’m a 7th grader at xxxx. I take advanced math and love it. If you are looking for an affordable math tutor with a great attitude about math for your child I am able to tutor up to 6th grade and charge $15 an hour. Is transportation too hard? No worries. I’ll come to you! Please email me at xxxx if you have questions or are interested.

This is one of those seemingly simple things that can have a lot of value when the student is allowed to drive it.

This student is promoting themselves. They wrote the ad, they posted the ad, and they’ll be fielding the incoming inquiries. If it’s successful, they’ll end up managing a schedule, showing that they can fulfill their responsibilities, and answering to their paying customers. They’ll inevitably learn from this experience even if they don’t receive a single inquiry.

It might be tempting to discount those merits. After all, it’s not that hard to post an ad. And lots of kids babysit or do other part-time jobs. But one of the shifts I’ve witnessed since I started Collegewise almost twenty years ago is that too many high school kids will sit back and let their parents handle this sort of thing for them (I wrote about one who posted on the very same listserv). And my wife and I routinely get parents knocking on our door to raise money for their students’ cheerleading or softball or football teams, with their kids nowhere in sight.

Parents, the next time you’re tempted to step in and help with pitching or fundraising or any other endeavor that will ultimately benefit your student, step back and consider whether this is something they could and should do for themselves. Guiding and encouraging is one thing. But taking it over entirely is another.

It’s easy to come up with excuses for why your kids can’t take it on. But if a seventh grader can do it, your high schooler can, too.

Let today happen

Parents, while your kids are still in the house, you don’t have to wonder if you’ll all be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner together. Whether you’re at your home table or visiting far-flung family members, your kids are along for the Thanksgiving ride.

Today is a good day to remember that it won’t always be that way.

Soon, your kids will be in college. Then they’ll be starting their lives, with jobs and priorities and families of their own. Watching them do those things can and should be a joyful parenting period of your own—especially the Thanksgivings when you’ll all be together! But turkey (or tofu) time together won’t necessarily be an annual guarantee. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy what you have together today.

You might be tempted to let the college application process invade your Thanksgiving. It’s not easy to shut off what might have been daily conversations about essays and applications and SAT scores. But those topics and to-do’s won’t disappear if you ignore them for one day. No student in the history of the college admissions process has been shut out of a college because their family declared Thanksgiving college-talk-free.

Parents, give yourselves and your kids a break today. Take a breath and appreciate your guaranteed Thanksgiving time together while you have it. As high school counselor Patrick O’Connor said so eloquently in his recent piece, “What you can — and can’t — say to a high school senior at Thanksgiving”:

“College will be great, but college is tomorrow, and Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for today. Let that happen.”

Learned decision making

Kids learn to make good decisions by actually making decisions. Whenever possible and reasonable, let kids choose. Classes, activities, hobbies, colleges, etc. Sometimes there’s a compelling reason to make the choice for them. But learned decision making is a compelling reason to let them choose.

Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.

Expecting more from—and for—kids

Last month at their annual parent education event hosted by Challenge Success, over 900 parents showed up to explore two questions: (1) How do we love our children unconditionally and still hold them to high expectations? (2) How do we protect our children while letting them learn life lessons?

For those of us who weren’t among the local 900 in attendance, they shared a video of the entire 90-minute presentation, almost all of which is worth watching. If you’d rather not watch the entire thing, here’s a screenshot of an email they sent with the timestamps for particular topics touched on during the presentation. Please don’t skip the short clip that begins at the two-minute mark. It’s a video they showed attendees featuring students at La Canada High School who answered:

  • How does your school define success?
  • How do you personally define success?
  • What do you wish the adults at your school knew?
  • What do you wish your parents knew?

I found the responses both hopeful and heartbreaking.

Today’s kids are living and learning in a very different world than their parents did when they were in high school. And today’s parents often find themselves in uncharted child-rearing waters. There are no simple, step-by-step parenting guidelines to be found, and Challenge Success doesn’t purport to offer any. But their message and their teachings are inspiring. When we care more about raising kids who can thrive in the world of tomorrow than we do about raising kids who can thrive on the transcripts and tests of today, we’re expecting more from—and for—our kids, not less.

Fascinating conversations to be had

Parents, here’s a path to having some fascinating conversions with your student.

Replace some questions like these:

How did you do on your math test?
How are your applications coming?
How did your history exam go today?
Can you ask your teacher for extra credit?
Did you hear back from your tutor yet?
Have you done (insert school or activity-related task here) yet?
When do you get the audition results?
Did your scores arrive?
What did your counselor say about your essay?

….with those that have absolutely nothing to do with school, achievement, or college.

Your teen is at school all day long. But they have an entire other life that involves making friends, learning about themselves, and thinking about what they want to be. There’s a rich pool of potential conversations to be had that have nothing to do with school and everything do with this fascinating teenager you’re raising. And those conversations are a lot more interesting than those about tests and GPAs.

Not measured by grades and test scores

In Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes,” author Madeline Levine points out that it’s both unrealistic and unfair to expect our children will excel at everything given that all of us are average at many things. She argues that while parents who celebrate the inherent uniqueness of their kids move their children forward, those who insist on an unrealistic specialness, who argue with teachers or coaches, or who push kids past their limits ultimately hinder their children’s progress.

Here’s her response, as shared in this interview, to a question about how she would respond to a parent who insists that their kids will fall behind and fail to reach their full potential unless a parent pushes or even intervenes with teachers or coaches.

“How do people get to be successful?  Research shows us that the most successful people work really hard, that they have qualities of persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility.  They have to be bright, but they don’t have to be brilliant.  For example, I went to state university.  This idealization of the Ivy League is misplaced, and I think it’s a defense against the fact that here’s the reality: there’s a bell curve in terms of general intelligence, and most of our kids are going to be average, even if we’re smart ourselves.”

Average in one or more areas does not mean inherently unremarkable. And persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility aren’t measured by grades and test scores.