(TCW interviews Tanith Carey about her new book on child rearing)
Why did you write the book?
I wrote Taming the Tiger Parent - How to Put Your Child’s Well-Being First in a Competitive World because children in the UK have been become the most tested on earth.
I wrote the book to point out that the tragedy of all this over-investment is that we are not producing a brave new world of brighter, more accomplished, wunderkind. Instead we are producing the most anxious.
Thirty years ago, the notion that children from secure, affluent family units could be so stressed that they were suffering depression and anxiety disorders would seem ridiculous. Now experts are reporting a steep increase in the number of primary school children suffering from depression.
As testing has increased, children have become the most distracted and miserable. UNICEF has put British children in sixteenth place – out of twenty-one countries – for happiness.
Data from a Children’s Society survey of 30,000 young people aged eight to sixteen suggests that half a million people in that age group are actively unhappy.
Even when youngsters reach our idea of the educational pinnacle, 15 to 20 per cent of Cambridge students seek counselling. The number at Oxford who need support is also climbing.
In universities across the country, one in ten students surveyed by the National Union of Students had suicidal thoughts while at their current college. Figures from the Office of National Statistics found a fifty per cent increase in the number of students who had gone on to kill themselves between 2007 and 2011.
I wrote Taming the Tiger Parent to show parents how this was backfiring and what to do themselves to protect their kids and also reverse any damage that has already been done, like addressing anxiety, depression, or alienation between parents and child that had happened as a result.
What makes you qualified to write the book?
I am not only a mother of two girls, age 9 and 12. I am also a parenting writer and national newspaper parenting editor who writes widely across the media on the most pressing issues facing parents today.
I am therefore in a privileged position of interviewing and speaking to the some of the world’s top educators, child psychologists and to be able to use my writing to be able to zoom out and point out where we are heading.
My previous parenting book, Where Has My Little Girl Gone? How to Protect your Daughter for Growing up too soon was also the first UK practical guide to help parents tackle the assaults on girl’s well-being was also highly acclaiming by parents and professionals when it came out in 2011. It has since been translated into 13 languages ranging from Chinese, to French and Arabic.
The book comes at a time when British grandparents out-perform their grandchildren in numeracy and literacy skills. Employers frequently complain that school-leavers have poor numeracy and literacy skills, and British pupils have fallen down the international league tables in these skills. Do you really think that the majority of British parents are guilty of ‘hot-housing’ their children’?
Of course, there will be people who say that as the UK plummets down the international league table rankings, what we need is more pushy parenting, not less.
Indeed, a report last week by Department of Education found that two out of five five-year-olds are not ready to start schools.
But this ignores the fact we are living in a divided society. Testing those children who are already failing to reach targets won’t simply solve the problem.
The underlying reasons for this low achievement is that these children are products of extreme poverty or poor parenting. They may also be growing up in families in which English is not yet spoken or be brought up in chaotic family backgrounds.
In fact, competitive schools may just encourage these children to opt out because those who never had the chances or parental backing fare little better.
They feel they are losers before the race even begins – and quickly give up trying.
At the same time, thee measures introduced to catch this so-called ‘tail’ – like nappy curriculums, early nursery school starts and SATS throughout primary – also end up over-heating the middle class children who don’t need it and have been over-cooked from the start.
In short, the children of the most over-invested, over-ambitious generation of parents in history are being educated alongside those from some of the most under-invested and economically deprived families – and being treated by government as if there is a one-size-fits-all solution.
It will be the middle class mothers in the playground who will be fretting and worrying about what SATS scores their kids will be getting, not the parents of the kids who really need to have their standards of reading and writing raised.
At one end, all this high-stakes testing does is turbo-charge an elite class of alpha children who have been on the hamster wheel of high achievement from the moment of birth.
At the other end, it is alienating a generation of children who have been branded as failures early on in their school careers because they've never had any parental investment at all.
I think it is true that, “the responsible parent should give their child the best chance in life”, although what that ‘best chance’ might be is open to debate? Why is this seen as a bad thing?
The problem is your definition of what the ‘best’ is.
Parents may think that relentless tutoring, pressurising and extracurricular activities that the children have no interest in is giving them ‘the best.’
But is that really the case?
Stressed, overtired, overworked children don’t learn.
Furthermore the stressed children of today become the depressed adults of the future – and that is in no one’ s interests.
Yes, we must set standards for our children. But they should be for effort as well as attainment.
Yes, we must help them reach their potential but one that is consistent with their innate skills and personality, not some predestined path we decide for them.
People often complain that parents put their kids in too many extra-circular activities. But if you want them to acquire a life skill such a swimming they need to take swimming classes. If you want them to learn and instrument they need to take lessons in it. Unless your child is extraordinarily gifted they are not going to learn the violin on their own. It takes hard work. What is the problem with instilling a work ethic in children?
There is nothing wrong with trying your child out on different activities to see where their interest and talent lies.
The problem comes when you flog a dead horse- and when you put children into CV-building activities (like French for toddlers or piano lessons for a child with no interest in music)– so you end up putting them off them altogether.
The other problem comes when you have children into so many extracurricular activities that make no difference in the long-run, but which DO eat into a child’s time to play freely in an unstructured way.
That will have a long-term effect on their healthy intellectual and emotional development.
If parents really recognised how much free play boosted intellectual development, educators say they would throw away the Bond papers, cut their extracurricular and just let their kids get on with it.
I broadly support the aims of Save Childhood Movement. It is nothing new to criticise helicopter or tiger mothers? But in today’s world the children if ‘left to their own devices’ are not frolicking in the fields – they are in front of a screen. In fact screen time has increased immensely in the last few years. This is not evidence of mass hot-housing?
It is true that there is not enough balance.
However, I would say that many parents justify children spending large amounts of time on phones and iPads because they believe they are learning tech skills that will serve them well in the future – or because a child may also have downloaded some learning apps, it’s OK for kids to disappear for hours on end with the iPad.
The truth is that many parents also allow this because they are often opting for ‘anything for a quiet life parenting’ – and they’d prefer children to be somewhere they know than outside, which they perceive to be dangerous or require supervision.
If given technology, children who are not allowed outside much, or have not been raised to find fun and entertainment in Nature, will indeed default to screen time.
My book talks about how important for we parents to actively build a love of the outdoors and time in nature.
So this is not proof that we are not hot-housing our kids at all. When they are not on iPads they are usually doing homework, tutoring or extracurriculars.
However it IS proof that we are depriving them of the education they really need – the one they get by being outside in Nature.
You also criticise tutoring. I agree that tutoring a child to enter a private school they are not ultimately equipped to deal with is counter-productive. But the main reason for tutoring is that the state education system is still not up to scratch. This should be acknowledged?
I question tutoring because I think many of the people who tutor are under-qualified and don’t have the training to deal with children whose academic self-confidence has been hit hard by relentless testing.
What I say in Taming the Tiger Parent is that despite parting with large sums for tutoring, many parents are reporting that it made their children’s performance worse.
Tutoring firms are making huge profits because parents are simply panicked and terrified that everyone else’s child is getting it and they children will fall behind if they DON’T have it.
After all, many children who genuinely need help with a subject already feel stupid, anxious and left behind.
Put a low-performing pupil one-to-one with a tutor who doesn't know how to handle issues like low academic self-esteem – and a child’s confidence can quickly go downhill.
Yet most tutoring companies require no teaching qualifications of any kind. Some require no more than a GSCE in the subject the tutor is teaching. Unless they are otherwise trained, many tutors can take the old-fashioned approach of shaming or embarrassing a child to get them to perform – or telling them that they do know the answer really.
That can be disastrous to a child’s sense of academic self-worth.
You criticise a competitive world and “cut-throat world of work and higher education.” The reality is we live in a global world and if you live in London at least your kids are competing on a global scale. It is entirely predicable parents will do their best to keep their children in the middle class or move into the middle class as highly competitive immigrants will do. This is unlikely to change anytime soon?
Parents, schools and governments are panicked.
One of the main reasons for this is the PISA International list which ranks 15 –year-olds on Maths, Language and Science.
When school children in the Far East started to clearly outperforming children in the UK, the Government became fearful we were in the process of being left behind economically.
In the knee-jerk panic, longer school days, shorter holidays, more tests and homework – all done with more ‘rigour’ – were quickly being touted as the only solution.
But as the experience of the Japanese, Chinese and Korean education systems show, politicians, schools and parents have to be careful what they wish for.
But just making UK children work like they do in the Far East won’t work.
The Chinese approach to education is rooted in traditions that have grown up over thousands of years.
In other words, it would take more than adding a few extra hours to the school day and more tutoring and testing to make British children work like this. It would take a complete cultural personality transplant.
But of course the supreme irony of all this is the fact that despite being the envy of every country, the Chinese are calling their education system a failure.
At the same time as Western governments strive to make their schools more Asian, Asian governments are trying to make their schools more European and creative.
While we fret here about poor maths scores, the Chinese point to another test, which did not grab the headlines, which found that in tests of creativity and imagination, Chinese children came fifth from bottom.
Chines educators themselves have also stepped forward to point out that unless Far Eastern economies stop imitating and start innovating, they will never live up to their promise.
As a result, Chinese universities are changing their admissions policies to encourage more imaginative applicants. More and more Chinese parents are also seeking to educate their children at home, because so much corporal punishment is metered out in schools.
There has even been a boom in alternative education such as WaldorfSteiner schools in China. In one recent survey, four out of ten Chinese parents said they wanted to send their children to the more liberal West to study.
In other words, Western parents have to hold their nerve and believe in an education system and society that has long created creative, free-thinking and inventive people
What we should not do is blindly try and force their children to play the same game – at whatever cost.