My Mother is Not a Tiger and I Am Too

My mother is American French-Irish and most definitely not a Chinese Tiger Mother, as Amy Chua describes herself.   My mother played the piano beautifully (though not as well as Chua’s kids) for fun and relaxation every spare minute she could find in a day.  Even though this was her first love, my mother did not force me to practice or even to stay with it.  Far from a tiger, she was more like Golden Retriever Mother.

She would chase down any person or opportunity she thought was good for us and come back beaming, dropping it at our feet eagerly, her face just begging us to pick it up.  How could we say no? 
Beaming Golden Retriever

As excited as she was to get us involved in new activities, though, she always let us quit-- and the five of us racked up quite a quitting record: piano, sewing, dance, paper routes, soccer, a month of kindergarten, and even college.  And as my husband once noted, “she thinks everything her kids do is wonderful” (other than wrapping presents, which I wasn’t allowed to attempt).

Sadly, as my daughters moved up in school, I became worried that if I wasn’t more of a “Tiger Mother,” they would spend their lives in front of the tv.  I wondered if my mother had been too lax with us and if she could have forced me to be more disciplined (that was before I realized, mid-life, that I had ADD; now I have an excuse for my lack of discipline).   

All I ever really wanted to be was what David Elkind calls a “Milk and Cookies Mom,” and during the early years, it was easy to relax, play, and notice how remarkable my kids were.  But as they moved through middle school and high school, I got scared.  If there is one thing I could do over (there are about a million), it would be this: don’t parent from a place of fear.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that then and as school pressures increased, so did my feeling that I was somehow failing my kids: they weren’t as motivated as they needed to be-- if they were going to get into a “decent” college and get a “good job.” 

We had tried to raise them as self-starters, but when, as teens, they weren’t performing at the highest levels, my doubts bubbled up and I would swing between a few days of hounding them and a few months of allowing them to self-direct.   Unlike Chua’s husband, who begged her not to scream at her kids, my husband begged me to be pushier because he felt he would have done better in life if his parents had pushed him.  (Done better than marrying me?  Really?)

Instinctively, I believed that self-motivation was the way to go – only now I wanted them to self-motivate for what I wanted them to do.  To be fair, it’s not as if they were doing nothing.  They both got their homework done every night, even when it took four, five or seven hours.  It’s just that the results (grades) weren’t always there – and after all, they did spend time watching tv and texting with friends.  I thought I should try to pack a bit more into their days and nights. What saved us, and for this I'm truly grateful, is that I also had doubts about the relentless pace (since I couldn’t keep up with it).  It turns out that my instincts were right, but at the time, I had no validation.

Later, when I formally studied motivation, I was delighted to discover that the highest form of motivation is intrinsic.  It turns out that the type of motivation Chua practiced with her girls is one of the lowest forms of motivation: external (and grades are also external motivation).  So now I’ve purged the doubts and the tiger from my playbook and it’s time to admit: “Mom, you were right.”  In my next life, I’ll be pure golden. Really. 

What Would a Good Mother Do?

“I ask myself, ‘What would a good mother do in this situation?’” confesses 44-year-old Sandra, mother of two middle-schoolers. Her question took me back to the time when we discovered my daughter Kate had vision problems.

She was a high school sophomore and I felt that we had finally gotten to the root of her issues with reading. A feeling of relief washed over me. I felt the calm permeate every cell of my body in one of those rare parenting moments of utter relaxation and I breathed-in deeply to savor it— for what must have been at least 10 seconds.  Then my brain kicked-into gear and chastised me:

“Why didn’t I figure this out sooner? Why didn’t I push harder for answers when she was younger? Mothers like Mary Akjor would have been all over this. She was on top of her everything about her kids’ school. She would never have let it go this far.”

As I work with clients like Sandra, I realize how many of us say these kinds of things to ourselves. Often we worry, “What am I doing wrong as a parent? Why isn’t my child shaping-up? If I were a better parent, my child would be excelling in school (or sports… or music… or socially). “

Except parents like Mary and Bill Akjor don’t beat themselves up with thoughts like these. They just smile smugly and say, “Of course our Susie is perfect. That’s the way we raised her. You know, we’re really very conscientious parents--unlike the rest of you who don’t seem to have a clue.” Well they don’t actually say it out loud, but you can tell that’s what they’re thinking.

So you can imagine my shock when Mary called me one day and said, “Christine, we just discovered that Brian [Susie’s little brother] has a problem with the way his eyes focus. I’m so angry that this wasn’t picked up sooner – he’s in high school now and this could have been dealt with years ago.” I hung up the phone and thought, “maybe I wasn’t such a bad mother after all.” I mean, if Mary Akjor, conscientious-mother-of-the-century, didn’t figure it out sooner, maybe I wasn’t as negligent as I thought.

For me, Mary was the “good mother” that Sandra referred to when she asked, “What would a good mother do?” And on this issue, Mary hadn’t done any better than I had. Phew.

It turns out that I was doing just fine by the “good mother” standard – not because I was doing anything particularly well, but simply because I was loving my kids. “You see,” Dr. Arnie Kerzner explained to a group of us (at a teen parenting workshop), “the research shows you don’t have to be a perfect parent. You don’t even have to be a great parent. For your kid to do well in life, all you have to do is be a ‘good enough parent.’”

Once again, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I knew I wasn’t a perfect parent and I worried that I wasn’t a great parent, but I knew in my heart that I was a “good enough parent” and that’s all my girls needed. What a relief.

So now, I urge parents like Sandra to ask not what a good parent would do, but instead ask, “Am I a good enough parent?” It's a much easier standard to meet-- and it's the one that really matters.

Surprised (Happily) by College's Service Culture

“How do you figure out which colleges will be best for your child?” a mother in the audience asked me recently.

“A good place to start is by asking your child to think about times in his life when he felt confident, energized, connected, or felt he was making a valuable contribution,” I replied. Four years ago, when my daughter Lauren was doing this exercise, she realized that a number of her best moments came during community service projects.

So I took notice last week when the college she chose, Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), won a 2009 presidential award for community service.

“Did you know OWU was so strong in community service when you picked it?” I asked Lauren, now a junior.

“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t you remember?’’ My memory’s not what it was… “That was one of the questions I always asked colleges because I loved the Honduras work [done in high school] so much,” Lauren explained (patiently). I guess I was the only one surprised by how that played out four years later.

How do you make a culture come alive-- even to a high schooler?

This made me curious: how does a college foster a service culture that is noticeable even to a high school student? I asked OWU’s Susan Pasters, Director of Community Service Learning, and Rock Jones, President.

CD: Why do you think so many OWU students volunteer so many hours in community service?
SP: Each student’s motivation is uniquely individual, but OWU attracts students who are predisposed toward participating in community service. Many of our students want to be engaged in service-learning activities outside the classroom. Others find that community service is a good way to make friends and feel good about themselves.
RJ: Ohio Wesleyan has a long heritage of combining rigorous classroom work with real-world experiences, including volunteer service. There is a particularly strong culture of service on the campus that is embraced by virtually everyone at OWU.

CD: Many colleges have community service. When you arrived at OWU, did you expect that this was an area where the school would stand apart?

SP: I arrived in July 1989 to establish a community service office. I knew that OWU had a long history of producing a large percentage of graduates who entered a life of service…[but] in 1989, I had no idea that Ohio Wesleyan would end up being an exemplary school for service and service-learning.
RJ: I learned in the interview process of the longstanding commitment to service at Ohio Wesleyan, dating from the early 20th century when OWU sent large numbers of graduates to serve as Methodist missionaries to the late 20th century when OWU was recognized for being one of the universities to send the largest number of graduates to service in the Peace Corps. Service is in the genetic code of OWU.

CD: How do you encourage students to get involved?
RJ: We start talking about it during the admission process, we talk more during Orientation, and we host a Volunteer Fair during the first week of classes.

SP: We advertise through every means possible, but there is also a great word-of-mouth network where students recruit their friends to get involved because they are having such great experiences.

Finding Meaning

CD: Finding meaning isn’t always easy. Does community service add meaning for OWU students?
RJ: Yes – it happens every day. Many students share with me stories of the deep meaning they have found through volunteer service. I believe that a part of our educational mission is to help students understand the connection between their academic work and their most cherished values that provide the source of their understanding of life purpose.

CD: What else does participation in community service do for a student?
SP: In my opinion, students who engage in service have a better idea of what they want to do in life, have more hands-on experience to put on their resumes, and are apt to be more compassionate toward people different from themselves.
RJ: When I interview graduating seniors, many of them cite community service as a source of important growth and personal transformation during their years at OWU.

Community service is one of the ways to bring out gifts that don’t show up in the classroom and to bring meaning to life.  It's also often a place where kids who don't do well academically can feel they make a valuable contribution.  For these reasons and the inherent gift of helping someone else, I recommend encouraging service in your child even if his school doesn't (and you may be surprised!).

I originally wrote this for Positive Psychology News Daily and the original article is here.

How to Free Your Child from the Critics' Trap

I once had a wonderful professor who was funny and a great teacher in front of the class. When I spoke with him privately, though, I felt like an idiot. Once, while discussing my plans for a research project, he snapped, “Why would you want to do that?!?”which left me feeling off-balance and dumb, not sure why I had thought “that” was such a great idea in the first place.

Consciously or not, by belittling my ideas, he made himself look smarter.  “Teresa Amabile at Harvard showed that humans have a tendency to perceive critics as smarter than approvers when they lack sufficient information to make judgments on the content of statements,” reports Dave Shearon, MAPP.

In fact, Teresa Amabile says, “Negative reviewers were perceived as more intelligent, competent and expert than positive reviewers, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality and greater forcefulness.”

Are Positive People Dumber?

This got me think about the common saying, “Fat, dumb and happy.” Where did that come from and why do we conjure an image of the Pillsbury Dough Boy when we use the word “happy?” Whatever the origins, you can be sure it is not a recent development. According to Shearon, Gustave Flaubert said, ‘To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.’

We set up a flawed choice in our language and perceptions: be negative and smart or cheerful and dumb .  Do we really want to leave our children (or ourselves) with the idea that being critical and negative means you’re smarter?  Not if we want them to live, long satisfying lives, we don’t (see #1 below).

To free your child from the critics' trap, show them that this is a flawed choice, that they can be both positive and smart.  Here are a few ways to do this:

1. Know the Recipe for a Satisfying Life

Maybe we would be less skeptical of cheerfulness if we understood that to live a long, healthy life you must feel more positive emotion, according to research on health, nuns, and Harvard men.   The “heart strengths” of love, hope, zest and gratitude are correlated with life satisfaction and intellectual strengths are not, according to Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson
This must have been obvious to Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

2. Remind him that a 2-year-old can say, “No.”

We have this notion that it’s more sophisticated to be negative, but the fact is it’s so simple that even a toddler can do it. What’s sophisticated is coming up with creative new ideas, concepts, products and services.

Demonstrate this to your teen by setting a timer and asking her to criticize something of yours (writing, cooking, clothing…). Then set the timer again and ask her to help you expand upon the good aspects of the item in question. She’ll see how much more time, effort and thought go into building-up than tearing-down.

3. Seek the Gems

A friend’s father once said, “I’ve never met a man from whom I cannot learn” and in the past 25 years I’ve found he’s absolutely right. Encourage your child to find a gem, something smart and worth understanding, in others and in himself.

When he looks for things to appreciate, not only will he learn and explore the world with curiosity and intelligence,  but he'll increase the positive emotions that lead to lasting happiness.   Isn't that smart?  :)

Your child has tremendous potential and specific gifts to share with the world. If it's a challenge for you to see this right now, you need a Better Frame of Reference.  A good place to start is our small-group Parent Mentoring program on January 30, in Wellesley, MA.  Learn more...

Starting our kids on the right path

Today's Boston Globe Magazine has an article about stressed 5-year-olds. No, that is not a typo-- I did not accidently type 5 instead of 15. The article is about "pressurized kindergarten."

Apparently some people think it's a good idea to begin testing and assessing academic performance as early as possible. Perhaps they think that starting young will help these children to better deal with unhealthy stress they may encounter in high school.

With all the focus on preparing kids for high school -- which is then focused on preparing them for college-- we can lose sight of our ultimate goals for children. Don't we want future leaders and productive citizens who thrive in life? Adults with loving relationships who create a better world?

Perhaps those who are pushing academic assessments into kindergartens don't know that we have an epidemic of depression and anxiety, with 1 in 5 high school students having a full clinical episode. Perhaps they don't know that even when a child doesn't know he will be assessed-- but his parent is told-- the student's anxiety increases and performance worsens.

Perhaps they don't know this about college students:
"The vast majority of college students are feeling stressed these days, and significant numbers are at risk of depression, according to an Associated Press-mtvU poll. Eighty-five percent of the students reported feeling stress in their daily lives in recent months, with worries about grades, school work, money and relationships the big culprits..." says the May 21 Associated Press article on

Instead of bringing college- and high school-stressors to kindergarten, we should look at what matters most for thriving in life. The data is very clear: academic performance is not a good predictor of a lifetime of flourishing. To thrive in the future economy we need less fact- regurgitating and more creativity. To help our children thrive in life, we need to stop worrying about test scores and start encouraging them to increase positive emotion by developing their gifts and strengths.

Why is it that schools from college to kindergarten aren't measuring the results that matter: how their graduates fare in life? When you look at many years of real-life data you find a very different picture than most of us are usually given. Positive emotion predicts creativity, longevity, physical health, relationship satisfaction and career success. Let's start kids on the right path and focus on what will matter most for their lives.

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