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Teach Your Child Self-Discipline Without Tiger-Parenting Them To Death

The importance of teaching children self-discipline and the educational power of fun – are also unusually well-supported by science.
SPECIAL MINISERIES: Dr. Wang Explains Your Child’s Brain.

What’s the Big Idea? 

The publication of Amy Chua’s 2010 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Motherunleashed a parental s#*tstorm across the Western blogosphere. At its core, the apoplectic backlash against Chua’s parenting (which, granted, does have its horrific moments*) revealed a culture clash between two parenting styles: one promoting children’s self-esteem, the other prioritizing self-discipline.  

In the book, Chua asserts that her rigorous parenting style (no tv, no sleepovers, hours of daily violin and piano practice, expectations of academic perfection), is “Chinese,” and based on the view that  “Childhood is a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future.”

The resultant debate, therefore, produced two misleading binaries: “East vs. West,” and “Amy Chua vs. Everybody Else”. Critiques included:

  • Chua has misrepresented Chinese parenting.
    • Chinese parenting produces stereotypically “successful” but unimaginative people unprepared to compete in the creative “ideas economy.”
      • “Success” in life is about more than grades and income.
        • Real “tiger mothers” (i.e. actual tigers) let their cubs play.
          • Chua is personally insane.
          • While intriguing, all of this somewhat misses the point. According to Princeton neuroscientist (and parent to a four-year-old) Sam Wang, Chua is definitely right about one thing: teaching your kids self-discipline is good parenting. He cites numerous longitudinal studies demonstrating that self-disciplined toddlers are more likely to grow into persistent, positive, healthy, and satisfied adults. Wang and co-author Sandra Aamodt explore this and other developmental issues with humor, scientific rigor, and reassuring pragmatism in their forthcoming book, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain.

            Happily, it seems that we can have our cake and eat some of it, too. “An important point here,” says Wang, “is that willpower [i.e. self-discipline] training in children is most effective when the child is having fun.”  Intense stress is a poor learning tool at best, and potentially harmful to the developing brain, especially in sensitive children. Gently guided play, a powerful approach exemplified by the school program“Tools of the Mind”,  can incorporate self-discipline training into the imaginative play that children naturally engage in and enjoy.

            What’s the Significance?

            Since ‘parenting’ became a word, it has also become incredibly complicated. Raising children has never been easy, but it’s safe to say that today’s parents face an unprecedentedly dizzying array of research-supported methods for turning little Parker or Kaylee into a successful, well-adjusted grownup. Comment threads and online parent networks can whip parental neurosis into a rabid frenzy over anything from a child’s lost hat to the very serious issue of childhood vaccination.

            The wealth of new data also exposes how little we actually know, raising new questions, concerns, and debates. Longitudinal studies, which track human development over years or decades, are expensive and tricky to execute. So the scientifically-supported parenting advice that appears in the media – about tv’s effects on the developing brain, for example – is often based on studies of short-term effects, or teased out by statistical analysis, or extrapolated from analogous, better understood aspects of child development.  

            Here’s the good news: Two things that are intuitively obvious to most parents – the importance of teaching children self-discipline and the educational power of fun – are also unusually well supported by science. Tiger Parents and Teddy Bears, rejoice! Here’s a middle ground you can agree on in good conscience: play-based learning that will help your child grow into a capable and happy adult.


            *e.g. drawing a frowny face on the birthday card her four-year-old daughter Lulu had made for her because it didn’t show enough “thought and effort,” and announcing: “I reject this.”  Or threatening to burn all of Lulu’s stuffed animals if she didn’t master ‘The Little White Donkey’ on the piano by the next day.


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