Parents Need to Relax—Even the 'Tiger Mother' Thinks So

Parents tend to think their kids want more from them. But what they really wish is that their parents wouldn't be so anxious.

Parents tend to think their kids want more from them. But what they really wish is that their parents wouldn't be so anxious.

Video courtesy of Ellen Galinsky

The question to the children in the video above was, "What message would you like to give the parents of America?" One kid's answer: "If you're stressed out and you're tired, take a little nap."

Parenting researcher Ellen Galinsky produced the video as part of her 1999 "Ask the Children" project and book. The study, the first to ask children their views on their parents' work, asked a representative national sample of American third through twelfth graders whose parents worked what they'd wish for their employed parent or parents. And while the parents largely guessed their kids would wish for more time with them, they were wrong: The kids' top wish was for their parents to be less tired and stressed.

The children in the study said what they wanted from their parents wasn't "quality time" or "quantity time," but time to just hang out. But parents, particularly upper-class ones, are often too concerned with structuring their kids' lives -- to the point that the children often don't develop life skills of their own. In their constant striving to create perfectly happy kids, anxious parents often create the opposite.

In a talk about parenting at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday, even "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua agreed with the idea that what kids need today is less anxious parents who give them the space to develop their own inner resources.

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Chua, a Yale Law professor whose Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother caused a storm of controversy for its praise of strict, traditional Asian parenting over what she depicted as Americans' softer style, is nobody's idea of a relaxed parent, but she pointed out that she also wasn't overprotective -- and she didn't spend her time fretting about whether her children were happy.

"I kind of see tiger parenting as the opposite of helicopter parenting," Chua said. (Her take on why Tiger Mother caused such a furor: "My book tapped into America's two deepest anxieties, fear of parenting and fear of China.")

Even the book's notorious anecdote about the time Chua kept her 7-year-old daughter at the piano for hours, refusing to let her eat or go to the bathroom until she mastered a difficult piece, was about instilling focus and confidence, she said.

"My daughter has said a lot of mean things about me," Chua laughed, "but one nice thing she has said is, 'Mommy, I remember that exact moment when I'm sitting in a chemistry test in school, thinking, "I can't do this." I remember that moment...when, through hard work and keeping at it, I discovered I could.'"

By contrast, Chua said, her older daughter Sophia, now a Harvard student, reports having classmates whose parents edit their papers before they turn them in -- kids who've had their hands held by achievement-obsessed parents their whole lives and don't know how, or have the confidence, to function on their own.

Erika Christakis, a writer and educator who serves as a house master at Harvard, where her husband is a professor, joined in the fretting about today's overprotected Ivy Leaguers -- and offered a vivid example. "At Harvard, we see a lot of people who have checked all the boxes, done all the worksheets, and then they get to college and they're really adrift, because they don't have the social and emotional skills," she said.

To wit, Christakis read aloud this astonishing email her husband received from a student:

Hi Prof,

I attended lecture yesterday and found out that we had an exam due for the course last week. Until the lecture mentioned it yesterday, I was oblivious to the fact that we had an exam due! My attempt to notify you of this yesterday didn't pan out. Upon my subsequent reinspection of the syllabus, I also noticed that there were two reading assignments due before the midterm. Those, too, I didn't know were due at any particular time.

I am completely astonished about these revelations and not sure how this happened. I'm also surprised you didn't notify me earlier of my failure to complete these assignments. What do you suggest that we do?

It's easy to judge parents, and we do it too much, as Galinsky noted. But the panel found agreement around the idea of what Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist and author of Playful Parenting, called "relaxed high expectations" -- encouraging kids to push themselves without making them case studies in our own anxieties.

"I got a panicked call from a mother who said, 'I'm really worried about my child. She's 4, and she hasn't found her passion yet, even though I've signed her up for 12 activities,'" Cohen said. "Parents heard that children learn through play, so then they thought every play moment has to be educational -- 'How many wheels does that truck have? What color is the truck?' The poor child can't play with the truck!"

In other words, hey, anxious American parents: Just relax.