London - This week I made a decision that means I am finally handing back my stripes as a Tiger Mother.
After all, like the best of them, I have been known to take my daughter Lily, 11, to Saturday morning Mandarin classes, fire maths questions at her in the back of the car and hire tutors at £75 (R1 290) an hour.
But when it came to reap the rewards for all my years of hard work – let alone Lily’s efforts – at the critical moment I drew in my claws.
Despite spending £500 on entry fee exams for five of the best private schools – as well a small fortune on lessons to help her prepare a Grade 7 violin piece for music scholarship auditions – at the 11th hour, I told Lily she didn’t have to sit a single one.
Yes, you heard it right. I have let my daughter choose her own school – a state academy where it’s possible she may not get as many A stars – but where Lily will thrive as a whole person rather than be there to provide asterisks for the league tables.
I won’t pretend it’s been easy to give up my hyper-mothering ways. For me, the journey to being a slow parent – the new term for those who decide to stop pushing – has been long and painful. But as my cautionary tale – and a growing body of research is showing – treating children like academic thoroughbreds who have to be ridden from one set of exams to another, can all too often do them harm.
Of course, like every parent, I started out assuming I was simply doing the very best for my child.
When Lily, my first baby, arrived in December 2001, I was ecstatic. But as well as loving and cuddling her, I also assumed it was my job to stimulate her with educational toys, games and videos until the synapses positively fizzed and popped in her tiny infant brain.
I’d experienced a childhood of benign neglect, where I was pretty much left to my own devices when I wasn’t at school.
Although I’d done well at school without any parental input, the discoveries in neuroscience had persuaded me that children’s brains were like little bits of putty that needed to be moulded. My bookshelf groaned under the weight of titles like: Make Your Child Brilliant and Bring Out The Genius In Your Child.
Meanwhile, I moaned about how little my own mother and father had stimulated me when I was growing up in the 1970s. I would indignantly recall how I was left to just “go and play”.
At first, all seemed to go perfectly to plan. When I charted Lily’s progress against the developmental milestones I’d been told to aim for, I took smug satisfaction in her appearing to be ahead of the curve. But when Lily went to school at the age of three, my bubble abruptly burst.
At the private nursery she attended, I found myself surrounded by other mothers locked into the same race to make their children the brightest and the best. At parents’ evenings, I didn’t want to hear the teachers tell me just that Lily was happy and settled. Although she was at the stage of finger-painting and learning to write her ABCs, I was holding out to hear that she had the promise of a young Picasso or JK Rowling.
As Lily got older, I came to learn how insidiously contagious pushy parenting is. If one of the mothers spotted another parent with a maths folder for a specific after-school study programme, we all rushed to sign up, too – fearful our children would be left behind.
Neurosis underpinned every school gate conversation – particularly as all of us were aiming to get our children into a small handful of selective private schools nearby.
Bit by bit, the parenting journey that had started off being so exciting and rewarding was turning into a stressful game of one-upmanship.
But children are not products to be developed and put on show to reflect well on us.
Every child is conceived with a unique combination of genes that maps out their strengths, weaknesses and personality traits before they are born.
Lily may have been bred into a competitive hotbed. But as an innately modest and sensitive child, she decided she didn’t want to play. The alarm bells started ringing in her second year at school when, after I personally made sure she turned in the best Space project, she won the prize.
While I applauded uproariously from the sidelines, Lily, then seven, fled in tears and refused to accept the book token from the head teacher.
When she calmed down, she explained she hated our making a fuss. But what is just as likely is that she disliked the fact her successes had become as much ours as hers. Even at that young age, she seemed to realise the more she succeeded, the more pressure she would be under to keep it up.
Over the next few years, the issues only deepened. Lily’s homework became a battlefield. She would barely open her books before yelling “I’m stuck” – when really she was just terrified of getting it wrong.
To try to understand her, my husband, Anthony, and I took her to see an educational psychologist, who found strong cognitive scores and no signs of learning difficulties.
The report did discover how profoundly Lily’s self-worth had been affected. Although I had not told her she should be top of the class, she felt she had to be good at everything. If she couldn’t be, she thought there was no point in trying.
It was clear, despite our best efforts to support her, that Lily felt constantly criticised. She was becoming defensive and resentful.
Most seriously of all, by claiming she couldn’t do her homework – when she could – she was testing if my love for her was conditional on her success.
I had to face up to the painful truth that unless I took immediate action – and killed off my inner Tiger Mother – my child and I were in danger of growing apart.
So for the sake of my daughter, I realised I had to change direction.
When her tutor rang to tell me Lily needed a break, I was delighted to agree. Since then, I have let her focus on the subjects that really matter to her – art and music – and have let her decide what direction to take them in.
I also make an effort to spend time with Lily – just the two of us – so we can simply “be” together. Instead of trips to museums and to classical concerts, we walk in the park and go to cafés for hot chocolate.
At the same time, I realised I needed to take some targeted action. Over the years, an inner critic had grown up inside Lily’s head that kept telling her she was not good enough. I realised I needed to take quite deliberate steps to address that if she was to be happy with herself again.
To help her recognise and dismiss the voice that was doing her down, I took her to see Jenny Foster, a neuro-linguistic programming coach who teaches children strategies to untangle the persistent negative thoughts that undermine their self-belief – and replace them with positive ones.
Before we began, Foster explained that Lily’s issues were not uncommon. As a teacher with 30 years’ experience, she believes the growing pressure on children to perform from an early age is contributing to a rise in learning anxiety. The youngest child she has helped was six.
And children like Lily, who don’t relish a contest, are among the biggest casualties.
At home, some have been made to feel by parents that they are not good enough or are intimidated by more academic sisters and brothers. Some may develop an inferiority complex simply because they are born into high-achieving families.
Once established, failure can become self-reinforcing. Even when they get good marks, children like Lily dwell on the pupil who got the higher mark to support their negative views of their abilities, making it a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
Foster asked Lily if she had ever heard a nagging voice in her head that put her down. Lily looked surprised but answered that yes, she had. Asked who it was, my daughter replied: “It’s me, but the mean me.”
Asked to draw this character, Lily depicted an angry, disapproving female figure with her hands on her hips, with a mouth spouting the words: “Blah, blah, blah!” When asked to name her, Lily thought for a moment before coming up with the name Miss Trunch-Lily, so-called because the figure is half herself – and half the hectoring teacher from Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
Now Miss Trunch-Lily had been nailed, Foster and Lily agreed on a way to deal with her. She imagined a cannon that would instantly send a shower of gobstoppers into her mouth so she couldn’t say another word. Next time Lily heard her nagging voice, all she had to do was press an imaginary button and her nemesis would be silenced.
In the months that followed seeing Foster, Lily seemed to relax. Gradually, her procrastination about homework started to vanish. In the run-up to the exams, as long as she did the homework she was set in class, I let her do what she wanted to with her time, rather than set her a test paper every night, as I knew other parents were doing.
Of course, I had to hold my nerve. It’s not easy trying to be a slow parent when virtually every other child taking the exams is being tutored. But in the weeks leading up to the tests this month, I had to ask myself why Lily was taking them.
She already had a music scholarship to an excellent school she wanted to go to because she liked the atmosphere. When I looked long and hard at myself about why I was putting her through them, I had to admit my inner Tiger Mum was lurking – and I just wanted to see how many more music scholarships she might be offered.
Good for pampering my parent ego, but not for a little girl who was about to see her self-worth measured in the number of acceptance letters she might or might not receive.
Now when I talk about my struggles with being a slow parent, I often find that other parents look askance – particularly those who firmly believe they are responsible for making their children into the successes they are.
But a bigger picture is also emerging: a rise in anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm among children who have grown up with this continual pressure.
Even among children who succeed in this environment, educationists are finding pushy parenting creates a drive towards perfectionism, which can turn into self-criticism when these young people can’t live up to such high standards.