Not another piece about the Tiger Mother, promise!

over-protective parenting

Not another piece about the Tiger Mother, promise!

I will not here enter the debate about whether 6 hours of violin practice for a six year old is excessive, and/or whether making our 6 year olds practice the violin for 6 hours is in fact the only way for the US to regain its waning economic preeminence. Instead, I’d like to talk about a surprising discovery: Amy Chua, the famed Tiger Mother, is actually a RIE mom! OK, not really, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t describe herself as such, but her parenting “approach” certainly would support the number one RIE principle: “Basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner.” This analysis, from Annie Murphy Paul’s astute Time Magazine piece on Chua and the nearly mass hysterical reaction she has provoked, helped open my eyes to Chua’s essential RIE-ness.

Discussing Chua’s assertion that American parents go too far in insulating their children from discomfort and distress, Paul points out that research backs Chua up. Specifically, Paul quotes Hara Estroff Marano, whose 2008 book “A Nation of Wimps,” sounded the alarm on over-protective parenting:

Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences.’ “ Marano told Paul. “Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned that they’re capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.

As Magda Gerber, child therapist and founder of RIE, knew a half century ago, babies too have “mastery experiences.” A baby who is allowed to struggle rather than being picked up or helped, will demonstrate greater self-confidence and react better to future challenges. When effort is rewarded, not by a parent saying, “good job!” but by actual accomplishment – the baby reaches his goal without assistance from the parent – pride is the result, and pride begets confidence. Anyone who has watched a baby or toddler, trying with all her might to accomplish her goal, whether it is grasping the wooden block just out of reach or doing a solo climb atop a low stair structure knows the radiant and proud smile that accompanies the success.

Anyone who has attended a RIE class, or classes inspired by the philosophy and beliefs of Magda Gerber, is also aware of how difficult it can be to allow a child of any age to have this kind of challenging experience. On the one hand, our instincts urge us to help. Watching a baby struggle in class I’ve often thought, “That baby is trying to reach that toy, she would really love playing with that toy… This could go on forever. Maybe I should just give her the toy already!” On the other hand, as a parent sitting with other parents, I’ve also thought, “They must think I’m a really bad mom, I won’t even help my own baby – their babies all have toys, what’s the big deal? Why don’t I just give her the toy already!” Next time you find yourself in such a situation, take a deep breath, relax, wait, and observe. You’ll see what your baby’s tolerance levels are, you may learn that she can be much more patient than you, and you may see your baby accomplish something she wouldn’t have had the chance to if you had “helped out.”

You may also learn a thing or two about problem-solving. I have observed that even when the result is not successful mastery, being allowed to struggle with a task may still impart valuable lessons. Last week in class, I watched as a 9-month old tried to grasp a woolen ring placed just out of reach. He tried to roll himself closer, he tried to elongate his arm, he tried to push himself with his legs to get closer. Nothing was working. Meantime, I was having the familiar struggle to not just push the ring a little nearer. Instead I waited and watched. The baby rested, he looked around him, spotted a wooden block by his feet, maneuvered himself around, and proceeded to play contentedly with that block on and off for the next fifteen minutes. Imagine if we could all deal so creatively and calmly with frustration in our lives?

Will allowing your child to struggle to accomplish difficult tasks from the very start of his life help close the test score gap with China? Who knows. It might well make for a nation of children with higher tolerance levels, better equipped to deal with frustration, and creative about overcoming obstacles. Which all sounds good to me.