Why I stopped being a tiger mother

Like many parents, Tanith Carey found herself in a never-ending race to ensure that her two daughters were on the path to success – until she realised that she was doing them more harm than good. She explains what made her take her foot off the gas – and how others can, too
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My 10-year-old daughter Lily sat back on the therapist's chair and described the evil culprit responsible for making her believe she would never be able to do maths. Then asked to draw this person, Lily sketched an angry, disapproving figure, hands on hips, with a mouth open with criticism, standing over her impatiently.

The person who made Lily freeze whenever she had to take a test was not a teacher, or even me, her mother. It was the carping voices coming from inside her own head. When asked who the voices belonged to, Lily replied: "It's me, but the mean me."

In today's hothouse educational atmosphere, tests, exams and performance reviews start sooner than ever for our children. For both parents and teachers, the expectations of what kids should be able to do at a younger age have become higher. No wonder our children are internalising these negative voices.

Of course, I had never meant to pressure Lily. Like every other parent, I assumed I was doing my best to keep her afloat.

When I gave birth to my first child in 2001, I gave birth in a culture where, from the moment the umbilical cord is cut, I lived with the fear that I could never do enough to make my children the brightest and best. Encouraged by the spiel of educational toys and videos, I believed there was no time to waste because the neural explosion in her brain would have all but fizzled out by the age of three. As a naive first-time parent who also fell for the belief that I could mould my child's brain like putty, my bookshelf soon groaned under the weight of books with titles like Make Your Child Brilliant and Bring Out the Genius in Your Child.

At parents' evenings, I didn't just want to hear the teachers tell me Lily was happy and settled. Even though she was still at the stage of finger-painting and learning to write her ABCs, I was holding out to hear she had the promise of a young Monet or Morpurgo.

But children are not animals to be trained to perform in a circus. To win at tiger parenting, you have to have a child who is willing to go along with it. Behind closed doors, my home was fast moving away from the oasis of fun I had intended it to be. Our free time together seemed to have become an endless round of worksheets and educational games. I couldn't even bake cupcakes without wanting to turn the exercise into a teachable moment to talk about weighing and measuring.

With this tension rising, the alarm bells had started ringing for us in Year 4, when Lily's maths homework turned into a battlefield. At first, I feared dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent to dyslexia. But an educational psychologist's report found no evidence of such a difficulty. What it did identify, however, was Lily's innate lack of confidence. She was developing Maths Anxiety. At stressful moments, such as during tests, although she looked perfectly calm, she would "blank out". Maths had become coded in her mind as danger and her fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. In other words, the very section of the brain she needed to engage to answer the questions was shutting down.

So I visited Jenny Foster, a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming. As a teacher of 30 years' experience, Jenny believes that the pressure on children to perform from an early age is contributing to a rise in learning anxiety. The youngest child she has helped is six.

Concerned, as a parenting journalist, that the same thing was happening in other families, but no one had yet joined the dots, over the next three years I interviewed educators, parents, child psychologists and teenagers who had come through the competitive education system. What struck me most was the scale of the emotional fallout for parents and children alike. Far from making our children excel, the tiger parenting that so many of us have adopted, fearing we have no other choice, is making our kids do worse.

You only have to be part of the paranoia about what Biff and Chip reading book your child is on (some primaries have stopped using the take-home folders because parents constantly check out what level their child's classmates are on) to see how children are rushed through levels even though they don't necessarily understand the sense – so putting them off reading, with long-term consequence for their learning.

Very soon, children become worried that they are not among the ones who "get it", and panic – and the anxiety becomes self-reinforcing. To the adult eye, they appear lazy and "not bothered". But as the educator and former head Noël Janis-Norton told me: "They're often children who have tried just one too many times and failed."

In the past few years, it has become so that it is no longer enough for our children to be strong in one or two subjects. Now a truly successful child has to be an all-rounder in the academic subjects, sport and music. The pressure ramps up in secondary school, where the gaps between the exams get shorter and grades, not learning, become the primary goal.

No sooner have children left the GCSE exam hall than they are studying for AS levels a year later. "A" grades have to be liberally sprinkled with stars to really count. University application forms have to read like CVs, in which students must prove to tutors that they have been absorbed by their chosen subject since birth, yet still had the time to scale the highest peaks in Britain as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award. The tragedy of all this over-investment is that we are not producing a brave new world of more accomplished wunderkind. Instead, we are producing some of the most anxious children in the world. Unicef has put British children in 16th place – out of 21 countries – for happiness.

The irony is that performance parenting pushes away the very people we are trying to protect. While all of us would say we love our children no matter what, that's not always the message that children hear. Instead, they become angry when they feel we are turning them into passive projects. Rather than feel like they are disappointing us, they disconnect or become compulsive people-pleasers who feel they can never do enough.

Like Lily, they start to see their parents as part of the problem, always expecting us to expect more. In my daughter's eyes, I became an extension of an overbearing school system. We drifted apart as she stopped looking me in the eye and became more tense and irritable.

Thanks to my coming to terms with the reason, I changed direction and took my foot off the gas. Gradually, with the help of techniques I describe in my new book, such as spending dedicated time with Lily for its own sake, we repaired our relationship. Now 12, she is thriving because she has found her motivation and she is succeeding in her own way, not in mine. With my second child, Clio, now 9, I had learnt my lesson and she was less stressed as a result.

I imagine some of you are reading this because you genuinely want the best for your child but can't see any way of achieving that without being a tiger parent. Maybe you have had enough not only of the relentless pace of modern family life and how it ruins your experience of parenting, but also the constant tension and how it poisons the atmosphere in your home. Most of all, there's a good chance you don't like how being constantly measured and judged makes the children you love feel about themselves. Possibly you can't remember the last time you saw them truly feeling carefree. So you might want a way out. But you simply can't see an option if your child is not going to be left behind.

But there are ways to find the confidence to step off this carousel – above all, to remember that stressed kids don't learn well. Rather than take away the seats in this frantic game of musical chairs, we need to offer our children more support, not more lectures. Instead of turning our homes into educational boot-camps, we need to turn them into havens.

It's time for us to look again at what it means to be a successful parent and put ourselves in our children's shoes to imagine how they will look back on their childhood: as a time when they were allowed to discover themselves, or as endless hurrying from one exam to the next?

Should we judge ourselves on our ability to turn our offspring into high achievers who gain entry to the top universities and get the best jobs? Or should we judge ourselves on the ability to guide our children towards becoming happy, ethical, compassionate people who like themselves and value the world around them?

Of course, put like this, it's a no-brainer. My question is, why are we still raising children as if we don't know the answer?

'Taming the Tiger Parent: How to put your child's well-being first in a competitive world', by Tanith Carey, is out now (Constable & Robinson, 8.99