Walking the Line

Mother teaching baby to play piano

Somewhere between high expectations and open-minded parenting, I walk the line with my children—both expecting and hoping that they will be happy and engaged people now and in their future.

I sympathize with tiger parents, as the memoir of a couple of years ago called them, who set strict rules and expectations for their children. They want high achievers. I think I understand that desire.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read a biography of Tiger Woods. He wasn’t a maladjusted adult then but just a young golfing phenom. He golfed because that is what one did in his family. He golfed well because he probably spent his 10,000 hours practicing before he hit his teens.

Forgive me now for what I’m about to write, since hindsight changes my view a bit, but I wondered reading that biography how I could help my child grow into her future self life this hot, new golfer did. I saw that expectations drew him forward into his career. I knew I would set expectations for my children.

I sympathize with radical unschoolers, as well. They advocate learning that is initiated and controlled by the learner.

I know that coercion has the opposite of desired effect on some kids. From the experience my own 24+ years of formal education, I know that my self-directed learning is all I retain. I’m not saying the formal schooling was useless, though, it was a catalyst for me a lot of the time. Even as an adult, I kept (and I keep) going back for more and more degrees and certificates. I get something out of it, but I learn more on my own than I do from teachers. Sometimes. Usually.

Realizing this about my own education, I knew that internally motivated learning was my goal for my children.

I’ve known people who come from both kinds of homes. I’ve seen people turn out focused and happy from both, and I’ve seen people turn out confused and resentful from both. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter how you parent. Of course it does! I’m just trying to figure out why I find both of these approaches attractive in some way when they seem so contradictory on the surface.

In trying to figure out how I’ve managed to walk the line so far between expectations and openness with my homeschooled children, it occurs to me that I’ve needed both approaches. Is that contradictory? I think it isn’t—or maybe it is, and that just doesn’t matter to me. I think the reason both work for me, for us as a family, is that they have different goals.

The high expectations of tiger parenting focus on achievement. The radical openness of unschooling focuses on learning. They each emphasize a different phase in the journey—the result or the journey itself.

Malcolm Gladwell tries to make big ideas digestible for a mainstream audience. His big idea in Outliers was high achievement. “Achievement,” he wrote, “is talent plus preparation.” It’s in this book that he popularized the idea that mastery takes at least 10,000 hours.

Yes, innate talent exists, but there is no way around the need for practice, exercise, and preparation for achievement. The tiger parent sets expectations for preparation, which can work when the talent is there—and when the talent coincides with desire. Coercion can’t force a child to want what they achieve, though. A child who doesn’t have time or space to understand their own internal motivations might not find that sweet spot where desire, talent, and practice come together. Denying a child the space to explore their own deepest desires probably means a crisis is coming in the future.

I haven’t been terribly deliberate in setting expectations for my children. They know they are going to college. That wasn’t up for debate, but they also understand that the meaning and use of college is changing rapidly. We focus more on the desired outcome than on the means to that end. They know they are welcome to try out new interests, but they also know they are expected to stick things out when they make a commitment. Quitting in the middle of a book or a class or a conversation is a serious choice. Sometimes we might choose to end what isn’t working for each of us, but we know that kind of choice is rare. I say “we” because the same rules apply to me and to my husband as to the children.

I haven’t been radically open in education either. We do quite a bit of school together. We create a common understanding of basics, like history, science, math, and other subjects that help us understand how things work in the world. Beyond that, though, they have a lot of space to follow their interests and shape their own learning. Beyond that, they are a bit feral.

I’m glad I didn’t go the way of absolute expectations in my parenting, since data shows that tiger parenting doesn’t produce the outcomes of high achievement and happiness that parents hope for. Neither does easy going parenting, which produces more happiness but low achievement. The closest parents come to the desired outcome of high achievement and high happiness—according to a study of tiger parenting—is supportive parenting. In this study, “Warmth, reasoning, monitoring, and democratic parenting were considered positive attributes, while hostility, psychological control, shaming, and punitive measures were considered negative.”

I heard a friend describe her educational style as leading children down a path strewn with interesting baubles to see what they pick up and carry with them. Some baubles we turn over and over to explore them then set them back down. Some become our treasures.

As you figure out where that line is for each of your children between your expectations and their internally-motivated learning, as you walk that line, just keep checking in with the children and keep checking in with yourself about what you already know about the world they are growing into. It’s your job to prepare them, but they will follow their own paths eventually.

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