“Tiger Mom” and the “Race to Nowhere”

by Joshua Frank

“Where were you yesterday?”  The question came from a seventh-grade girl on a Tuesday morning in February.  She was among hundreds of students entering the large suburban middle school where I am principal.  I usually greet these students as they enter the school from busses between 7:30 and 7:40, but I’d had a meeting at 7:30 the previous morning, and hadn’t been there. She had noticed.  That she had noticed might seem ironic.  After all, seventh graders generally try to put a lot of distance between themselves and the adult authorities in their lives.  Her question reminds us that even as they seem to be pushing us away, our middle-school age children are paying careful attention to our presence.  They thrive on the consistency of our presence in their lives, even if they rarely tell us so.

 Two critiques of our parenting and educational culture had generated much discussion that winter.  A book entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, “preaches tough love and high expectations,” according to The New York Times Book Review, and Race to Nowhere, a film described as “featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink.”  These critiques, and the buzz that both created, had me wondering.  Why are these messages so contradictory?   We are being told that we work our children too hard at the same time we are being told we don’t work them hard enough.  We are being told that we focus too much on achievement, and at the same time that we don’t focus enough on achievement.  Why do we react so strongly to these critiques?  Chua’s book was on the cover of Time magazine, while Race to Nowhere was playing at schools and theaters around the country.   Don’t we trust ourselves to raise and educate our children?

It’s important to ask these questions, without settling for simple answers.   There should be joy, creativity and engagement in learning; at the same time, hard work is often required before we experience joy, creativity and engagement.  We all have strengths and challenges as learners.  We must understand our strengths and be willing to acknowledge and address our areas of challenge. Hard work is required for achievement, but achievement is empty if there is no joy in the work. Children are individuals who develop at different rates, and who have different areas of engagement and strength in what and how they learn.  These differences should be respected, but not at the expense of learning the value of effort.  That seventh grader’s question reminds me of something just as important to raising and educating children: we need to be there.

“Why am I doing this?”  -a senior in high school asks this question halfway through Race to Nowhere.  She then outlines a simple formula.  “Grades, college, job, happy.  But if I’m not healthy, it doesn’t add up.”  She’s right; it doesn’t add up.  It doesn’t add up because she has been offered too simple a formula for happiness.  As adults, parents and educators, I hope we learn to trust ourselves enough to let children play, learn through engagement, and experience joy when they can.  I also hope we trust ourselves enough to require our children to acknowledge when learning is a challenge, and require them to work hard when learning is more difficult, or to take a step toward a difficult and distant goal. I hope we trust ourselves enough to understand that it will take a long time for them to grow up, so getting it right may take them many attempts.  I hope we trust ourselves to recognize and value their differences from each other, and from us.  I hope that we trust ourselves to realize that sometimes it’s important to let our children live in the moment, and sometimes it’s important to have them think about the future, and that over time we can help them figure out that balance.  Our children can learn this more complicated formula for happiness by living it with us every day.  That’s why I was so happy with the question, “Where were you yesterday?”

Joshua Frank is Assistant Principal for Instruction and Director of the Freshman Academy at Randolph (MA) High School.  He taught social studies in the Brookline Public Schools for sixteen years, and held administrative positions in Brookline and Wellesley, MA. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and holds masters degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.