Much is being said today, in both social and high school circles, of so-called Tiger Moms, overprotective (or helicopter) parents, and even lawnmower parents; my wife and I were the very antithesis of all that.
I guess you could describe our style as laid back parenting. As parents, we were both underwhelming in our need to regulate and direct our children’s academic aspirations. Yet we managed to help three daughters make their way to graduate schools at highly competitive graduate schools. Here’s how we did it.
First of all, it helps to have education in the blood.
D. H. Lawrence said, “The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next.” As a native Japanese, my wife comes from a long line of academics; two of her uncles were college professors and her father was a Buddhist priest. Moreover, as a culture, the Japanese are famous for the respect they show toward “sensei” or teachers.
My background is more gritty and mundane. I come from Chicago Irish ancestry, blue-collar people who put more stock in practical than academic pursuits. Nonetheless, my mother taught me to read when I was four years old and kept me well supplied with monthly Landmark books throughout my formative years. As a result, in college I learned to throw back Guinness with the best of them while simultaneously reading James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
Oddly, this wide divergence of country and background helped shape our laid back parenting skills. When two sides are as far apart culturally as my wife and I, we learned to better appreciate diversity and accommodate each other’s viewpoints. This laissez-faire attitude — and our shared appreciation for literature — no doubt spilled over into the way we brought up our four daughters. Our daughters always seemed to have a book in their hands. It wasn’t that we demanded it; it was just the natural thing to do.
In fact, around the house, we demanded very little. Whether it was education or activities, laid back parenting worked for us.
We never felt compelled to set rules and regulations, monitor activities, establish curfews and dictate behavior. We never saw ourselves as martinets or policemen. Our policy was simply to figure out what our children were interested in and to get interested in the same things ourselves.
For example, when our oldest daughter was three, she began leaning on the coffee table in the living room, with one leg balanced in the air, saying, “Daddy, look, ballet”. This kept up for several weeks. Finally, my wife figured the child was serious and enrolled her in dance class, where she thrived, along with our second daughter, who displayed a similar interest.
When it became clear that both daughters were interested in dance, I turned to my wife and said, “Hey, honey, no football players here, just dancers. Let’s join them.” Subsequently, my wife became an excellent jazz dancer and I learned to hold my own in hip hop.
We never forced unwanted piano or violin lessons. Instead, we let each child determine the activity, whether art or sport, and, when possible, we joined in!
When our third daughter decided that sport was more to her liking than pirouettes, she ditched dance to run track. At that point in our lives, my wife and I were unable to attempt the high hurdles, but we watched her meets and extended our support whenever possible. And support was the name of our game. We let their free spirits drive their pursuits, whether those impulses are directed toward dance, sports, art or music.
My wife and I had only four rules for our daughters:
- Don’t drive drunk
- Don’t do hard drugs
- Don’t get pregnant
- And call us, whatever the time, whatever the reason, if you need help in any way. No questions asked.
In our household, support and encouragement trumped rules and regulations.
Maybe we were just lucky. Or maybe we were on to something. I recall vividly some problems we were having with our youngest when she was fourteen and “acting out” — skipping dance, cutting classes at school, hanging out with the wrong group of friends. Our oldest daughter took her aside one day, looked her squarely in the eye and said: “Don’t you get it? Mom and Dad will give you the freedom to do what you want in high school but only if you show them you deserve it. Do you really want curfews, groundings and the rest? Or do you want to be able to shape your own destiny?”
That was exactly what we encouraged all our children to do.