A digital-age ‘tiger mother’

Whether or not New York Times columnist David Brooks is right that “Amy Chua is a wimp,” digital age tiger parents certainly aren’t – they’re lion-hearted (or courageously open-minded, flexible, and engaged).

By Anne Collier

The subhead might be “Where parenting meets the State of the Union.” Anyway, I know I touched on this last week, but – upon hearing the State of the Union address and reading a David Brooks column on parenting (not a typical topic for him) in the same week – it seemed there was more to be said on the subject (feel free to weigh in in our forum, in a comment below this post at NetFamilyNews or via anne[at]netfamilynews.org – with your permission, I might want to share your comments in the newsletter)…

New York Times columnist David Brooks may’ve gone a bit far in saying “Amy Chua is a wimp” (or his headline writer did) but – after President Obama called this “our generation’s sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address and in light of his call for highspeed Internet access for 98% of Americans – maybe not all that far. Not in the digital age, where children’s tech, media, and social literacy will have a lot to do with their country’s economic competitiveness when they’re part of the workforce. Brooks surprised and delighted me when, echoing a lot of the social-media research I follow and blog about, he wrote:

I believe [Chua is] coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t. Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group – these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions – when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

And Prof. James Paul Gee at Arizona State University said in an interview for Frontline’s “Digital Nation”: “We’re growing a bunch of people who see what they do as social and collaborative … and they want to teach, mentor, lead and build as part of those communities…. It’s dangerous to be an expert in one narrow thing…. We’re seeing cross-functional teams in play, in workplaces, they’re a very important way of being in the world of the 21st century…. And kids are ready for this world” – if, I would add, if they have digital-age tiger parents who are willing to resist the temptation to pine for the good old ways and days and engage in a very different way than Amy Chua’s version of Tiger Mother.

Taking a highly authoritarian approach to social tech use and viewing it in a categorical way is actually the easy way out for parents now. It’s also ineffective. Not that parents could ever honestly operate from a place of “I know all,” but in an age of proliferating small social devices, apps, hot spots (including friends’ houses), discipline workarounds, and information pouring in from a near infinite number of sources besides Mom and Dad, much less so. “Just say no” works less than ever (see “Soft-power parenting works better”).

So moving past whether or not Amy Chua’s a “wimp” (by definition, parents just aren’t wimps), what are digital-age tiger parents like? They know it’s in their children’s interests if parents and kids figure out how to make the best of the new very social, user-driven media environment together, working with them to maximize its benefits, knowing that 1) kids need to swim in this pond which, like all environments and tools, includes some risks and 2) that swimming well, like growing up, takes trial-and-error practice. They know they’re doing this in the middle of a global media shift that has profound socio-political implications, a cloud of cognitive dissonance, a US education system in transition, and with the Internet mirror of adolescent (and parental and virtually all other) behavior in their faces more than they’d like. But they also see that, though the reflection in the Internet mirror is not always pretty, the unprecedented insight it offers into their children’s lives is an opportunity too. And that’s just the parenting part of all that they do. Digital-age tiger parents are lion-hearted!

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