Parenting wars: Tiger moms versus helicopter parents

The multimillion-pound industry devoted to telling you how to raise your child.

In our anxiety to create the perfect child, we subject out kids to a host of competing fashionable theories. Photograph: Getty Images / Montage by Maria Shulga

Recently I embarked on a long-overdue purge of my bookshelves. In the several dozen bin bags that made their way to the Oxfam bookshop (where the expressions of the staff slowly morphed from pleased gratitude, on my first visit, to unconcealed dread by the fifth) were two copies of the Communist Manifesto (two?); a formidable collection of works by Foucault, Sarraute, Perec and Queneau (I suppose I must once have read them – bookmarking postcards fell out of some of them – but if I did, no trace of the experience has remained); and all my parenting books. Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child, Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys and The Secret of Happy Children, Kate Figes on The Terrible Teens – none of them, I realised, had been purchased by me: all had been acquired for some exercise in journalism – reviewing or interviewing, but never for private reading.

I don’t know what made me think I could raise a child without an instruction manual, especially as I was the single mother of a boy, with no partner or brothers to consult about the mysteries of maleness. Sheer wilfulness, I suppose (and a certain bruised desire to avoid books that wrote of families as consisting of a child with two parents who were, in the days when I was doing my child-rearing, invariably assumed to be a mummy and a daddy). No doubt I should have made a better fist of it if I had been able to embrace Leach and Biddulph as my mentors, but my son is 21 now, and we are far into the territory for which no self-help books on parent/child relationships exist (unless you count D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, as a handy guide on what not to do).

As I began to inhabit my new identity as a mother and a lone parent, bringing up my child felt like an experience too personal and intimate to be trimmed to a template provided by experts. I was keen on babies and small children, and imagined that maternal instinct would cover the basics adequately. In this, I was faithfully replicating my own upbringing. My mother owned a copy of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care, but it hadn’t the air of a book that had been consulted frequently (though oddly enough I read it avidly as a child – so perhaps my son was, by default, a Spock baby).

My mother’s maternal style must in turn have been modelled on her childhood, though my maternal grandmother was the youngest of a family of 13, so there would have been lots of people to offer advice on teething and potty training, a resource that my mother, an only child, and I, the first of my close friends to have a baby, both lacked.

I don’t think that any of the women in my family took a conceptual or political view of child-rearing or parenthood. We were too absorbed by the day-to-day business of reading stories and wiping bottoms to find time to analyse what we were about. (I was the only one of us to combine work with motherhood throughout my son’s childhood, and that wasn’t a considered decision: as a lone parent, I had no choice.)

In my childhood – and, I think, my mother’s – the visionary thinking came from my grandfather, who had spent his infancy and early childhood in the St Pancras workhouse and had, not coincidentally, strong views about the necessity for setting life goals and working towards them, preferably by getting an excellent education.

Even 20 years ago, my unprofessional attitude to bringing up a child was anachronistic; these days I suspect it would be regarded as borderline negligent. Mine was certainly the last generation in which one could allow oneself to muddle along without the assistance of the experts, treating parenthood as though it were analogous to friendship – a relationship that would grow and flourish of its own accord.

I might have done my best to ignore the fact, but as a single parent I was a fragmentary factor in what has grown into an urgent social crisis around the issues of childhood and family. If ever there was a time when one could raise children unselfconsciously, it is long past. Now every aspect of parenthood, from conception and birth to the forming of intellect and character, is the subject of anxious and often agonised scrutiny.

The crisis is both personal and political. On the one hand, as engaged parents, we feel that we are in some sense our children: their successes and failures represent us almost more vividly than our own achievements. And as the condition of youth becomes ever more extended, lasting in attenuated form until middle age and beyond, our children can help to feed our vision of ourselves as perennially young. (Whenever I hear a parent say that they are “more of a friend than a parent” to their son or daughter, I wonder what privately the child might think about that.)

The inevitable consequence of seeing our children as our alter egos and friends is the sense of dread that fills us when they become opaque to us. Children and adolescents need to have parenting from somewhere, and if it isn’t offered by their parents they will seek it among their peers – a group that once might have included mainly the people in their year at school, but which now, thanks to social media and the internet, comprises a global community of “friends” and acquaintances, a world in which the most adhesive parent can find it difficult to stick with its offspring.

Beyond the family, there lies society – a construct composed, alarmingly enough, of other people and their children, many of them not as conscientiously raised as one’s own. The media reports are dismaying; this is a generation disaffected and resentful, alienated from education, or unable to obtain the jobs that were promised them in return for their hard-won examination results, debarred by the lack of an income from buying their own home, the dependency of childhood uneasily protracted by having to return to living in the family home as adults after a taste of freedom at college. Despite our excellent intentions and our strenuous efforts, is this the world we have made for our children?

The confusion of western attitudes to parenting is reflected in a cacophony of contradictory images. Last year the cover of Time magazine featured a photograph of the 26- year-old attachment parenting advocate Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her son Aram, aged nearly four, who was dressed in military- style camouflage pants and standing on a small chair to reach the magnificently tanned breast protruding from her sexy black camisole top.

While Aram suckles in his miniature army fatigues, the infant literacy movement encourages parents to believe that it is never too early to begin learning to read, with initiatives such as Reading Bear, a free online programme for tinies whose editor-in-chief is Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia. Not that a Tiger Mother-ish enthusiasm for prodigies of infant learning is an exclusively 21st-century phenomenon. Dr Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale recorded in her Family Book of 1766 the achievements of her two-year-old daughter, Queeney, who later became the disaffected protagonist of Beryl Bainbridge’s splendid novel According to Queeney:

She repeats the Pater Noster, the three Christian virtues, and the signs of the Zodiac in Watts’ verses; she likewise knows them on the globe perfectly well . . . She knows her nine figures and the simplest combinations of them; but none beyond a hundred; she knows all the Heathen Deities by their Attributes and counts to 20 without missing one.

Eat your heart out, Amy Chua.

It is true that there has probably never been a time when parenting was regarded as the exclusive preserve of parents. In Dream Babies, her 1983 study of child-rearing advice to parents from Locke to Spock, Christina Hardyment notes that the history of childcare manuals is almost as old as that of mass publication. The original manuals were book - lets written by doctors for use by nurses in foundling hospitals. “It is with great Pleasure I see at last the Preservation of Children become the Care of Men of Sense,” wrote William Cadogan in his Essay on Nursing (1748). “In my opinion this Business has been too long fatally left to the management of Women who cannot be supposed to have a proper Knowledge to fit them for the Task, notwithstanding they look upon it to be their own Province.”

The sentiment, if not the language, is curiously familiar from the plethora of modern parenting books which, even as they reassure anxious parents, cannot help but undermine their confidence with categorical but contradictory claims to know what is best for their offspring. Baby not sleeping? Gina Ford will fix that in no time. What a relief. Unless, that is, you happen to pick up Penelope Leach’s most recent tome, The Essential First Year: What Babies Need Parents to Know (2010), from which you learn that leaving a distressed baby to cry can produce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (in the baby, that is, rather than the parent) that are toxic to its developing brain and may have long-term emotional consequences, as the anxiety of being left to weep unanswered pursues the beleaguered infant throughout childhood and adult life.

In short, you have a choice between inflicting brain damage and emotional distress if you leave little Magenta to cry herself to sleep; or an identical result if you rush to comfort her every time she wakes in the small hours and then – in an unforgivable, if perhaps understandable, episode of insomnia-induced rage –hurl her into her cot and lie on the floor beside it sobbing inconsolably and screaming, “I wish I’d never had a baby.”

Still, let’s not catastrophise. Somehow you and your child have both survived the essential first year, and even the essential first decade. Now you are entering the difficult hinterland of adolescence, and there are yet more things to worry about.

If you’ve got sons, there is the academic underperformance of boys in the overly feminised school environment, not to mention peer pressure to engage in all kinds of highly hazardous, not to say illegal, behaviour, and the long hours they spend closeted with their computer in their dark and malodorous rooms. For the parents of girls, there are problems of early sexualisation and their fragile relationship with their body image; nor is there any room for complacency about their examination results, which are likely to be affected by their desire not to be regarded as a nerd, neek, or anything other than one of the “popular girls”.

For both sexes there is, besides the universal hazards of bullying and being mugged in the park for your cool stuff, the horrible complication of the way in which emergent adolescent sexuality is formed (or deformed) by online pornography.

Here, happily, Steve Biddulph the nononsense Australian family therapist and childcare guru can help, with his bestselling books Raising Boys and (most recently) Raising Girls. When it comes to bringing up daughters, a mother’s place is invariably in the wrong, and Biddulph’s warmth and wisdom will doubtless console many. Nevertheless, there is something about the spectacle of a middle-aged male expert issuing advice on raising girls that conjures a faint echo of Cadogan’s conviction that the raising of children is best left to men of sense.

The happiness of children (as opposed to their moral education, which predominated in child-rearing manuals before the mid-20th century) is something to which a prodigious amount of expertise has been devoted over the past couple of generations.

Almost two decades ago, in 1994, Penelope Leach published a premonitory tract about the treatment of children in affluent western society. Children First, subtitled What Our Society Must Do – and Is Not Doing – for Our Children Today, was a scathing anatomy of the societal approach to child-rearing which saw parenting as “a universal hobby that is awkward because it cannot be shelved during the working week, interrupts important adult business and is hard on soft furnishings”.

Some of Leach’s most urgent priorities for a child-friendly society have been addressed in the intervening years. Yet her sunlit vision of a world in which children’s needs have equal weight with those of adults remains dismayingly far from reality. In 2007, a Unicef study that assessed the well-being of children in six categories – material; health and safety; education; peer relationships; behaviours and risks; and young people’s own perceptions of their happiness – placed the US second-to-last and the UK last in a league of 21 economically advanced nations.

In the introduction to his book The Beast in the Nursery (1998), the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “As children take for granted, lives are only liveable if they give pleasure.” Yet the Unicef study suggests that despite our obsession with raising happy, successful chil - dren, many of them are trapped in lives that are, by Phillips’s measure, unliveable.

So, what has gone wrong? In Kith, her strange, poetic book on the relationship between childhood and the natural world (to be published in May), the writer Jay Griffiths asks the intractable question: “Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy?” and concludes that, in the affluent west, childhood has become a lost realm.

Children’s books are written by grownups, so it is unwise to call them in evidence when discussing styles of parenting. Nevertheless, it is striking that the fiction best loved by children – from Captain Marryat and Mark Twain, E Nesbit and Richmal Crompton to Jacqueline Wilson and J K Rowling – describes childhood as a state unencumbered by parental interference, in which children confront all kinds of challenges and dangers and survive by their own resourcefulness.

In modern America and Europe, Griffiths notes, children may read about the adventures of Huck Finn or William Brown but they are unlikely to share their experiences: “Many kids today are effectively under house arrest . . . If there is one word which sums up the treatment of children today, it is ‘enclosure’. Today’s children are enclosed in school and home . . . and rigid schedules of time.” Society, she adds, “has historically contrived a school system that is half factory, half prison, and too easily ignores the very education which children crave”.

In How Children Succeed, the Canadian- American writer Paul Tough addresses the question of childhood unhappiness from a perspective that is the precise opposite of Griffiths’s: her approach is lyrical, emotional and elegiac; his is logical, analytical and didactic. Nonetheless their theories converge on a single point – that, as a preparation for life, education is failing huge numbers of children.

Tough’s book, as he writes, “is about an idea that is . . . gathering momentum in classrooms and clinic and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world. According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and using the wrong strategies to nurture and teach those skills . . .”

There is something very satisfying about an educational theory that denounces all previous theories. It seems to offer the possibility of a miraculous redemption of past errors and the hope of a certain path to a better future. The main mistake of recent years, Tough argues, has been to focus on meas - urable academic attainment by our children, to the exclusion of the more nebulous personal qualities (or “character”) necessary to translate examination results into the kind of stable success that makes young people good citizens.

“Character” is a term with curiously Victorian overtones; the more formidable early child-rearing volumes that Christina Hardyment discusses in Dream Babies are keen on this quality. Yet the interdisciplinary school of thought that Tough describes, which is based on the theories of Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the late Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan, factorises the success trait into seven separate elements: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Armed with these attributes, the theory goes that children from all kinds of unpromising backgrounds, from the vastly affluent with no experience of character-forming misfortune to the underprivileged with a discouraging excess of “deep and pervasive adversity at home”, can achieve both the academic qualifications that are the golden ticket to the security of regular employment and the qualities that will make them useful members of society.

On this side of the Atlantic, the case for character development as an element of education has been vigorously promoted by Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College. In May last year, the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Values was launched, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, established by the American philanthropist.

Tough describes how the principle of teaching – and assessing – character as well as academic attainment was initially taken up by two schools, KIPP Academy Middle School in the South Bronx, whose students are mostly from low-income families, and Riverdale Country School, situated in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of New York City, and where pre-kindergarten fees start at $40,750 a year.

KIPP was already something of a model institution after a programme of immersive schooling produced a startling improvement in its academic results. But the instigator of that programme, David Levin, a Yale graduate, was dismayed by how many of his highachieving students subsequently dropped out of college. Meanwhile, the headmaster of Riverdale, Dominic Randolph, had begun to feel that “the push on tests” at highachieving schools such as his was “missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be human”.

For the students, the problems at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum were oddly similar: low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, minimal afterschool adult supervision, emotional and physical isolation from parents and – in the case of the rich children – excessive pressure to succeed, resulting in anxiety, depression and chronic academic problems.

The evolution of the character development programme diverged sharply at the two schools during the course of the trial. At KIPP it leaned towards the practical and prescriptive; at Riverdale the emphasis was more moral and philosophical, on leading a good life rather than wearing the uniform correctly and paying attention in class.

As the programme has continued, the statistics on college dropout rates among KIPP students have seemed modestly encouraging. It is harder to measure the success of the experiment among Riverdale students, as their path towards academic success was always much clearer. Tough acknowledges that what he calls the “new science of adversity . . . presents a real challenge to some deeply held political beliefs on both the left and the right”. In the UK, Seldon concedes that “character” might be seen as a synonym for “middle-class” or “public-school” values. Yet both men appear convinced that it is the only means of enabling young people to alter what might otherwise appear to be a fixed destiny of failure and unhappiness.

While Tough proposes the formal exercise of grit and optimism as the key to personal success, Andrew Solomon’s new book, Far From the Tree, is a study of families whose ideas about what constitutes “success” for their child have had to be recalibrated, sometimes very sharply. Solomon interviewed 200 families for his epic survey of identity and difference, which was a decade in the writing. Each chapter is devoted to the experiences of children and parents living with one of a dozen forms of “otherness” – deafness, dwarfism, Down’s syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, prodigies, criminal children and those born of rape.

Solomon’s theme is the development of identity. He argues that children acquire identity both “vertically”, in the form of inherited traits such as language and ethnicity, and “horizontally”, from a peer group. The greater the differences between the child and his or her parents, the more powerful the tensions between the horizontal and vertical identities.

The germ of the book sprang from an article on deaf culture that Solomon wrote in 1993 for the New York Times. He found that most deaf children are born to hearing parents, who often feel compelled to help their children “succeed” in a hearing world by focusing on the ability to communicate orally, often to the detriment of other aspects of their development. For such children, the discovery of a culture that celebrates deafness, regarding it as a state of being as vibrant and creative as the hearing world, often appears a liberation, a portal to an identity that does not have to be lived out against a contrasting “normality”.

But within that experience of liberation lies the seed of a painful truth: that, for all children marked by difference, whatever its nature (Solomon is gay, and writes movingly about his experience of growing up in a straight family), their first experience of their otherness is almost invariably provided by their own family. He explores the complicated nexus of “normalities” which exists within the family of a child who is in some way different, and between the family and the outside world, with a dogged forensic elegance.

Solomon’s account, like Tough’s, is laden with anecdote, but while Tough uses his case histories to personalise his theories, Solomon’s purpose in writing is narrative and exploratory, rather than ideological or didactic. Like Griffiths, he seeks the key to a universe of familial complexity, and finds it in the most obvious place of all. Love, he concludes, is all you need.

That was pretty much my guiding principle when I began my own experience of parenthood. And on the whole I’m not persuaded that the outcome would have been very different if I had spent more time consulting the experts. Which is not the same thing as feeling that I have been a success as a parent. Raising a child involves a circuitous journey of many branching routes that may lead, if parents and children are lucky, loving and tolerant, to a destination that everyone involved finds bearable.

Twenty years ago, or ten, or even five, if you had asked me whether I thought I was a good mother, I would have answered “good enough” with a degree of self-satisfaction. I had, after all, raised a kind, sane, personable grown-up with a decent clutch of exam results, an entrenched reading habit and an unusual ability to discuss with enthusiasm both West Ham’s position in the League table and the nuances of female fashion; and I felt that I had done it largely contra mundum.

More recently, as my son and I have settled into our roles as adult equals and our accounts of the past have diverged, I have begun to understand that he has grown into the person he is as much despite me as because of me. My main aim as a mother had been to try to avoid the aspects of my own upbringing that had caused me pain. I thought that would be easy, but it was not.

Sometimes my son’s narratives of his childhood (still so recent and fresh in his mind) make me think that almost everything I did was wrong. It is a melancholy reflection, to put it mildly. But it makes me think that perhaps the real work of parenthood is to learn to accommodate the stories that your children tell you about their upbringing.

Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)