Tiger Mom or Cat Dad?
The claws are out over two parenting styles that are expanding in our world today. We see them in America, but they’re not limited to our country. Helicopter Parents and Snowplow parents are old news. These styles are a reaction to two decades of deficiencies in Baby Boomer parents.
My guess is, you’ve heard of the Tiger Mom. She’s extremely strict and pushes her kids to be the best at school, piano, sports… you name it. This style was made popular four years ago when Chinese-American author Amy Chua wrote the book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. To be honest, this Tiger Mom often gets the results she’s after, but only due to her hardnosed leadership style. She may not let her children eat until they master their violin lesson or perfect that gymnastics routine. She may not hand over any perks until homework is done with excellence and chores are complete. She loves her kids, but assumes the role of an employer, trainer or coach. This mom’s a driver.
Conversely, we see a challenger to the hyper-strict, high-achieving Tiger Mother. He’s been dubbed “Cat Dad” and is the subject of a hit Chinese TV program. Cat Dad takes a more soft and sensitive approach to parenting. He does so believing that this kind of gentle, emotionally sensitive and relaxed enforcement of rules and discipline wins the heart of the child and produces a kid who wants to cooperate in the end. He has rules, but believes conversation about them, rather than enforcement of them, fosters offspring who are more self-sufficient and independent. In short, if you treat kids as grown-ups, you’ll get grown-ups in the end. This dad’s a diplomat.
The Pros and Cons
Having spoken at parent conferences around the world, I’ve seen both of these styles at play. Both would say their style has an upside and a downside. Let me offer what I’ve noticed in them:
Get results: kids perform and reach potential
Doesn’t waste time arguing or debating rules
Kids are often accepted into elite colleges
Kids often fall into a performance trap
Children may feel no warmth or care
Kids can believe love is earned
Kids never doubt parent’s love and belief
Kids are listened to and feel understood
Kids are nurtured to believe in themselves
Kids may feel they can negotiate rules
Kids may not learn to focus on others
Kids may not build discipline or grit
Meeting in the Middle
Here’s what I wonder. While I see the value of both styles, I wonder if the answer might just be in the middle. Are there traits inside the “Tiger Mom” that we should embrace, traits that will enable our children to prepare for a world where they’ll need to perform (even when they don’t feel like it)? At the same time, are there traits inside the “Cat Dad” we should embrace that prepare our children to create a world of empathy, understanding and listening? It seems we’re running short on those qualities today.
Let me suggest a few focused questions we parents and leaders need to ask ourselves:
Can We Be a Driver and a Diplomat?
I believe there are times when parents and teachers must model both the “driver” style of leadership and the “diplomat” style of leadership. Boundaries should be communicated up front and seldom negotiated with children. They are fixed and valuable to the kids. However, as kids mature, there will be times a parent (or teacher) can demonstrate a flexible style, where they allow kids to weigh in on the direction of the family or class. This is actually healthy for them as adolescents — it helps them self-regulate. I believe kids do not have an innate need to get their own way. I do believe they have an innate need to be heard. Adults should embody both the driver and the diplomat along the way.
Can We Offer Them a Compass and a Magnet?
When our kids left home after finishing their K-12 education, I wanted them to have a compass in their head and a magnet in their heart. In other words, I wanted them to know how to think, how to discipline themselves, and how to live morally and in service to others. However, I also wanted them to have the relational skills and emotional intelligence to be magnetically attractive to others in their careers. The compass and magnet represent both hard skills and soft skills they’ll need as adults, spouses and parents themselves.
Can We Lead Them as a Velvet-covered Brick?
One of our most popular Habitudes® is called “The Velvet-Covered Brick." (For those that don’t know, Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes.) Picture a brick wrapped in velvet. The plush, soft velvet is on the outside; it represents the tender side of our leadership. We believe in our kids, we accept them, we support them and love them. Inside that velvet, however, is a hard brick; this represents the tough side of leadership. We must lead by principles and challenge them to become the best version of themselves. This often never happens unless we show tough love and demonstrate tough decisions along the way.
One of the original Cat Dads was Chang Zhitao, a father from Shanghai who went head to head in a debate with Amy Chua shortly after her Tiger Mother book was published. Despite having vastly different approaches to parenting, it’s interesting that both Chua and Chang had daughters who were accepted into Harvard University. Both styles work.
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