Parenting with High Expectations

I am about to see the movie Crazy Rich Asians with my daughter Elissa. Fun ahead. I know nothing about it but Elissa read the book and loved it.

The title reminded me of an expression I used to motivate my children in high school. My  son and daughter thought I was being racist but it was used with the utmost respect and admiration for them, and not a bit of racism. I was in awe of their culture of motivation and academic success.

My children’s high school is one of the best in the huge city of Houston. It consistently has the largest number of National Merit Scholars (an impressive testing score feat that my son Brett achieved) and a huge college bound culture of excellence.

Due to the above, it is the school of choice for many high achieving students, who can transfer there under a magnet program even if they do not live in our area of Meyerland/Bellaire.

The main competition for my son’s high achieving crew of friends, some Harvard bound and most now doctors and lawyers and MBAs, were Asian students. They were the valedictorian, salutatorian and every bit of the top 10 and 20 students in my son’s graduating class. Ranking mattered for college apps, and it was an impossible situation to try to outrank these brilliant and highly motivated Asian counterparts. So I called them “High Achieving Asians.” Again, I meant that term with reverence for what they were accomplishing at a very tough and competitive high school.

Since those days, a lot of studies have come out about how the Asian culture is highly driven and motivated for academic success. The book Tiger Mom was a fascinating study of the pushy Asian moms. My personal opinion is that we have a lot to learn from them – though the over the top cruelty as featured in the book is not at all something anyone should do as a parent.

Somewhere in my psychology graduate school education, I read two defining studies during my research that kind of defined my own parenting. One was to eat dinner with my children at the dinner table every single night; and the other was to set high, but not unrealistic expectations.  Later on another defining study about video games led me to ban all video games (from start to finish) for my home. (Not having nintendo and the like, my children thought I was so mean but they read more books and played piano instead – and now they are both hugely successful adults.)

Lady Bird Johnson once said that “children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.” Since then, solid evidence has suggested that parental beliefs and attitudes largely influence children’s outcomes.

When I briefly taught, I set high expectations for students in poverty, and they thrived under that concept. I won all sorts of accolades and awards because most had LOW expectations for them.

I would say I fell somewhere between the Tiger Mom and Nagging Jewish mom realm in motivating my children. I never believed the philosophy or ever uttered the words to my children, “Whatever makes you happy.”  I wasn’t quite like a Tiger Mom in their philosophy of  “Whatever makes ME (the mom) happy” because may I point out that when they were teenagers, they wore me down and I let them quit piano. Yet my children were always motivated by my high expectations. They thrived, and although the teen years were fraught with rebellion against this on their part, somehow they got into the best colleges, and then graduate schools and are successful AND happy in their professions to this day.

I know of some children who were raised with “Whatever Makes You Happy,” and I know of some of those who floundered for years trying to find themselves and find a career choice that made them happy. Some cannot support themselves and parents are still supporting them well into adulthood. Their parents may not even be bothered by that as they are still living the philosophy of “Whatever Makes You Happy” for their adult children. I understand it is out of extreme love for their children, but I maintain I loved my children just as much.

I know this is fine for some people/parents as they do not care about achievement and success, but I come from a very lower middle class background where the only way out and up is to achieve. It worked for me and I wanted that for my children. Perhaps if I grew up under more affluent circumstances, I would be different.

And study after study points to the success of children who are raised with high, but not impossibly high expectations. Read this linked article as an example.

The bottom line is that when I look back, I see that I was a pushy and competitive mother. Yet, I must point out that my children are VERY HAPPY adults, who adore and revere me, so I guess no harm was given by my moderate Tiger Mom/Jewish Nagging Mom personality.

Several people – not just one- have said to me, “you raised “perfect” children.” They see my children as adults, and also knew them through their achieving school years. It is a compliment, but it is also untrue. No one is perfect, and although my pride in my two children and their accomplishments is endless, I can acknowledge that they both have areas of imperfection because they are after all, human. (Don’t even ask me about the Yom Kippur curse.) And I am well aware that there is luck involved too, with their health, and their natural ability.

Again, I am not writing this to demonstrate superiority, as everyone has to parent the way their personalities dictate. I am just saying that being slightly mean and demanding can have good results.  Love to hear from you all whether you agree or disagree.

2 comments

  • Fantastic blog, Arlene! When I think of all your wonderful blogs, my personal favorites are always the ones that make me walk down memory lane and compare what has occurred in my life with the stories that you tell about yours. I know that we have so much in common when it comes to how we raised our children. “High Expectations” for children was something I held close to my heart. Whether it be for the Pre-K and kindergarten students that I taught, or for my own two children, I believed that was the key to success. And, as you saw in your own situation, it works. The children I taught flourished with reading before they started kindergarten. They were also writing. The parents of my students nominated me for the top award of Best Early Childhood Educator in Philadelphia. While I didn’t win the top award, I was at the ceremony and won an award for being in the top seven in my city. And yes… I am tooting my own horn here. You didn’t see academic achievement like this unless you set the bar high. One thing you need to remember is to do it with a loving touch. I believe somehow I managed to do that with my own two kids and as a single mother, I must have been doing it right. My children have always been very respectful of me and very loving. I have two amazing “kids” (now 39 and 41), who are well educated, successful in their professions, wonderful spouses, and awesome parents. Oh, and they are not perfect either. However, they also are super human beings. Am I bragging? You bet I am. I am a proud mom, who worked hard to teach my children to be resourceful and independent. I don’t think that makes me “mean” at all! And by the way, Arlene, I don’t think you have a mean bone in your body!! (We both like using a lot of exclamation marks, too!)

    • Wow, thanks for that eloquent response. I do not think you are bragging, because it is a job well done on your part under stressful (Single parent) conditions. (People think I brag too but I just state facts!)Your accomplishments in this realm speak for themselves and anyone who knows you and your children have to acknowledge your success as a mom. It is so interesting that we had the same teaching style/value too. I had first graders who did not know an A from a B, reading and writing paragraphs in journals by the end of the year. What I was stating here is well documented in research studies, but some parents do not believe in it. (As one pointed out to me in a message, success is not just defined by career choice) I was just stating it worked for me, and obviously it worked for you. As far as the word “mean” my children thought that way back when when I refused video games or when I pushed them, but again, they don’t think that now.
      Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion, I always appreciate your thoughtful responses.

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