Recognizing the Pussycat Parent

Pondering Amy Chua‘s portray of the Chinese “Tiger Mother” reminded me of Dr Walter Miscel’s famous Stanford Marshmallow Study which demonstrated the link between the ability to delay gratification and later success in life – graduating vs dropping out of high school, avoiding or having trouble with the law, success in careers, happiness in life.  While Miscel’s study simply assumed variability in self-control as a personality trait, later researchers have asked a practical question: What can parents do to help their children learn to have this kind of self-control?

Walsh's book

The answer, according to psychologist Dr. David Walsh, is pretty simple: the parents need to say “no” to children.  This is difficult, says Walsh, because we live in a culture that always wants to say “yes.”  (The video at the end shows Walsh’s modern replication of the Marshmallow Experiment, and his interpretive comments.)  In fact, Wash wrote No: Why Kids – of all Ages – Need to Hear It and Why Parents Can Say It to prompt parents to go against the culture.  He’s not alone – Dr. James Dobson‘s Dare to Discipline is a bestseller translated into dozens of languages.  Bookstores fill their parenting section with books offering help with children who are strong-willed, out-of-control, angry, underachieving, and more. These must be the topics parents want to read about. Why?

The Tiger and the Pussycat

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother expects to be resented and to have battles, but believes that closeness, hugs and cuddling offsets any message of rejection.  Pussycat Parents maximize the cuddling and sense of close connection – but prize it to such a degree that anything that threatens the peace and closeness is avoided at all costs.  So “No” is said with trepidation, if at all.  The hundreds of Parenting books designed to give parents the courage and rationale to say the word “No” gives evidence to the existence of Pussycat Parents and to the fact that the method doesn’t work well.

Developmental Assets

The Search Institute of Minneapolis has identified 40 Developmental Assets – 20 external, 20 internal – that predict better outcomes for children.  Amy Chua would be happy to see that spending time in lessons and practicing – an instrument, a sport, theater – is one of the as.  The research shows that the average teen has fewer than half of these assets – and are subsequently at higher risk for problems.

The Search Institute approach includes a flavor of the Chinese mother – an emphasis on boundaries and limits and on developing interior strengths.  It has the more Western slant by seeing these aspects as assets that a child can have and use rather than a strict choice that the parent can make.

Nonetheless, both approaches are trying to sound the death knell for the Pussycat Pushover Parent. Chua’s book is like an alarm clock: it wakes up Western parents, showing how far we have drifted from a norm of strong parenting.  The 40 Developmental Assets approach of the Search Institute gives Western parents some specific action steps and perspectives. While we may not be able (or want to) become Chinese parents, we may help our children achieve some of the same goals.  Beginning with the ability to say “no.”

For heaven’s sake, put down that marshmallow.

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