I’ve been pondering over several things this last couple of weeks while I’ve been busy, one of them being parenting and the importance of school in a child’s future. I’ve written plenty here regarding how to build skill and expertise in virtually any endeavour one chooses and the message is always the same – lots of time spent on deliberate practice and eventually deeper work on the subject. It should come as no surprise then, that when it comes to children I advocate a very hands on approach as they make their way through school.

“Tiger parenting”, for those that haven’t heard the term, refers to the Asian (also seen in India, Pakistan and Jewish cultures) style of parenting which forces children to devote more time to study and achievement than having fun. This is pretty much directly at odds with the more laissez faire Western approach that is more along the lines of “let kids be kids”. The first I heard of tiger parenting was in this article written by Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale. I eventually went on to read her book titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which utterly fascinated me. I read this book before I had started thinking about expertise and how to build it and even then it resonated with me.

Now to be honest, I’m not a total fan. I believe her level of tiger parenting is excessive – however you cannot argue with her results. Similar results to, oh I don’t know, Judit Polgar, who I wrote about in my last post. The reason I am an advocate of tiger parenting (well, a lesser version of it) is because I was raised in the more Western method of parenting. I pretty much never studied, rarely did homework (and when I did it was half assed) and spent too much time at school talking in class. I was lucky enough that I could still get high enough grades to be in the top 20%. I barely even studied for my year 12 exams. Thinking about it now, it flabbergasts me – why the hell wouldn’t I study for my year 12 exams, especially since I wanted to go to university?

Of course my success at school ended when I hit university. I bombed out and I bombed out huge in my first year, because I didn’t know what a work ethic was when it came to study. Hell, I didn’t even know how to study. I eventually quit that degree, and made some really poor career choices which haunted me for the better part of a decade. I think back to my school days and wonder where I would have been if I was forced to study more (or at all), if I had taken school and my first degree seriously. I would probably have been an engineer rather than floundering about looking for a career that fit my passion (more on that later). I actually found one of my old report cards recently at my parent’s house and when I read it I was stunned. I went to my parents and literally said “what the shit is this? How could you have let me get away with these marks when I could have done so much better?”

This is why parents owe it to their children to help them build that expertise while they are at school. I’m not talking about teaching them to do maths before they can walk, but once they are at school parents should take an active interest in their child’s academic development and foster their growth. This includes actually being present during their homework time, until they have proven to be trustworthy. That’s right. Guess what? Children and teenagers aren’t trustworthy when it comes to school work. At that age, they’d rather be out playing sport, messing around on Facebook or playing Call of Duty. I was exactly the same. I spent most of year 11 and 12 in internet chat rooms. Leaving them to their devices instead of monitoring them throws away their future. We are no longer in the age where you can just get any job out of school as long as you have a certificate, the world is more populated and ultra competitive.

Helping children build their expertise at school should go hand in hand with helping to shape their career. Most Western parents seem to have the attitude of “follow your passion and if you work hard you’ll make a living” (and so much the better if that includes a degree, any degree). Wrong. The world needs certain things from the people living in it – if you are telling your child who loves English literature to just work hard and they’ll find a career in it, odds are they’ll have a lot of student debt that they can’t pay off, because who the hell needs someone on the basis of their English literature knowledge? A teenager leaving school has no idea what the working world is like, let alone the job market. How can we leave our children to just figure it out for themselves? As I said, I wasted a decade of my working life not knowing what the hell to do, do you want the same for your child?

Parents also need to be realistic and throw away their preconceived notions about careers. So many parents, as I said before, want their kids to just get any degree rather than taking what they perceive to be a lower status job which would probably suit them much better. A university degree has become the great sucker deal of our time, because unless it is in something vocationally relevant like the STEM fields, teaching, finance etc it is a waste of money. Many people that do degrees would have been far better served getting into a company at a lower level and working their way up – they would have been earning money sooner, building their knowledge and expertise in that field and coming out ahead of where they’d be if they had done a Bachelor of Arts for example.

Most importantly, parents need to teach their children the value of hard work. Even if they don’t like school and never want to go further than year 12, the work ethic they build while at school will do them well once they are working. You can’t expect children and teenagers to want to study and have a good work ethic. I didn’t actually want to study until I did my masters degree – at that time I was 27 years old and mature enough to push myself and know what I was doing it for. Kids and teenagers don’t have that maturity at school, they don’t see the endgame and what it is all for. This is why it’s the parent’s responsibility to step in and make them study.