Tiger Mom or Kitten Mom? When to Push Kids to Succeed, When to Let Go

How to tell when you should and should not push kids to succeed

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Sometimes, not pushing your child can be a good way to get him to love an activity. KidStock/Getty Images

Here's a problem all parents have struggled with at one time or another: When should we push a child into doing something (either trying something new or putting more of an effort into a school project or extracurricular activity), and when should we leave kids alone to sort it out for themselves, even if it means they don't try their best or they give up?

While most of us may not buy the whole "Tiger Mom" philosophy, which was championed by Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, many parents--and I count myself among them--want to make sure our kids don't just give up when something is challenging or difficult.

So what are we to do? When and how much should we push our kids to succeed? Here are 5 important factors parents should consider when weighing their options.

1. What does your child need or respond to best?
First, think about who your child is as an individual. While some kids may need--and eventually appreciate--a little push, others may respond to any prodding by just giving up, rebelling, or getting upset. Think about what's worked best before for your child. Is he the kind of kid who does better when you remind him that he will be unhappy with himself if he doesn't practice, study, or prepare for whatever he wants to or needs to accomplish, or is that more likely to push him away from what you're encouraging him to do?

2. Who really wants this--you or your child?
Is the thing you're pushing your child to do something that she has chosen or wants for herself? Is accomplishing this particular thing--whether it's staying at a drop-off birthday party by herself and overcoming her shyness or learning how to play a particular piece of music on the piano--something that she really wants to do?

If she doesn't achieve this, will she be disappointed in herself?

3. Is he giving up because he thinks he can't do it?
Did he originally love it and then change his mind when it got difficult? If your child is simply experiencing self-doubt, you can encourage him by reminding him that trying his best, even if he isn't great, is so much more rewarding than not trying at all.

Ask him to list all the things he's good at, talk about how he will feel proud of himself for trying his best, and point out the fact that none of us know what we can do until we try.

4. What's best for your child in the long run?
Parents can sometimes push kids into doing things that they may not be interested in or are not ready for. If the activity or the task is something that she can try again later when she feels more ready, then put it in perspective. For example, if your child is invited to a drop-off birthday party but isn't ready to be there on his own, let him try to do it the next time. But if he gives up on something he originally wanted and you know he'll be disappointed with himself if he doesn't try his best, then gently but firmly ask him to picture how he might feel after he gives up.

5. Is your child stressed?
Look for signs of anxiety or stress in your child, like irritability, difficulty concentrating, stomachaches, or trouble sleeping. If your child seems anxious or stressed about an activity or schoolwork, it may be time to think about reevaluating her schedule or talking to her teacher about how to help your child.

When to Push Kids--Gently

  • You know that your child really wants to do the activity and will thank you later for encouraging him not to give up.
  • Your child will be disappointed with herself if she gives up, even if she wants to throw in the towel at that moment of frustration.
  • Your child simply needs a confidence boost and faith in himself to keep going. If your child's interest in the activity is flagging because he thinks he's not as good as other kids, help him feel better about his own abilities and show him how to not compare himself to others.
  • The activity or task is something he will learn and benefit from, even if he doesn't excel or win. If your child wants to give up soccer because he isn't scoring many goals, help him to see that exercising and spending time with friends is the important thing. If he hates reading, read with him and try books on tape or movies of books to snag his interest in stories.
  • She wants to give up and hates practicing (an instrument, dance lessons, etc.) mainly because she wants to play with friends. If this is the case, you can schedule some times for playing with friends so that she has a more balanced schedule of work and play.

When to Let Kids Give Up, at Least for the Time Being

  • Your child is showing signs of stress and anxiety, and attempts to manage his stress, lighten his schedule or adjust things to make the activity easier isn't working.
  • Your child hates the activity and would prefer to do something else. If your child truly hates violin lessons and doesn't want to practice, there's little point in forcing her to spend time on this particular activity. Let her take a break, and after a few weeks or month, have her try another instrument or something else that interests her, like dance, art or even Taekwondo classes.
  • Your child needs to take a break to figure out if he wants to do this activity or not.

Other Tips to Keep in Mind:

  • Work together with your child to find out what he wants. You may have signed your child up for piano lessons because you heard that when he'd much rather be outside playing soccer. Maybe you can find a way to compromise. Perhaps he can find another instrument and still play soccer. Discuss your overall goals and give your child some freedom to explore what works for him.
  • Get to the root of what's blocking her progress. Is she rejecting piano lessons because she wants more free time? Or is she really concerned that she may not play as well as a sibling or cousin? Find out what's really going on, and how you can help her feel better about it.
  • Be gently supportive, and never insulting or negative. How you are speaking to your child? Are you yelling or speaking in a frustrated tone? Are you being supportive or pushy?
  • Look at the big picture. Keep in mind that he may pick it up again later, or be ready to try something similar after a break. If your child hated hockey or baseball, he may love tennis. If she hated ballet lessons, she may take a liking to playing the violin. Childhood is a time for trying out new things, and if one thing doesn't seem to be a good fit, your child can always try another activity.

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