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How we parented four girls to success

BY GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Much is being said today, in both social and high-school circles, of so-called Tiger Moms and overprotective (or helicopter) parents. My wife and I were the very antithesis of all that. As parents, we were both underwhelming in our need to regulate and direct our children's academic aspirations. Yet we managed to help three daughters make their way to graduate schools at Harvard, Brown, New York University (Tisch), the University of Southern Florida Law School, and a fourth to an undergraduate degree at University of California-Santa Barbara. Here's how we did it. 

First of all, some background: It helps to have education in the blood. D. H. Lawrence once said, "The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next." As a native Japanese, my wife comes from a long line of academics. Two of her uncles were professors — one at Waseda and another at Tokyo University —and her father was a Buddhist priest. Moreover, as a culture, the Japanese are famous for the respect they show toward "sensei," or teachers.  

My background is more gritty and mundane. I come from Chicago-Irish ancestry, blue-collar people who put more stock in practical than academic pursuits. Nonetheless, my mother taught me to read when I was 4 years old and kept me well-supplied with monthly Landmark books throughout my formative years. As a result, in college, I learned to throw back Guinness with the best of them while simultaneously reading James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. 

Oddly, this wide divergence of country and background may have helped shape our parenting skills. When two sides are as far apart culturally as my wife and I, perhaps we learn to better appreciate diversity and accommodate each others' viewpoints. This laissez-faire attitude — and our shared appreciation for literature — no doubt spilled over into the way we brought up our four daughters. Our daughters always seemed to have a book in their hands. It wasn't that we demanded it; it was just the natural thing to do. 

In fact, around the house, we demanded very little. Unlike many parents, who feel compelled to set rules and regulations for their charges, monitor activities, establish curfews and dictate behavior, we did none of these. We never saw ourselves as martinets, certainly not policemen. Our policy was simply to figure out what our children were interested in and to get interested in the same things ourselves. For example, when our oldest daughter was 3, she began leaning on the coffee table in the living room, with one leg balanced in the air, saying, "Daddy, look, ballet." This kept up for several weeks. Finally, my wife figured the child was serious and enrolled her in dance class, where she thrived, along with our second daughter, who displayed a similar interest. 

When it dawned on me that this was an activity that both daughters were interested in and that it might last a dozen years, I turned to my wife and said, "Hey, honey, no football players here, just dancers. Let's join them." Subsequently, my wife became an excellent jazz dancer, and I learned to hold my own in hip-hop. Stories of parents forcing unwanted piano and violin lessons on their sons and daughters are legion. I'm sorry, but I think it's putting the cart before the horse. Let the child determine the activity, whether art or sport, and, if possible, join in. 

Now I'm not suggesting parents have to physically participate in all their children's activities. When our third daughter, for example, decided that sport was more to her liking than pirouettes, she was free to ditch dance and run track. At that point in our lives, my wife and I were not ready to attempt the high hurdles. But it was enough to show up for meets and extend support whenever possible. 

And support is really the name of the game here. I think autocratic, overweening parents miss the mark. Children are free spirits full of spontaneity and enthusiasm. These are qualities that can't be forced and must be nurtured. My wife and I both believe children should be left to their own devices to determine their soul's purpose. It does no good — and creates long-lasting ill will — for a parent to force a child to go in a direction contradictory to the child's purest impulses, whether those impulses be directed toward dance, sports, art, or music.

I think that any goal-oriented activity that carries with it and engenders discipline, aesthetics, teamwork, or accomplishment is valuable in its own right. Unexpected dividends accrued to us as parents having all four children, at one point or another, pursuing dance. Dance is a particularly precise and exacting activity. Concentration, coordination, and discipline all go hand-in-hand to make up the mind-set of a dancer. And this mind-set carries over into other areas, specifically into academics. I have no doubt our daughters ended up disciplined and conscientious students as a direct result of their participation in dance. 

This may seem controversial to most parents, but my wife and I had only three rules for our daughters: (1) Don't drive drunk; (2) Don't do hard drugs; (3) Don't get pregnant. And please call us, whatever the time, whatever the reason, if you need help in any way. No questions asked. 

In our household, therefore, support and encouragement trumped rules and regulations. Of course, this may go against the grain of classical thinking on the need for parental oversight. Maybe we were just lucky. Or maybe we were on to something. I recall vividly some problems we were having with our youngest when she was 14 and "acting out" — skipping dance, cutting classes at school, hanging out with the wrong group of friends. Our oldest daughter took her aside one day, looked her squarely in the eye and said: "Don't you get it? Mom and dad will give you the freedom to do what you want in high school, but only if you show them you deserve it. Do you really want curfews, groundings, and the rest? Or do you want to be able to shape your own destiny?"

That was exactly what we encouraged all our children to do.

Tom Clements is a father of four daughters. He has spent over 20 years of his life tutoring for the SATS, as well as calculus, physics, and chemistry. A former Silicon Valley freelance writer for tech magazines, corporate trainer for international bankers, and former college English teacher, Clements holds a Master of International Business degree from St. Mary's College and a BA in English Literature. His new book, How to Write a KILLER SAT Essay … in 25 Minutes or Less, is available for purchase at Amazon.com.


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