The beginning of this school term has been like charging headlong into a maelstrom - then the realisation that I've turned into - a tiger mother. Here's an article I wrote about it:
“You’re becoming another one of those tiger mothers aren’t you?”
The line was breaking up, surging as it was across the airwaves from over 6000 miles away, but the accusation was unmistakable and to be honest with you, it stung. Even in Nairobi, I had heard about Amy Chua and her mothering techniques.
I’ve always prided myself on a lazy, laid-back approach to mothering which sees the television go on at 7am on weekends to ensure my husband and I get a lie-in. Fortunately, at the ages of 11, 9 and 6, the children are old enough to reach the fridge door, so I am reassured that no one will die of hunger and, with any luck, they’ll have enough sense not to stick their fingers into a power socket. I’ve perfected the art of tuning out indignant bouts of crying that result from yet another inter-sibling spat. Unless blood is drawn, then there’s no need for me to get involved.
So why the ‘tiger mother’ comment? I was attempting, over the phone, to describe the process of getting back into a term time routine. Then I happened to mention that two of the three had been asked to join the school swimming team which involves early morning swimming training ... in an outdoor pool ... at 6.30am. (I have to admit, this did take a while for me to get my head round). The reaction of my mother? Unbridled horror.
Grandparents today are a bastion of old values – they see it as their role to ensure that modern parental madness does not jeopardise the welfare of their grandchildren. But are they fighting a losing battle?
“It was never like this in our day.” They might say, “Whatever happened to just reading a book?” Or; “Being bored makes for a more resourceful child.”
For their words of wisdom, I am grateful. Deep down I know they are right but resisting overwhelming peer pressure to push one's children is another matter entirely.
In the past our children had no choice but to fit in with us. When we took our eldest daughter on a road trip to Northern Zambia, we were armed with nothing but a plastic tape recorder, nursery rhyme cassettes and bread sticks. She was eighteen months old. In Tanzania, weekends were all about beach trips and boats. When all three children were small, a friend of mine asked me what I meant by the term ‘free play’. I laughingly explained that it was leaving the kids to get on with it, figuring that clearing up and the application of a plaster or arnica onto the odd bump or graze was a small price to pay for an hour’s peace. I’ve also been devilishly tactical in my approach. For instance, I put blinkers on the children whenever they have been in sight of horses. My efforts have been justly rewarded by the fact that none have the least inclination to ride.
However, since September, life has gone mad. I have been sucked inexorably into the vortex of pressurised parenting. Modern life seems almost too frenetic to bear. We might live in East Africa, but our full timetable is equal to those of modern mums the world over: Monday; drums, Tuesday; guitar, Wednesday; cello, Thursday; Piano. (The irony is that not one of them has ever reached the heady heights of Grade one!)
My organisational skills are deplorable, not helped by the fact that I find writing lists abhorrent: Pack match kit, shin pads, tennis racket. Make sure scruffled copy of poem is memorized. It’s all whizzing around in my head. When the girls leave the house before dawn, I pray that we haven’t forgotten to pack school shoes, or perish the thought; knickers!
Our six year old still seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that school is optional.
“Please can I stay at home today?” she says for the fifth time in the space of half-an-hour. “I’m tired. I’d really like a day off.”
When I say “no” for the final time, she rejoins perceptively,
“I know why you want me to go to school. It’s because you want to be alone!”
And she’s right. After a rushed breakfast punctuated by complaints of shoes being too tight or tummy ache, there is the blissful hiatus of day time, at the end of which one must steel oneself for an evening of heightened emotions (not least mine), where not only do tired children need to be fed and bathed, but heckled through homework, harassed over play lines, reminded to do revision and motivated into music practise. This generally involves a lot of shouting.
Weekends that once involved outdoor adventure in Kenya, picnics or slothful leisure time in the sun have now been replaced by agonising hours spent at noisy swimming galas, ferrying children to dance practice through hellish traffic and sitting through choral concerts; all of which our children take part in gamely enough, but do not excel.
Presumably what drives us is the knowledge that the childhood years from 6-to-12 are critical in harnessing a child’s potential. There’s no doubt that coached and hot-housed children do get good results in the short term, but with all this relentless stimulation are they happy? Last night I found I was haranguing my middle daughter over the drum piece she was practicing.
“Is this really the piece your teacher wants you to play for next week’s tea time concert?” I said, thinking of the forty-odd other parents that will be attending, “I’m sure you can do better than that.”
In the cold light of day I feel ashamed. Turns out in my case, the tiger mother tag is true. Whatever happened to ‘free play’?
RIP the school tennis coach who died suddenly last week. He was very popular with a lot of the children and will be sorely missed. His passing has elicited a lot of talk of death in our family.
"Mummy," our 6 year-old said, "I hope you and me can die at the same time?"
"Because then we can both hold hands on our way up to heaven"