Forget Tiger Mothers: Teach People How to Be Good Parents Instead

In "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Yale law professor Amy Chua declared her "Chinese mother" parenting skills superior to those of lazy, touchy-feely "Western parents" and seems to say that pushing children to succeed academically is the best way to guarantee their success later in life. Longtime educator Carol Cooke says that she agrees -- up to a point.

Related: The Opposite of a Tiger Mother? Leaving Your Children Behind

"We all want our children to succeed academically because today, more than ever, education is the key to success. Holding high expectations and communicating those expectations to our children on a regular basis is a point on which Amy Chua and I absolutely agree," Cooke told Yahoo! Shine in an interview. "Our points of view diverge on what comes after that, and the differences are clearly cultural."

In her new book, "America's Answer to the Tiger Mother: How to Raise Successful, Happy Children" Cooke points out that unskilled parents are the problem, not unmotivated kids.

"It became apparent to me that throughout our history, we have neglected what is probably the most critical area of education for a society: teaching our citizens to be good parents," says Cooke.

To be a good parent, Cooke says, you really need to focus on three things: unconditional love, communication, and criticizing the behavior rather than the child. Instead of comparing your child to someone else's -- and worrying that yours is coming up short -- parents should be celebrating their differences and reinforcing their strengths.

"The goal is for them to do the right thing even when no authority is there watching them," she says. "We want them to do the right thing simply because they know it is right, and when this happens, they may be the only ones who know that they achieved a milestone in life that too many people never reach."

You mention that the key difference between your point of view and Amy Chua's is cultural. How so?

One need not be an expert on Chinese history to know that China's people have always been ruled by totalitarian governments, first by China's emperors and later by its Communist regime. It should be no surprise, then, that the qualities most valued in such a culture would be respect for higher authority and complete obedience to its will. In Chua's home, the Tiger Mother was the higher authority. In complete contrast, American culture is founded on liberty, the freedom of each individual to choose. In the American household, parents are the authority, but children have a great deal more freedom of choice.

I found it fascinating that a child's happiness is not a consideration for the very impressive Tiger Mother who, like her rulers, values acquiescence and regimentation as the norm. In contrast, Americans value independence and individualism. To us, the quality of life is of paramount importance, so much so that our Declaration of Independence assures us of the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Success without happiness in this life is an empty prize. Happiness is the brass ring.

The critical point is that happiness for one might be misery for another. American parents need to teach children to set goals, establish a plan for their achievement, evaluate their level of success and then decide how to proceed from there. When it comes to choosing the goals however, parents may guide children, but the decision on whether to learn to play the piano or to play baseball has to be the child's.

What are your strategies for teaching self-motivation, self-discipline and self-reliance?

Children are born with natural curiosity about the world and have an inbred desire to learn. When they have confidence in their ability to succeed, they are naturally motivated toward achieving that success. It's fear of failure that crushes motivation. The best way to avoid failure is to refuse to try. The underpinning of self-motivation is promoting a positive self-image and instilling confidence.

My primary recommendation to parents related to discipline is to talk to children about the goal. It is not a secret, yet many parents seem to act as if we have to trick or threaten kids into doing the right thing. We tell our children that we want them to grow up to be honest, reliable and respectful young people who everyone likes and everybody trusts. You don't magically turn into an honest, reliable, respectful person on your 18th or 21st birthday. It's a goal they have to start working on right now, and it isn't an easy goal to achieve. The good news is that they will know when they have achieved it before we will.

Kids become self-reliant when they are allowed to make their own decisions, and perhaps fail, but then learn to reevaluate, regroup, and persevere. There is nothing simple about this process, so they do not do it on their own. A toddler is not allowed to make the decision independently to climb a flight of stairs. However, if an older child wants to do his homework after dinner rather than before, he should be allowed to try this option so long as he establishes criteria for success and evaluates the end result, changing plans if necessary. This process repeated over and over is what helps children become confident in their ability to face problems and deal with life. We cannot always be there to make decisions for our kids. We need to teach them how to do it successfully themselves.

How do your strategies differ from Chua's?

From what you read in the "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Amy Chua's children were never allowed to make independent decisions. They weren't allowed to fail and then be required to map out an alternative course of action. The Tiger Mother established all the goals and developed all the plans regimenting her children's lives completely. It seems that they were never allowed to think for themselves. As a consequence, I would expect that they would eventually be able to mimic their mother's behavior, but they might struggle more as a result of not having been able to think and act independently.

Where does self-esteem fit in? Have Western parents focused on it too much?

Despite its bad name in the media, self-esteem is still critically important. Experts go out of their way to use other terms like self-image, confidence, self-efficacy, or sense of competence to avoid the sticky stigma attached to the term self-esteem, but what it boils down to simply is that It's difficult to be successful when you feel insecure and inadequate. Common sense tells us it's better to feel good about yourself than it is to feel bad. So boosting our children's self-esteem is still of great value.

In their book "Nurture Shock," Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman describe Dr. Carol Dweck's unprecedented and momentous initial research comparing the performance of children praised for effort versus those praised for intelligence. The kids praised for their effort were more likely to challenge themselves in future tests. Those praised for their intellect more often chose easier subsequent tests. When presented with a truly difficult challenge, those praised for effort continued to be engaged and willing to persevere. Those praised for their intellect were stressed, sweating, and clearly unhappy. The conclusion drawn here was that the children who were praised for their intellect were not confident in their ability to control that quality. When confronted with actual failure, they were distressed rather than persistent. Those praised for their effort, however, knew that they could control this variable. They were more confident they could succeed because they could simply work harder. Even when confronted with failure, they continued to persevere because they thought that would make a difference.

It's important to praise children for their effort, their specific actions, or the results of those efforts or actions. When we praise them for inherent qualities they possess like intelligence, that may or may not foster confidence in them. They might just do their best to protect what they perceive to be our false impression of their ability by refusing to tackle future challenges in which they could fail. In other words, we haven't done too much to boost our kids' self-esteem. We just haven't done it right all the time.

How do you feel about parents who push for "perfection"?

If we are talking about the typical helicopter parent constantly hovering over their children to be sure everything they do is "perfect," then we are likely dealing with a child who rarely gets to think for himself, set his own goals, and work on becoming self-reliant. Parents who demand that children achieve specific grades rather than relish their kids' learning make their children apprehensive. These are the kids who come to their teachers asking how many paragraphs the book report should have or whether or not spelling "counts." And especially today, we cannot minimize the effects of stress on children. As Chua herself points out, the suicide rate for Chinese-American adolescents is significantly higher than the general population of teenagers in this country.

Your book mentions the deterioration of children's moral compasses. What evidence do you see, and what do you think caused it?

I think you will find this to be the general consensus among teachers who have worked with and observed children for more than two decades: The line between what's right and what's wrong has become blurred or perhaps it's the ability to rationalize the doing of what's wrong or the willingness to argue that "everybody" does what's wrong that is so distressing.

Something as complex as the changes that have occurred among our children over the past several decades can never be attributed to one cause. There are always a variety of contributing factors. Having said that, certainly some of these factors have contributed more than others. Without question the staggering increase in the divorce rate and the number of children born to under-age single mothers have been contributing factors to the deterioration of the American family. Adult behavior in conflict with any standard of values often attend the typical divorce, and children raising children is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Another issue is that our culture has become increasingly corruptive to children, what James Garbarino, professor of Human Development at Cornell University, refers to as the "socially toxic environment" in which our children try to find their way and that ultimately can shape their character. Children's exposure to corruptive influences can be found in movies, on television, or in electronic games, popular music, and internet websites that encourage or glorify violent, misogynistic, criminal, or antisocial behavior. How can we expect them to ignore this information?

Does "being a good parent" require a lot of financial resources? Do kids really need all of the lessons and gadgets that parents try to buy for them?

"Being a good parent" has very little to do with financial resources. All the financial resources necessary for being a good parent are what is needed to provide the basics of a warm house, a nutritious meal, and flannel pajamas. Good parenting requires an investment of time and energy, not money. Affluence is not a necessity. Millions of people have grown up successfully in homes where abundance did not exist.

What would you say are the three most-important things to remember about being a good parent?

First, I would stress the importance of providing unconditional love to our children because it is the foundation of emotional security. When children know we love them, they feel that they have value, and as valuables, they are assured that we will take care of them. We need to tell our children that we love them no matter what. We need to explain that this does not mean we condone everything they do. It simply means that we love them in spite of their mistakes.

When children make mistakes, we must be careful to focus on the behavior and not on their personalities or intellectual prowess. We cannot tell them they are careless, or thoughtless, or brainless, for the very simple reason that they will believe us. They will internalize what we say, and if anything, our insults will result in more of the undesirable behavior rather than less. And the sad truth is that while they will see right through vacuous and insincere praise, they will worry endlessly that we are right when we call them stupid.

We must communicate often and honestly with our children. We need to talk about our expectations now and our mutual goals for them as they grow: that they will become those honest, reliable and respectful adults who everyone likes and trusts, and that they will know before we will that they have developed the habit of doing the right thing even when no authority was there to see. We want our children to know that we are always there for them, and that they can come to us at any time to discuss any question or problem.

Also on Shine:

Are Parents Setting Kids up for Failure by Pushing Too Hard for Success?
Praise Can Be Bad for Kids: 3 Things Parents Can Do Instead
Are French Women the New Tiger Mothers?