I recently signed up my toddler, James, for a full roster of extracurricular activities – swimming, soccer, music, dance and art. I did it because I thought he might have fun, but also because I noticed other parents doing it, and frankly, that worried me. Imagine if he starts preschool without learning every verse to Wheels On The Bus in Rainbow Songs. By the time he gets it down, the other kids will have moved on to fingerpainting and he'll be permanently behind. And then I'll have to clear out the attic so he can live there until he's 45, working on a screenplay about dragons. Help!
Like most reasonably comfortable parents living in the Western world, I am plagued with a creeping (and statistically well-founded) anxiety that my child won't be a high-achiever. Part of this, I'll admit, is driven by greedy maternal ambition: I'm not immune to fantasies of watching my son bend it like Beckham, or swanning into his show at the Museum of Modern Art. And yet the truth is, as a parent, I haven't really got what it takes to produce a master of excellence. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Tough, Jonah Lehrer and the legion of writers who have explored the science of success in recent years, most geniuses were at some point coached and pushed by parents who were probably trying to make up for some deficit in their own lives (see Barbara Hershey's character in Black Swan for details).
And then there's Richard Williams, father and first coach to Venus and Serena and the most successful tennis dad in history. In his new book, Black and White: How I See It, Williams tells the story of his own violent, poor and largely fatherless childhood in Ku Klux Klan-ridden Shreveport, La. He was attacked in the street by racists and fought back, stole food for his five siblings and once stabbed a white man in the neck for revenge. "Every time I broke the rules it brought me closer to death, but it never stopped me," he writes. "Anger was my life."
Williams moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with tennis. By the time his daughters were born, their future was plotted out like Napoleon's conquest of Europe. Venus and Serena started training as toddlers; for six hours a day, the girls would bang balls on the potholed ghetto court as Richard hollered instructions from a tennis manual. Even after the family moved to Florida, the sisters' lives were heavily circumscribed: No boyfriends, no parties, no fun before work.
Williams' fascinating and self-aggrandizing personal mythology got me thinking about achievement and what our obsession with "success" (in the starry, outwardly defined sense) actually means for our kids. Obsessive drive and ambition don't usually appear on their own – they're instilled from one generation to the next, a form of socially sanctioned madness.
Unlike Richard Williams, anger isn't, and never was, my life. Because of this, I'm never going to forbid my kid's sleepovers like Tiger Mother Amy Chua did, or stand over him for three hours every day while he grinds away on his mini cello. In my house, the word "grit" is a reason to floss your teeth.
But our parenting culture is obsessed with achievement and that's not going to change any time soon. Economic and social predictors indicate that, in the short term, it's going to get worse, not better.
As the Western middle class is eaten away like the Maldives' shoreline post-climate change, and the last of the post-Second World War prosperity is greedily carted off by the super-rich, aspirational anxiety among regular parents is rising. The cost of living is increasing faster than average incomes, and in cities such as London, Paris, New York and even Toronto and Vancouver, only the children of the rich can get a toehold in the property market. Competition – for scholarships, jobs, pensions and a gainfully employed spouse – will almost certainly be stiffer for our kids than it was for us, and that's why we're feeling worried. Who doesn't want their kid to have an edge in this crazy world?
But the fact is, outliers such as the Williams sisters are not the product of typical pushy bourgeois parents. They are the result of one very idiosyncratic father's attempt to pour his anger at the racist establishment into something productive and even beautiful. Incredibly, he prevailed.
But there is no grand lesson to be learned from his daughters' extraordinary success. The Williams are an exquisite exception.
And we, the anxious, squeezed, middle-income majority, are the rule. As such, we would be better off channelling our parental anxiety into making our children more compassionate, well-adjusted citizens who follow their passions rather than joylessly prodding them to the top.
I'm going to start by crossing a couple of activities off my son's already burgeoning to-do list and using the time to hang out and pick dandelions in the park. I'm going to focus on not shouting when I'm in a hurry, and to pick my battles, because taking it slow is the fastest way to be a whole lot nicer.
As a Tiger Mother, I'm a failure. Better clear out the attic and hope that Hollywood's hot for dragons in 2057.