Against Tiger Mothers

I’m a scientist. I’ve published mathematical things, and wildly involved computer simulations of fiercely complex ecological and evolutionary processes. I’ve done field studies and theoretical studies. I’ve also published papers in philosophy and theology. What I lack in depth, I make up in wild eclecticism. My credentials for such wide sweeps of intellectual variability were forged from a bad case of ADD, unbounded curiosity, and a killer imagination. Some people are born to tunnel with predacious focus into the great stratigraphy of knowledge and follow the rich thin veins of precious facts deep into heart of narrow shafts of scientific discovery. Others, however, like me, are fashioned to skip singing over the entire landscape finding the broad-scale patterns scattered across multiple disciplines. Both are likely needed for knowledge to advance.

So I offer the way I was raised as a model for parents who want to raise a generalist rather than a specialist (The saying in the academy is: A specialist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing; a generalist learns less and less about more and more until she knows nothing about everything). So I write against the trend in ‘Tiger Mothering.’ I call this in turn ‘Coyote Parenting.’ Coyotes eat almost anything (like I do). They are generalists in almost every way. Their ecological niches are wide. They are smart and savvy and have colonized almost all North America. People have poisoned them, shot them, trapped them, and run over them. But here they are. Still slinking through the night like ghosts. There is something to be said for generalists.

Sadly, in the U.S. generalists in academics are being, as it were, poisoned, shot, trapped, and being run over. I think this is why U.S. education is loosing ground. The way that we reward and fund science only recognizes the narrow, easy views of the specialist world. And so, the way we let people practice science is falling behind. Why? We’ve confused the economics of good business principles with the pursuit of knowledge.

Sorry. Intellectual pursuits are not a linear run up to productivity. The economy of thought is more akin to an ecology than an accountant’s notebook. Education is becoming a practice intense, homework heavy, and product driven enterprise. We ask our educators to show a product. To get results. Good business is good education. Nose to the grindstone and all that. A legislature in Texas wants to rank teachers on a ratio of teaching load to number of students processed such that the sole criteria as to whether they are productive is some nonsensical reduction into nothingness. America now ranks among the most mediocre countries in every area of education. Our edge is being lost.

The more America wants to turn education into a product, the more it will fall behind. What is being lost is the imaginative substructure that lies at the heart of every science. This loss seems exemplified by the recent claims that ‘Tiger Mothers’ are raising the cream of the crop children by giving them relentless homework demands, demanding non-stop practice sessions, and a relentless push to get ahead of the schoolyard packs. Such will drive children into becoming little automatons that will get into the right schools, but are damned from creating the innovation and breakthroughs that imagination brings. Education is being mechanized and entrained to the point that it looks like the tick-tock knowledge of a robot society doing a kind of robot science.

Whoops I got distracted in my diatribe—a common temptation for my species of generalist.

So, you want to be a Coyote Parent and rage against the Tiger Mothers? Here’s how I was raised—

Homework: I never did any homework. None. Well that’s not completely true. One time my Science teacher got me excited about a report on black holes. I did work on that at home so technically it was homework. But other than that I never did any schoolwork (How did I maintain my stunning 1.4 grade point average you must wonder). But I had a home chemistry set at home, and a wild river wetland below my house where I chased insects, played in the mud and discovered creatures both wondrous and terrible. I spent a lot to time skipping high school classes and hiking in the great outdoors. I read voraciously, but read only my own interests. This was also Darwin’s model of education. Not that I can compare my educational achievements with his, but I dare say our education methods did us no harm. I learned to let curiosity drive my questions and my explorations.

Play: I spent much of my childhood in play. I played and played. I honed my imagination in playing with imaginary friends and with real friends who pretended to be imaginary friends. Once in Jr. High, we got up at four in the mourning put on wax Pan horns we had made and danced in the copse of a river bend until dawn. Yes, I agree, that’s weird, but it was inventive and fun. There were not any games organized by adults. I never belonged to a sports team, my mom never took me to practice. But like a scene from some 1930 movie, we played games like kick-the-can until late (and this was from age like 10 to 17), our amusements were always invented or improvisations on well-known games. My parents would give no more thought to entertaining us or arranging our activities then they would for the widow next door. We learned to do things because they brought meaning to us. No one handed us our agenda. We were free agents. (As an undergraduate this continued as a friend and I played “Porpoise Ball” in the BYU pool, which consisted of bouncing a ball back and forth on our heads for hours. Yes hours.) I learned the skills of innovation by innovating for play. In a new graphic novel about the great physicist Faynman, he says, “You see, from the very beginning, I always fooled around with mathematics and physics. Played really . . ” Yes played. In fact, to this day some of my greatest science as come because I know how to play. I formally argued this in a philosophy paper—the importance of play in science. Not the kind of play we see with video games or box games where you are just following some program you’ve been handed like to shoot so many people or ski down some unworldly sled. No, we were at world making! Inventing. Improvising. That was how we played. We knew how to game in freedoms of our own devising.

Conversation: We were in constant dialogue. I remember me and my buddies staying up late (on a school night) building Tralfamadorians, creatures from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five by sticking gloves with eyeballs painted on onto toilet plungers. We had no reason to do this, but we did it while discussing the book. We explored deep matters. There was no utility in making Tralfamadorians. They did not impress our girl friends (quite to the contrary). Our classmates, when we put them in our lockers, found them silly (as did we, mind you), but we did a lot of things without utility, apropos of nothing. It did not build character, or advance our chances of academic success, and may have harmed our future reproductive capabilities given our girlfriend’s reactions, but still. It all fed into this world of imagination that has been so invaluable to my scientific endeavors.

Lastly, I was given to asking questions about the world. I wanted to know how it all fit together. I could not even begin to understand something in isolation. This is why school bored me. I had to see the big picture first, then, and only then, could I study the details. In the world of specialists the details are learned first. I was lost in such a world.

So there is how to raise a Coyote child. Good luck. It takes way more patience and trust. Nothing is regulated or guided. But notice something: While tigers in the world are almost extinct, the howl of the coyote, while underappreciated can be heard from Maine to Southern California and from Alaska to Guatemala.


  1. If you want to see eduction done right look to Finland.

  2. I think you are onto something about the nature of each beast – but I don’t know if a person really decides to be a coyote or a tiger – it’s a cultural thing and you simply are one or the other.

  3. sounds like homeshcool. I do like Finland’s model. With a tiger or a coyote…either way you have hunger, predatory-not park pigeons. It’s love of learning. One of the reasons I don’t like homework-it has been proven to kill love of learning. It’s detrimental to learning until the age of 14 (and then only marginally)…unless the child looks at it as PLAY.

    Interesting insight into the difference between the generalist and the specialist.

  4. If schools in the US were like the schools in Finland, I’d really, really want to be one–but as it is, there’s now way in hades I’d become a teacher in the US.

  5. I mean a teacher, not a school;P

  6. I believe my hands turned into cattle prods during my son’s HS career. It was hellish, and “No Child Left Behind” murdered his love of learning–for a time. Now we are trying to help him find his passion. My goal is to have him be EXACTLY like SteveP. Ants are included in my Christmas gift plan for him. This kid loves the Discovery channel and the History channel, and has shown me recently that he actually thinks. Because we were so intensely involved in just getting the homework done and the tests passed, and because he was convinced that he wasn’t smart and because he loathed school, the depth of his thought has actually surprised me. I would have loved to be a Coyote mom, but I knew I couldn’t prepare him in scientific/math areas. We submitted his name twice for an excellent charter school, but admission was done via lottery, and we did not win. We definitely did not win. My daughter going coyote with her children. She just withdrew her daughter from the public school system, after a series of patently absurd tests which left my very bright granddaughter feeling like a stupid kid. She’ll use K-12 and augment it with her own creative ideas.
    What happened to the joy schools? Do those still happen?

  7. Steve,

    Do you think one could be a coyote-specialist? One might play at art all day long and become a great artist but lack in everything else.

  8. Margaret those still happen. But I know very few people who do the Eyring’s Joy school, as in pay-an-arm-and-a-leg and don’t get to keep the curriculum. I only paid for that one year. There is a lot better stuff out there now, or even free at the library, and the internet is a huge resource.

  9. No bloody way you get into BYU with a 1.4 these days. That’s just the cold, hard truth.

  10. I don’t know how SteveP did it, but if you have enough college credits from elsewhere, BYU looks at your college GPA instead of your high school GPA. 1.4 gets replaced by whatever you earn in college.

  11. Amen. As a polisci PhD student currently I have to fight like ctazy to keep my ecclectic spirit alive. My grandfather- a PhD civil engineer- always stressed the importance of not letting school get in the way of my education. Good advice then and now.

  12. Portia, you can enter BYU with at 1.4. Just yank a 36 ACT score.

  13. Amen, SteveP. You speak the truth. There is a shmackload of research to support basically everything you say here. A couple of things to add:

    The hierarchy of learning. The best learning happens when the teacher reduces the space between herself and the learners. The cliche is that a teacher should be a’guide on the side, not the sage on the stage,’ but I prefer the concept of the lead learner. In other words, I’ve read the poetry of Frost many, many times, but as I go through it with a group of students, I am ready to learn more about it as I hear their thoughts about it. Since I have more experience with the process of analysis than they do, and more life experience, I can challenge their reading if necessary and help them refine it, but they can do the same for me, and often do.

    Self reflection. This is related to play. If we reflect on what we learned and how we learned it, we can transfer that experience to other learning more easily. What my students learn while writing a poem can be used as they put together lab reports for a science class.

    I would add that the Finland model is more complex than we often treat it, but the respect for teachers is a self-fulfilling prophesy. (I wrote about the Finland model a little on my ed blog here.)

  14. I want my kids in a Finnish-ing school!

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember my childhood much as Steve describes. I recall very little homework. In the summers, my friends and I wandered far and wide; as I look back on it, the autonomy our parents gave us seems almost incredible.

  16. Blather. Another anti-homework screed. There are lots of kids and parents who suceed by combining both elements of tiger and coyote.

  17. Ah Margaret, you made my day. And ants will go a long way to propel any kid into coyotehood!

    Admittedly, my veterans status helped with my 1.4 GPA launch at BYU, but maybe good undergraduate schools are overrated. It’s a good graduate program that wins the day if academics are the aim, and a great undergraduate program can be had at other places than top tier schools. Coyote’s often have to talke alternative routes. It’s part of their ghostly, wandering nature.

    Norbert, I’m so envious you are in Finland! And it was you that first drew my attention to the stellar ways kids are treated educationally.

    Kevin, it’s true. For some reason we’ve allowed our perception of how dangerous the world is to color how strict we are. I would wander all over and the only rule was be home for dinner. And if we were late my mom wasn’t worried something had happened, she was just mad we had disrespected the work she had done in preparing it. Now we would have the police out. Things have changed.

    queuno, no there is more here than an anti-homework screed. Read again.

  18. Although I get what you are trying to say, and can appreciate the strengths of your style of upbringing, I’m not sure I agree that tiger mother types tend to be mindless automatons who lack imagination. I’ve been immersed in this world at elite schools all the way through college, grad school, and postdoc, and have generally found the tiger mom faction to be among the most creative, engaged, and least lazy people I know, with wide-ranging interests from science to art to politics to music. I think the tendency to see smart, high-achieving people as somehow necessarily uncreative, unimaginitive, or defective in some other way (which admittedly they sometimes are) stems largely from jealousy or fear. (I’m not talking necessarily about the OP here, I’ve heard these arguments a lot). I remember as I kid in Utah in the late 80s/early 90s hearing all the same arguments about “the Japanese” who were “taking over our country.” Turns out when I went on a mission to Asia, people are nothing like the way they are typecast over here.

  19. As for the robot science you decry (and I agree), I would argue it is driven not by failings in the scientists’ imagination, or in the educational process (though there is much that could be improved there), but by the demands of the funding agencies. NIH is famously conservative, and you have to do what will get funded and published, not necessarily whatever random direction you want to follow. I think there was probably a time for that in the past (based on talking with much older faculty members), but now as you point out it’s run increasingly like a business, and that’s very sad.

  20. Woodboy I agree completely. There are many wonderfully imaginative, bright free thinkers among the Tigers. Indeed, I see it often at BYU. But there are trends just in the ten years I’ve been here that are concerning, where I meet kids who have been working on their resume their whole lives and whose obsession with grades as made them among the worst thinkers I know. I see this as a growing trend as competition drives people to the Tiger business model of education, and actual eduction goes down (as evidenced by US falling further in the country rankings). Your comment #19 hits the nail on the head! Yes it does.

  21. Agreed, I too have known many like that. Secondary public education does a very poor job of teaching critical thinking, that’s usually a skill that must be acquired in college, often as you note with much resistance.

  22. I simply give my children the best of both worlds. I’m having a lot of fun being a mother! My 13 year old is in a highly capable program but she didn’t start until 5th grade. She did 14 months of Kumon math (in 3rd/4th grade) which made up for the poor math program at school. She has mastered all the basics of math and can do it quickly so she can spend her time in math at school really thinking about the new material rather than being frustrated trying to remember mulitiplication tables or how to reduce fractions or whatever like all the other kids have to.
    My 11 year old son has been doing kumon for 6 months and it is paying off. His year of Kumon in first grade was unnecessary. He is happy and love math. Nothing wrong with teaching a kid to do work and concentrate for 20 minutes at a time. I wouldn’t do years of it. I very carefully monitor what he is learning and what is worth it. I love math and didn’t want their maith education messed up. This is worth it. Same with scouting. I always said I didn’t want my eagle (as a mom). But helping my child learn these things at 11 and 12 will give him some real skills and confidence. Self esteem comes from actually becoming capable.
    It is very important to me to teach my children and then slowly let them learn to do things on their own and accomplish or fail on their own. My 13 year old has a babysitting job after school this year. For $5/hour. This is good for her to learn to become capable and to learn from her experiences.
    The only reason my daughter gets babysitting jobs is because I actively solicited for her. Parents are too paranoid to let a 12-13 year old (or even adults) babysit (plus the cost is difficult for the people we know). Every babysitting job is because I talked to the mom and explained how it would be a favor to me if they provided my child with an opportunity to learn to work and have to meet expectations, how I would be happy to give her a ride to and from the job, and how they don’t have to pay $8….she’s perfectly happy to make $5. Yes, today you need “connections” just to get a babysitting job. Life is different these days, at least around here.
    Parents are absolutely paranoid now. From helmets to no playdates. I make myself take risks in order to provide my children with a real childhood. It is good for my children to get to walk to the library or go over to someone’s house.
    There ARE no neighborhood kids here. My 8th grade daughter, for instance, NEVER has any friends come over or goes over to someone’s house. Joining volleyball or football or dance is the main way to get social interaction, so we do it. Sports/music/dance is a good way to balance out the education.
    My two daughters can basically close their eyes and sleep through school, but that won’t teach them to work. That’s a problem. If they aren’t involved in things, the internet, tv, and xbox will take over.
    There is no danger of me becoming a true tiger mother. I believe in a balance for each kid, based on each kid’s needs. I guess having a son with a learning disability means I had to start “pushing” a kid before he was three. Seeing what a difference intervention makes means I can’t take it easy and just see how these kids turn out. Each of my kids has strengths and weaknesses (intellectually, socially, emotionally, etc.) and a little guidance goes a long way.

  23. The book ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft- an inquiry into the value of work’ by Matthew Crawford makes the same argument. His take is that by narrowing our educational offerings to fit a small box of achievement we are killing important creative parts of ourselves.
    I too, had a wonderful free spirit childhood and would have loved to offer my children the same. Alas, I was constrained by the fear of being on the evening news as a neglectful mother. How sad for my children!

  24. jJulie M. Smith says:

    Two thoughts:

    (1) What SteveP describes is also a marvelous way to get your kids to live the law of chastity.

    (2) Here’s why I like homeschooling: two hours of tiger, the rest of the day is coyote.

  25. SteveP – Do you think the thing driving specialization could be the explosion of knowledge in the past several decades? I’m thinking about biological sciences because that’s what I know. For example, in the 1950s science was just figuring out the molecular nature of heredity, and now we know the minute details of which atoms contact which in various cellular process. There is just too much to know, and no single human mind can contain it all, so what can we do but specialize? I’m not necessarily saying it’s a good thing, but unless you are a polymath genius, how can you have a meaningful understanding of so many things at once?

    I also wonder what you think about the push for “interdisciplinary” science. When I was in grad school they built a giant, expensive building to put the biological sciences next to the physical sciences in hopes that they’d talk to each other and work together more. But I hardly ever left my own lab. Now that I’m working in research administration I see grants with Co-PIs from several departments all the time (but it’s always the same few people collaborating), and I always wonder how much of the science is really interdisciplinary and how much it’s “let’s get someone from Chemistry on this grant so it satisfies the funding agency’s call for interdisciplinary work.” It seems to me there is a lot of money being spent on being interdisciplinary – I just wonder how effective money is.

    I like the idea of learning through play. My son is 4 so I’ve yet to experience the onslaught of homework, and I dread it. My son (through no prompting by me – honestly!) says he wants to be a scientist because he likes to “study” things. I’m very worried that the process of going to school will squelch that spark.

  26. I was already doing this- just didn’t know it had a name and was embarrassed by what looked like laziness compared to so many of my friends- but it works for my kids. In my head, I called it Feral Parenting. I am so grateful to know I’m not alone, and that there might even be benefit to my children from my lack of desire to helicopter parent.

    Thank you Steve P. You constantly inspire.

  27. With a wife who teaches Jr. High Math, I’ve become a real student of the learning process through listening to her, and actually participating in video taping her classes, and helping with some school activities. I would tend to agree that the movement towards a more standards-based and outcome oriented education environment, primarily driven by NCLB and Race to the Top, is having significant consequences in education, some good, but equally some bad. Given the pressures on teachers these days, especially in math and science, the old style of lecture, homework, and test can truly kill the kids love of learning when it increasingly fails to give the kids the skills they need to really succeed.

    Through a lot of outside efforts at studying the pedagogy of teaching, my wife has increasingly moved towards a coyote model with her kids, not that she would have called it that. She is National Board Certified, and participated recently in a four year Microsoft grant about math teaching in secondary schools with an emphasis on collaboration and coaching of teachers. She’s become a firm believer in small group work and a discovery process for teaching math, and has been amazed at how getting the kids involved in talking together and learning from each other has had a positive outcome. Over the four years of the grant, her school raised math scores on standardized tests by 9%, where the district wide average, including most schools not involved in the same grant, was less than 5%, which is still not bad.

    One of the most powerful lessons she has learned is that by mixing gifted kids and struggling kids in the same groups, and letting them work with each other, the struggling kids make huge gains in measurable achievement, while the gifted kids also improve in the same metrics. The interactive process helps the struggling students, and also sharpens the understanding and especially the ability of the gifted kids to communicate and articulate their thoughts. It has truly been a win-win situation. It actually looks a lot like play.

    I’ll show this post to her tonight, and I’m pretty sure she will recognize a lot of the coyote parenting in the way she now teaches. Heck, I would have been a much better math student had she been my teacher. She has helped me to understand stuff that I could never conceptualize as I struggled with math in high school and college.

  28. If my kids ever wonder why they have to spend their time learning and doing chores, I point out to them that for thousands of years children used to have to work to help support the family. I told my son that at his age he would be out working in a field with his father putting in a man’s day’s work until dark, or during the industrial revolution he would be working in a factory.
    Then I explain that nowadays in our society PARENTS earn enough to support the whole family, so children don’t have to work. However, in order for adults to get a job that will support their family they need to study and learn for years. So until he is in his twenties and can earn a paycheck from a good job, he needs to be studying and working to help his family by by going to school and loading the dishwasher and cleaning, etc.
    My kids get plenty of time to play lego endlessly (2nd child), or read (1st & 3rd child) or play pretend (3rd child). But I try to go back to the way distant past….not just the 60s and 70s… teach my kids about real life. Real life is sometimes about putting food on the table and the logistics. In modern day life where people don’t have to farm their own food or make their own soap, we have the luxury of a lot of free time. I hope to help my children not feel entitled to endless free time.
    That said, I don’t have a DVD player in my car so my kids learn to stare out the window and think their own thoughts. That is something else from the past that kids don’t get to do anymore. I refuse to have children that think they need to be entertained all the time.
    Life in today’s society is VERY complicated. It is also changing very, very, very fast.

  29. Thomas Parkin says:

    The most important thing you can do for your spawn’s education is to be yourself an example of a person who finds the universe / reality fascinating. Everything else is system, of one kind or another, which will benefit some and fail others.

    I think it is right, too, as Mormons, to recall that education is primarily a matter of constant augmentation of being, in all aspects of life, approaching completion. It is only secondarily a matter of participation in whatever economy we find ourselves.


  30. The only thing I have been really ” Tiger ” about with my kids and grandkids, is that they know how to read when they enter school. Once you are behind in this, it’s hard to keep up or catch up.
    Now, for my grandkids, for them to have some comfort using a computer.

  31. This seems like the life we would like to live, and to which 20th Century American life was reasonably conducive. Without an ample middle class with low barriers to entry, though, it doesn’t seem so possible to do what you want to do and be what you want to be. In Tiger Mothering, I smell fear that social mobility is vanishing and a choice must be made to either acquire a place in society or take a permanent place in an underclass. Surely, SteveP can think of some of his free-range cohort who are locked into undesirable lives now. For most, a 1.4 GPA doesn’t lead to where SteveP finds himself.

  32. Bob, actually late readers show no real disadvantage as later learners.

    John, my students, all higher middle class, all believe that fervently.

    I took my six year old to his saxophone class tonight. I never thought I’d be the parent running kids around to this kind of stuff, but the joy the boy gets from getting good noises out of that instrument is well worth it. Is it a career move, or something that will advance him in society somehow? Not at all.

  33. I think I should point out a 1.4 GPA is not a defining characteristic, but neither was it limiting. I was highly motivated, wildly creative and willing pursue my own dreams and desires. Certainly, I wouldn’t hold up the 1.4 as an achievement, and it did limit certain paths, but the blocked paths were not barriers for bringing about desired ends. Because, I had learned creativity I could sniff out alternatives. My parents had made me extremely independent and never imposed their agenda on me, so I found my own way. No, I could not go Ivy league, but in not going to such a place my life’s path was not ruined. Creativity has served me far more in achieving my ends in life far more than anything else. I’m not arguing that a 1.4 is something to admire, I’m arguing the other attributes I gained vaulted me past such an unpromising start. My creative independence served me far more in becoming an academic than a good GPA.

  34. Kevin Black says:

    I think SteveP makes some excellent points about the need for relaxed, widely focused play as a way to foster wide-ranging, generalist education (not to mention as a compassionate way to raise a kid). However, I wouldn’t have aimed it at the moms. (Or, for that matter, at apple pie.) It is possible, of course, that my tendency to agree with him fits in with my own wide-ranging academic and other interests … and my own distractibility.

  35. #32: Norbert,
    “late readers show no real disadvantage as later learners.”
    I would have to see support for that.
    If so, then billions of dollars were totally wasted on program “HeadStart “.

  36. “It takes way more patience and trust.”


    Great post.

    I think about my childhood. We left home in the morning, were home for 1/2 hour of lunch and then again at dinner. Mom just didn’t want to see us in the house (or so I assumed), and it didn’t matter the season.

    There was little homework for me as a kid. I struggled to read (I didn’t really learn to read at “grade level” until my freshman year of college when my Hon Prog Colloquium required a book or two a week!) — but I was clever enough to test well without it. I lost the thread on math at Trig and stopped completely until 10 years later I had to take a Calc course prior to my MBA. I aced the class (a perfect score) — something happened to me in those intervening years that let me “get it”.

    My kids are on hugely divergent paths. #1 and #4 have finished BA degrees and are working. #2 got 3/4 of the way there and took time off, and is now trying to explore another alternative. #3 decided college was not for him and has been working low-wage jobs and thinking about college (at 25). #5 is still in school (and is taking classes in your department), and #6 & 7 are still at home. I’m not sure it’s been any easier for the two who finished college quickly than for the other two who haven’t.

  37. I think a clarification on the reading issue might be this: if a child is harangued for six years over his “lack” of reading, he/she will be damaged, and may never recover. However, if there is space for the child to come to reading on their own, without recrimination, judgement, pestering, and busywork, it is not traumatizing. I know the plural of anecdote is not data, but in our home, here’s how it worked:

    Our oldest taught herself to read at 5. Our second (a boy) was only mildly interested in words at that age, so we just continued to read to him, and he absorbed information like mad. At six, we made a light attempt at “learning to read”–he was definitely Not Ready… nothing stuck. So we let it rest, and tried again every six months or so…. for just over four years. No dice. So we continued to read aloud together, get books on CD for him to listen to alone, check out high-quality DVDs for scientific information, etc. About two weeks after he turned ten, he pulled out one of the “little girl” books after a request from his toddler sister for a story… and started sounding out the words quite capably. By the time he turned 11, he was reading at grade level without a problem. At 12, he’s reading a few years above grade level, has great comprehension, and reads aloud beautifully. He had the space and non-punitive time to hit the developmental point at which reading was going to work easily for him. Had we spent 4-5 years battling a school district regarding his progress, it could have easily damaged him permanently.

    My cello teacher had twins; one taught himself to read at four, and the other had no interested at all until he was twelve, and his father responded to a request to read out some passages in a book with, “If you want to learn calculus, you’ll need to learn to read on your own, son.” Six months later, there was *no* discernible difference in the boys’ reading levels. Reading finally clicked and had a point to it.

    I describe my mothering as “parenting by benign neglect.” It’s working with our four, and we really enjoy our family, though it may look a bit relaxed to others. I can’t deny that I actually LIKE my kids… even my teenagers, and enjoy seeing them explore and learn about the world around them, one passion at a time.

  38. Most European countries, including Finland, start school at later ages than the U.S. does. I was in kindergarten in the U.S. when my family moved to Europe. In Europe, I went to the local kindergarten, which students attended for two years. One year later, while I was still in the European kindergarten, my family visited the U.S. and I attended the first grade (with my age group) for a couple of weeks. I was so behind on my reading skills that the first grade teacher stated I wasn’t ready for first grade, and that I should be held back a year. Of course, I was probably the only child in my class who was fluent in a foreign language…

    We went back to Europe for another year, and I learned to read (I mainly read comics such as TinTin, Lucky Luke, etc.) When we returned to the U.S., my reading skills were plenty adequate for my age group–the second grade. By the fourth grade, I was very easily the top reader in my class.

    Kids develop skills, especially reading skills, at different times. I think the U.S. needs to use Europe’s model and not focus on reading skills until the age of 7 or so. I’m not saying we should delay school until the age of 7, but I do think school should be a lot less structured early on.

  39. #37 Lesson Number One: As I understand it, the value of head start is not necessarily that it makes kids smarter, but it improves their chances to have valuable social interactions at an age when those are most meaningful. This American Life aired an item a month or two ago (it was a repeat, and I can’t readily find it in their archive) about how young disandvantaged students who attend preschool had a much lower rate of crime, truancy and other troubles in their lives even 20 and 30 years later. (The study was a multi-decade study in Ypsilanti, MI.) Viewing the value of Head Start in terms of academic performance in the first couple of years in school is silly — all those early learners in Grades 1-3 are taught the same, so it is no surprise that they lose any academic advantage they might have.

  40. observer fka eric s says:

    I’ve noticed that whenever ‘Tiger Mom’ comes up, at some point the conversation usually ends up referencing some of these in rebutal:

  41. Paul, I’d be interested in reading or hearing about that. It does bring up the social responsibilities of education…there are rare times when the school is better than the home.

    I am with notmolly on reading. Having taught 4 children to read I have watched as they learn to read when they are ready…so similar to walking really. They have all of the skills and capability but are sounding out words so laboriously until whatever clicks in their brains and it takes off. I haven’t had quite that age span she mentioned, but have had anywhere from age 4-8 be the takeoff point. child #5 is at the brink of taking off and 7yo. His 6yo sister is about to catch him.

  42. #38 and #39–spot on assessment of reading early vs. late. My daughters attend our local Waldorf school, and reading is not formally taught until 1st grade at age 7 (no letters/writing–nothing–in Kindergarten; in K the focus is on oral stories where, through context, they learn a wide vocabulary). These students all prove to be voracious readers and learners as the years move on. Why are we giving homework and loading our young children down at age 5? When I considered different schools, one public elementary school touted that their first semester 1st graders were doing 100 math problems in 5 minutes. What?!

    Ingenuity, creative thought, and critical thinking is what will set our kids apart in college–not the huge resumes that so many kids have been forced to build up through the years–often, those kids are burnt out by the time they hit college. It’s unfortunate that the extreme resume building is part of the college admissions game.

    I’m sure many of you have seen Sir Ken Robinson’s fantastic lectures on education on As with all things, there must be balance on the spectrum b/w Tiger Parent and Coyote Parent. For now, my dh and I lean towards being Mormon Coyotes.

  43. I guess I am still not a believer that, left along, people will learn how to read on their own.
    So why are so many illiterate in the world?
    How is it that many of you know your child is ahead or behind in their reading if you are not working with them?
    I have 5 year olds coming into my house almost daily, who don’t even know the alphabet. How are they going to teach themselves to read? Some can’t even speak English.

  44. Bob, I don’t think anyone disputes that most children must be taught to read (few do it on their own). It’s just that formal instruction isn’t necessary so early. Of course, research shows that reading to and talking directly with your children is all a part of the pre-reading/language acquisition process. But just because a child doesn’t learn the alphabet before age 5 does not automatically mean she will not be successful in school or as a learner.

    There’s a really interesting book called “Nurture Shock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman that I highly recommend which looks at research on a number of child development topics. One interesting chapter in the book examines a very successful early-childhood program called “Tools of the Mind” which suggests that a child’s level of self-regulation will indicate their IQ and academic success later on–not how well they know their alphabet as a 4-year-old or how early they read, etc. Such programs as this should be implemented in Head Start preschools. (Here’s a brief synopsis of the program:

    I suspect as well that if our nation’s children watched less TV (I think the average is something like 5 hours a day) we would have older children who were better readers and critical thinkers. Furthermore, larger issues such as unpaid maternity leave and poverty need to be addressed so that more American parents can have more time and energy to influence and prioritize their child’s education. But that’s for another post…

  45. Bob,

    At the age of 5 I couldn’t speak the native language and, beyond a handful of letters, didn’t know the alphabet at all. At 7 I was fluent in the language (as well as English, my native language) and could read both languages fine. By the age of 10 I was at the top of my class in reading, and I stayed there at least through high school (I got the highest score possible on the reading portion of the ACT).

    No one should expect a 5 year old to read, know more than one language, or even know the alphabet. Their parents and/or teachers will teach them to read in good time. Let 5-year-olds enjoy their childhood.

  46. Tim, I am happy for you. But I am not worried about smart people at the top, I am worried about the ones on the bottom.
    The LA schools, we have a drop out rate of about 50% from high school. Test show__they can’t read. If you are not, as a parent, working with your kids, you are putting them at risk. I have been in homes of kids near mine_that don’t have one book in them. Nothing is ever read because the parents can’t read.

  47. It’s also not that parents who opt for development-directed learning completely ignore the child. :) During those years that my son was not reading on his own, he was read to (by every adult family member, and his big sister), he chose books on tape, he looked at and checked out books independently, etc. We “worked” with him every day, helping him access the information about the world he was longing to absorb. We just did not sit him down with endless drills, worksheets, punitive handwriting sheets, or other things that US schools tend to focus on. I knew where he was, developmentally. We didn’t make a huge deal out of the independent reading and related skills. When he hit the point that it clicked, he had a huge background of experience with language, and it clicked FAST.

    (I was nearly 12 before I could remember multiplication tables. I’d been drilling on them since I was 8. At no point did they stick… until something changed in my brain when I was 12, and all of a sudden, I knew them. But the intervening four years of “failure” sure convinced me I was “bad at math.” We just skip the failure/punishment cycle with our kids, and wait for the development moment with each.)

    With Head Start and other early intervention programs, I think the problem is actually removing the children from the homes. If we could instead focus on strengthening families, teaching self-sufficiency, developing active and uplifting neighborhood communities, etc, the children would have the things they need to develop before formal academics: intact, loving families who work and play and learn together. When a child has that background (as I do believe all children deserve), they are emotionally and physically ready to explore the world and learn things.

    My scheme of Parenting By Benign Neglect means I actually allow my children to live, and direct much of their own time, and work as a family (from a very young age), and be a productive, complete person independent from myself. I’m not raising children. My end product is a complete, civilized adult human. :) (My parents took the same track, and I’m fairly… well, not normal, exactly, but at least productive and entertaining.)

  48. Bob, I get what your saying, and absolutely hear your frustration/sadness over the dropout rate in LA, etc. I agree w/ NotMolly that it does have to begin at home, and that’s just not happening in so many low income families. IMO, the educational success in Scandinavian countries has to do with the larger issues at hand (poverty or lack thereof). Not that we need to have socialism to improve our country’s education, but it is so very difficult for a single mother living below the poverty level to even think of teaching her child after long hours of work–or when the child isn’t even in her care during the day–or when the parents have been abused/not educated themselves, etc. Until we can address poverty, I don’t think our country’s gross educational problems will ever be solved.

    I do love America, but sometimes I wish I lived in Denmark.

  49. Bob, having books in the house and making reading a part of daily life is a much more significant factor in literacy than actually instruction before about age 7.

    And Corrina is spot on about poverty.

  50. If Corrina is spot on about poverty, then are these memories from a former coyote pup, with nary a parent or dollar in sight, a method that does not scale? What would block poor children from developing their creativity out of contact with the world’s raw material just as SteveP did? Also, he seems to be describing the entirety of his youth, not just early childhood.

  51. #42 LessonNumberOne: I still can’t find the podcast, but here’s a link to the study itself:

    I have not studied the website, but the first page shows some dramatic statistics. Again, the focus of the study was on kids from underprivileged homes. The conclusion would suggest that for some reason, kids in those homes are not getting the social skills that kids in more privileged homes are getting (by social skills, I mean negotiation, problem solving, discipline). The kids with preschool had lower arrest rates, higher academic (and job) success.

    #48 NotMolly: you write, “With Head Start and other early intervention programs, I think the problem is actually removing the children from the homes.” The study at the link would suggest that removing these kids from their homes is precisely what was needed.

    Now that we’re decades down the road, maybe there are more homes, even among poor families, where outside socialization is not helpful, but in the major midwestern city near me, I don’t see evidence of that yet. The “show up” rate on day one of the school year was well below 60%.

  52. #50: Norbert,
    I don’t fully understand what you are saying. What are the books in the home?(Children or adult). Who is doing the “reading as part of daily life”?
    I have side by side computers with 24 in. screens. One for me, one for all the kids living around me. As I (or my wife) blog, etc., they will be doing Reader Rabbit or Jump Start CDs. I am hands off unless they have a problem. they can start (and have fun) at about age four.

  53. Children and adults. Research shows that contextualized language use is much more effective than reading instruction. The two biggest factors in literacy: children see their father reading, and parents read to the children.

  54. John, SteveP had access to a safe environment where it was possible for him to wander and explore. In a different environment, that’s not really an option.

  55. #54: Norbert,
    I think we are pretty much in agreement.
    I feel kids must be in a comfort zone when they go into a class. They should also feel reading is an important and fun thing to do. But it can’t happen in a vacuum, parents must take the lead.

  56. My comment had to do with the idea that removing kids from the home environment early is the best solution. It’s not. The best, what the kids really deserve, is some way to strengthen the family, so their home is a refuge and a place they can gain the skills they need, from their family. It’s not happening in all homes, and that makes my heart ache for those families. I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I’d rather see the homes and families supported in true, long-lasting solutions, than greater state involvement in homes. The is no fast solution. I’m glad the current program has helped in some way, but it didn’t/can’t solve the larger societal problems of families in crisis.

  57. Interesting discussion. I agree that we have much to improve with our educational system and how we parent. I recently read a book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Children” wherein the author argues based on adoption studies that parents do not have as much of an impact ultimately on the academic and intellectual prowess of their children as we assume. Whether or not he’s right, I don’t know.

    My only real problem with your post is the way you (and most people) fall into the trap of glorifying educational systems from other countries. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t observe and analyze what works for other countries. But we often cite test scores and say that other countries are doing things right without really looking at things closely. Sweden is often cited as an educational model that many people would have our country adopt. I lived in Sweden for 5 1/2 years. While there is much to admire there, there are also flaws.

    For instance, when we compare our student’s test scores with Sweden’s students, Sweden’s students often test higher. What most Americans don’t realize is that Sweden has an aggressive funneling schooling system where students are set on their career paths in middle and high school. Students specialize very early. Swedish high school kids typically choose schools that specialize in subjects. So there will be math/science high schools, performing arts schools, language schools, etc. The broad aspects that are standard in American education aren’t necessarily taught. So when you compare American high school students math scores to Swedish high school math scores, you are comparing our average scores (low, high, middle) with the very best math scores of the best math students in Sweden–Not an average. And not a very accurate or fair comparison.

    Whether or not we want to adopt such an educational model is up for debate. But at the very least, we need to look at the very real differences in educational systems which produce different results. Should we funnel students into programs which improve their strengths without attempting to creating a broader based sense of knowledge in high school? Should we work on improving what we have? I don’t know the answers, but I do think we ought to have better facts when we start touting other educational systems as models of educational reform.

  58. Brilliant last line, Coyote Man. Every great post needs a vivid send-off line to linger on the palate like a chocolate truffle.

  59. As for Bob’s apparent opinion that a child can’t learn to read on their own, perhaps that depends on what one means by “on their own.”

    My oldest child was very intelligent. At four, I tried to teach her to read. The phonetical approach made no sense to her, so I told her, “You’re too young to learn to read.” Well, she took that as a challenge. She enlisted my mother’s help, but my mother said the child did a lot on her own. By age 5 1/2 she could read on a 3rd grade level. That wasn’t her enjoyment level. Her enjoyment level was grade one and two. By 3rd grade, she could read adult books.

    My next daughter could read very few words. She could read the scriptures better than school books, actually. If they had tested her on the Book of Mormon, she would have known more words than they said she knew.

    Anyway, when she was about 8, she went to stay with her father for a while. I sent her a bunch of Babysitters Little Sisters Club (something like that) books. She was home, bored, so she began to try to read them. She got a few things mixed up (like thinking someone broke their waist instead of their wrist), but she taught herself to read (her father was not there most of the time). She took a little longer to come up to par than her sister, but by the time this child was 10 or 11, she was reading constantly. She often checked out ten or fifteen books from the library (or more, if they’d let her), and have them read by the time a week was up. (I am not exaggerating. She would stay up late to finish the books.)

    My son has no interest in reading, and a low ability, even though he has been taught. So, I would say that reading ability has a whole lot more to do with the child’s interest in the subject and, most definitely, a child can teach themselves to read without someone sitting down and saying, “Okay, now we are going to learn to read. I’ll teach you how.”

  60. Toni that’s always a tough thing for me too. People often assume I must be a pushy mother because my kids started reading really early. I didn’t do anything special. They asked and so we started. Some learn earlier than others. Some pick it up faster than others. It depends on the child. My youngest child started writing his last name last week. I didn’t sit him down and say, “Let’s learn your last name.” He pulled up a chair and got a paper and pen and sounded it out. I had nothing to do with it. But I encourage him and help him when he is ready.

  61. #60: Toni,
    It appears to me your children had a lot of help learning to read,and good for you and your village .
    A boy could never learn to read by himself anymore than he could learn to play baseball if he had never seen a game or knew what a bat and ball were.

  62. Bob, when I began to answer (in #60), I began to think that no one really learns anything all by themselves. I still said what I had in mind, though.

    I do consider it learning by ourselves, if we try to figure it out, using what we have been exposed to (like mmiles’ youngest child), or if we ask others to help us. I think that’s different than someone sitting a child down, and saying, “Now, this is what I’m going to teach you.”

    I guess the difference isn’t really doing it all alone versus being taught, as much as it is in who is taking the initiative. Is the child searching out ways to learn or is someone else imposing that learning?

    So, yes, you are right. My girls would not have learned to read if they had never been read to, if they had never seen a book. Of course my son was also read to, etc. Still, he can read; he just hates it.

    mmiles, it seems there are a lot of people ready to stand judgment. “Your child reads adult books at age 8? You must have really pushed her.” “Your child is nearly 8 and can’t read more than a few words in a school book? You must be doing something to keep that child back.” This society wearies me. How about we just let kids be kids, like in the opening post? There is far too much of that tiger mother stuff (which term I had never even heard of before today).

  63. Toni and mmiles: I don’t think either of you know what good teachers you are. I have been in homes that had no paper or pens. Where kids had no ‘idea’ that something like reading even existed. I am just saying: Give them a chance–a start. Then let them find their way.
    I guess I taught baseball to hundreds of kids. Some got it, many failed. But parents had to build the fields, buy the gloves, drive then to the games–do their part in giving the boys a chance to learn/play the game.

  64. Bob,
    I agree having a learning environment matters. However kids still learn at their own pace.

  65. #65 mmiles,
    While I agree__sometimes there is not time for their pace. So other tools must to tried.
    My son is a Director of Writing Skills at a local college. The job of his 12 teacher staff is to get Freshmen up to speed in their college writings skills. Without these skills-NOW- they will not make in college. There is no time for ‘their pace’.

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