I’m not, and never have been, a parent myself, but over the years I’ve read quite a few parenting books. It’s useful, I think, for those of us who teach chess to understand different parenting styles so that we can understand where parents are coming from. We must also try not to be judgemental when dealing with parents, who are perhaps from another culture from ours, and whose parenting style does not match our own.
Amy Chua’s 2011 book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has received much publicity, and much criticism, often from those who haven’t read the book themselves. In fact the book contains a certain amount of self-deprecatory humour and the title itself is ironic. If you read the book you’ll see that Chua’s parenting methods worked well for her older daughter but not so well for her younger daughter. This perhaps typifies a parenting style in which children take part in a small number of extra-curricular activities, but are expected to be serious, committed, and to excel at what they do. The Polgars are notable and extreme example of this approach applied to chess. In one sense, these are the families we as chess teachers are looking for. We want to make our name by teaching champions and families who prefer this parenting style are where you may well find your most serious and diligent students. We need to persuade these parents that chess could be an ideal extra-curricular subject for their children to study, either as something they can excel at for its own sake or as a means of accelerating the development of adult thinking skills, and provide them with the means to do this even if the parents themselves are not chess players.
Some parents these days are taking a very different view. They believe that children are not allowed just to be children, are being pushed too far too soon, and, as a result, often find it hard to cope as adults. In some respects this resembles the sort of childhood experienced by those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The Scottish born Canadian journalist Carl Honoré has popularised the concept of Slow Parenting in which parents encourage children to explore the world and develop at their own pace rather than arranging a lot of ‘improving’ activities for them. The American author and journalist Richard Louv has likewise proposed, most notably through his book Last Child in the Woods, that children should spend more time in the natural world. Parents who take this approach would probably not be interested in children starting chess early: we should respect this and explain that chess is a game requiring adult thinking skills, so if they want their children to develop naturally there’s no need to do much chess until they reach the age of 11 or 12.
Here in Richmond, an affluent London borough, a third parenting style is popular. Just like the Tiger Moms, the Yummy Mummies from Richmond fill their children’s evenings, weekends and holidays with clubs and courses, giving them little time to find their own amusement. But, unlike the Tiger Moms, they don’t want their children to excel at anything but to experience as many different activities as possible. These are the parents whose children attend the after-school chess clubs in my area. Fifteen or twenty years ago, many of their children also attended Richmond Junior Chess Club, but now they don’t. If you suggest this to them, they’ll tell you that their children’s lives are far too busy to spend more than an hour a week on chess. And if they did too much chess or spent time at home solving worksheets it might not be fun so might put their children off. Now this is all very well as far as it goes, and, inevitably, running chess clubs for children from this sort of family will lead to high drop-out rates as they either lose interest or move onto something else. We need to get the message across to parents who choose this style that at some point they or their children will need to decide to concentrate on trying to excel at a smaller number of activities and try to persuade them that, if their children are talented, chess is something they should consider. We may also need to explain that excelling at anything involves hard work rather than just having fun. They may need to drop other activities in order to find time to join a junior chess club and play in tournaments. We also need to persuade them that, while it may be a good idea for Tiger Moms who are expecting a seriousness of purpose to start their 5-year-olds with chess, the Yummy Mummies who want chess to be fun would be better off waiting until their children are a bit older and have experience of simpler board games before introducing chess.
In real life, most families will practise a combination of several styles of parenting, but there’s another alternative. Back in the mid 1970s, at about the time Mike Fox and I started Richmond Junior Club, I read a book about an unconventional family whose high achieving children had been brought up using very different methods. Their children were, on and off, home-schooled (very unusual at the time) and brought up in a highly child-centred way, based partly on the theories of Maria Montessori. Like the Tiger families, the children were encouraged to excel, but it was the children, not the parents, who made the choices, and the parents’ whole lives were devoted to their welfare. Over the years I’ve met many families who, while not going to the lengths to which this family went, and usually operating within the system, have encouraged their children to excel at chess because it was what their children wanted, not because it was what they wanted for their children. Again, these are parents we need to encourage, not least because they are the parents who, because of their selflessness, are most likely to become involved in chess beyond their own children.