THE BLOG
04/10/2014 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

The Danger of Role Models: A New Perspective

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Asian American students tend to outpace other racial groups academically. The question is, why?

The answer isn't "tiger moms."

A new study shows that the high level of achievement among Asian Americans isn't the result of coercing kids. On this score, Tiger Mom got it wrong.

Commenting on the study, which was published in the journal Race and Social Problems and conducted by Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American Studies at UCLA, and Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at UC Irvine, a column in The Washington Post observes that young Asian Americans "have all kinds of good role models to emulate."

The people we are around have a huge effect on us. Recognizing this, even many Asian American families with limited resources seek to ensure their children have an environment that fosters their development, inspiring them to want to shoot for careers in medicine, law, engineering and so on. They also set their sights on the best schools.

Providing good role models and an uplifting environment is important, and to me, is much healthier than forcing kids in the tiger mom style.

But there's an underbelly to this approach, the study shows. Says the Post article, children from Asian American cultures have "extraordinarily high expectations -- so high that kids who don't rise to the occasion feel like 'black sheep' and 'outliers.'"

When children who don't achieve high begin identifying as more American than Asian, they tend to shift their emphasis away from high achievement, which often causes them to become alienated from their culture, according to the Post.

Such kids "find themselves at odds with their immigrant parents," which surely isn't a healthy situation.

I realize that these "tiger parents" are only trying to do their best for their children. But is providing role models of success what children most need, especially when this potentially leads to alienation? Especially as we only really observe the external manifestations of this based on a narrow prescription of success as endorsed by popular culture?

Traditional role models of success have been those who exhibit achievement in wealth, fame, status, beauty or by having climbed to the top of some professional ladder. I propose that these fall short of the "real" and more lasting measures of success: those measured by internal qualifiers such as presence, wholeness, emotional literacy, capacity for stillness, wonder and compassion. When we shift the focus from the narrow, external qualifiers to pluralistic internal ones, we teach our children to look within their own development for answers instead of looking without. This shift from outer to inner has a transformative effect.

I suggest that what children need are role models in the form of people who are learning to be true to themselves.

It isn't aspiring for success in terms of being a doctor or lawyer that's the barometer of a successful upbringing; It's aspiring to be all you can be, on your individual schedule and in your own unique way.

Economic success isn't necessarily a measure of happiness in life -- and surely, if there's one thing we would wish for our kids, it's that they grow up to lead happy lives.

We've seen far too many of society's acclaimed "role models" achieve wealth or fame, but end up miserable... even to the point of taking their own life.

The real challenge of parenting effectively is to parent ourselves so that we become the kind of people who can truly inspire our children to love and value themselves, which will lead them to make a meaningful contribution to the world in the way only they can do.

What do I mean by "parent ourselves?"

Parenting invites us to take a serious look at the way we function around our children -- the way we operate in every area of our life. It asks us to allow our children to mirror back to us where we have betrayed our true desires, and the many ways in which compromise ourselves and thereby compromise our sense of wellbeing.

If you want to become the kind of parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or teacher who empowers children, I invite you to read my books The Conscious Parent and Out of Control: Why Discipline Doesn't Work, and What Will.