by Ronald F. Ferguson, PhD and Tatsha Robertson, MD

Liana Wang was raised to be an exceptional child. A product of Houston’s public schools, she was an excellent student, and a member of the debate team, to which she devoted thirty hours a week. Currently a junior at Yale University studying economics, Liana knows she didn’t get to where she is on her own.

Her mother Yuqing Wang, who Liana refers to as “one of the smartest people I know,” emigrated to the U.S. from China in 1997.  

Liana says Asian parents are often stereotyped as being pushy, which she says is why some people might assume her mother was a “Tiger parent,” the assertive “Chinese” parenting style made famous by author Amy Chua.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, Yuqing is what we’ve coined “a Master parent.”  Thoughtful and strategic, Liana’s mother respected her daughter’s passions rather than dictate what her interests should be. Her intentional approach to child rearing mirrors what we call “master parenting” in our new book, The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children.

The book draws from the life stories of extraordinary people—a young diplomat, a TV anchor, business executives, a virtuoso violinist —whose parents represent a range of backgrounds, from a Kentucky farmer, to a New Mexico Judge, to a doctor from Ghana.

For more than a dozen years, we investigated how high achieving people were raised. What we discovered is remarkable. The people we studied were brilliant and purposeful and had been parented in a similar way. Whether they knew it or not, their master parents followed a fascinating pattern of strategic parenting. To capture what we learned, we organized these parenting principles into eight roles, which we call the Formula. (See mastersoftheformula.com for the eight roles.)

What was most surprising of all, the parent’s race or class didn’t matter. Regardless of who they were, they played all eight roles. They enticed the preschooler to learn advanced skills; they made sure educators served their child well, ensured that no important opportunity was missed, exposed the child to extraordinary people as possible future selves, held deep philosophical discussions, set a compelling example, and taught the child to self-advocate. All of these lessons remained anchored in the child’s memory, guiding them well into adulthood. 

Though we did not interview Liana for inclusion in the book, our recent conversation with her made it clear that her mother was a master parent:  resourceful, intentional with a vision of the type of person Liana could be.

Her mother taught Liana to read before kindergarten and inspired curiosity and routines during those early years. Steeped in a habit of learning, Liana pursued mastery in the hobbies she loved. Her parents didn’t push her to do more, by filling her free time with a boatload of extracurricular activities. Instead, master parents like Liana’s encourage passion projects. Liana focused on piano from the age of seven through the start of her freshman year and was flat-out committed to debate club in high school

Master parents are always willing to sacrifice. The young diplomat we mentioned above and, in the book, loved reptiles as a child. His parents spent hours helping him search for lizards in the New Mexico desert.  Despite the fact that funds were often scarce, Liana’s mother, a homemaker (her father is an automobile salesperson), made sure she attended the best school, and learned from the top piano teacher in Houston.

“When we were younger, she moved us out of neighborhoods that she thought were not good communities for her kids to grow up in,’’ she said. “That was very difficult financially, but she always tried to provide us with the best things. The two most important resources are time and money and if we didn’t have the money, she would put in the time…”

Ronald F. Ferguson teaches public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Tatsha Robertson is an investigative journalist in New York City.  For more information on the Formula, please check out Mastersoftheformula.com and join the bi-weekly newsletter.

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