The shaming of a mother’s ambition in ‘Child Genius’ is misplaced

I started this blog about six years ago and named it ‘Ambitious Mamas’. Straight forward enough you would think but I soon tired of having to explain what the title meant. No, make that ‘very, very soon’ instead of just ‘soon’. The concept of a mother being ambitious for her child was, to put it mildly, alien and seemed to contradict some unwritten ethos in the British culture.

I was made to feel as if ‘mother ambition’ was something to be ashamed of. Judging from the Twitter storm and negative media coverage of the mother of the 2016 winner of the Channel 4 programme ‘Child Genius’ the concept of a mother being ambitious for her child is still fodder for mother blame and ridicule. 

Image result for maelo manning
My daughter, Maelo Manning, giving her first speech at the age of 10

I have one daughter whom I have had big ambitions for from the day she was born. At the age of 10 my daughter became the youngest political blogger in the country. It was a natural step for her to take for two reasons. Firstly, I have a huge interest in politics and from a very young age she and I would watch the news together. I would explain issues and events to her which she listened to with great interest. Secondly, my daughter showed promise from when she was a baby. She said her first words and sentences well before the average age of when these things develop. 

Being ambitious for her seemed and still seems to be the best way of mothering her. If I was not ambitious for I would be letting her down. I am hellbent on her reaching her potential. 

What puzzles me is why mothers like me are seen as being oddballs. It is far more acceptable to be a totally laid back parent who wants their child ‘to be happy’ than my style of ambitious mothering which seeks to define and help her navigate ways in which happiness can be found. Happiness is not plucked out of thin air. My daughter gets joy from being challenged and achieving goals. She also gets joy from hanging out with friends, having sleep overs and fighting with me.

What people don’t realise is that a child has the ability to absorb much more than we give them credit for. They are able to do the serious and the fun stuff. Childhood is made up of both but more often childhood is sanctified as something that should not be sullied by anything that detracts from fun and play. What is even more puzzling is the elasticity attributed to childhood. It seems to stretch forever and I often wonder about when the seriousness of exams and setting personal goals is allowed to kick in. 

When my daughter was 11 she was interviewed by a popular radio station during a political party conference. She prepped for this by going through the questions that she thought she would be asked on the party’s policies. Instead the first question asked was about whether she felt that she was missing out on her childhood and whether she resented seeing her friends doing child things while she was at this conference. 

When the book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ was published I was jokingly referred to as the ‘Brown Tiger Mother’ by friends. I do resent this label because the style of mothering described in this book scares me with its’ familiarity. You see I come from a background where ‘pushy mother’ takes on a whole different meaning. If you thought Rhea’s mother was pushy you ain’t seen nothing yet. 

The threshold for being a ‘pushy mother’ in other cultures is much higher. Simply putting up your hand to challenge a quiz master would be seen as ‘normal’. A ‘pushy mother’ in another sense would not even have to raise her hand because her child would/ought to have given the required answer at first go. These mothers will expect academic excellence from their children regardless of whether or not their children are capable and/or able to deliver this. This is ‘pushy parenting’ that really does damage children’s wellbeing. I saw it first hand when I was growing up. 

I am often asked whether I would have ‘pushed’ my daughter in the same way if she had not had the ability as she does. I believe that every child has a talent and it is the parent’s responsibility to discover what this is and to nurture it. I constantly tell my friends off for forcing their children to excel academically when the child’s talents are grounded elsewhere, like sport. Academic excellence is not the only trophy in town. 

Guiding and nurturing your child with parental ambition is natural. Omitting this component from one’s parenting is, to me, abnormal. One Christmas I bought my daughter a book on neoliberalism. Friends who dropped by were horrified at my choice. Never mind that my daughter enjoyed receiving this book. Years later these same friends who questioned my ambitious mothering and who insisted that childhood should only consist of making and doing ‘creative things’ now make fun of their own child and refer to her as being thick because she is not ahead academically. 

I see this happen time and time again with various families. An artificial divide is drawn around childhood through which nothing else must permeate except non-challenging matters. When this ring fence is removed arbitrarily the child is blamed for not adapting quickly enough to challenges. I see this as irresponsible parenting. 

I am sticking to my ambitious mothering. 



  1. August 5, 2016 / 2:07 pm

    I was asked to talk about this very subject on LBC yesterday and I said that this lady who just challenged one question – and the panel agreed with her – has faced some seriously nasty backlash. I do think we have a problem with ambition in general and see all ambitious parents as these gimlet eyed monsters, forcing their children to fulfil their own thwarted ambitions. A few are like that but the vast majority just want the best for their child. And as I tell my kids, everything I've done that has been deeply satisfying has been stuff I've worked at and practised. We live in a culture of instant fame and celebs who are famous for doing nothing. To practise, to fail, to develop resilience are all Good Things. Good on you. x

  2. August 5, 2016 / 2:34 pm

    Dear Jane, Thank you for thoughts and I am glad to have found someone else who shares my view. The mother who put her hand up did not change the decision. It was the quizmaster who did but the mother has copped it. Good on you for educating your children about hard work, tenacity and resilience. I agree about the celeb culture. It sells false hope to youngsters. Thank you again. x

  3. August 5, 2016 / 4:33 pm

    I work in a language centre in Hong Kong and have to put up with the result of pushy parents who humiliate and lead their children to develop psychiatric and emotional imbalances. I've only been in the job for 4 weeks but I've already seen children driven to distraction and mentally traumatised by their pushy families.

  4. August 5, 2016 / 10:29 pm

    Dear Jane, I do thank you for sharing your experience with me because what you describe is the sort of behaviour that I allude to when I refer to 'other cultures' in my blog post.It is the sort of pressure that I was exposed to when I was growing up in Asia. It must be tough for you to watch it happen. Thank you. Jane x

  5. August 7, 2016 / 4:25 pm

    I think it is very much about balance. You should nurture and support their talents and work on the areas they struggle. I don't know you so can't judge you as a parent but I have seen many very unhappy children in the sport I do as a result of pushy parents. If you are 100% sure in your parenting style there is no way I would be able to change it. The main thing is your daughter looks back and remembers a childhood. There is plenty time for being a grown up. We have such a short time to be silly, play shop, build a den and have midnight feasts. Certainly encourage and prepare her for adulthood but never at the cost of childhood

    • August 7, 2016 / 10:38 pm

      Dear Katie, Thank you for your opinion. When I was growing up children were made to give up sport so they could spend more time on their studies. I was forced to give up karate which I was doing well in for the same reason. Childhood is important. I wouldn't want my daughter to miss out but I do want her to have ambitions too. Thank you for leaving a comment. Much appreciated. x

    • August 8, 2016 / 9:36 am

      Well said, fully agree. I've "pushed" my son and he is currently in the top 12 students in a top grammar school. I'd not have done this if he didn't show an aptitude for learning. His life isn't ruined – he does what he wants most of the time. This Summer, yes, he's done some school work – but it's not been at the expense of going out, playing, meeting friends, holidays, etc – he's done all that too! But, if he's got nothing planned, other than a day on the XBOX or watching Youtube videos, then he can take an hour or two out to do some studying. I've seen family, friends and neighbours with children who've had little importance attached to their education, and most have ended up in dead end jobs as the job/fe market is so competitive these days. The old days where you could get a good job without good qualifications just don't exist anymore.

    • August 8, 2016 / 3:28 pm

      Dear Philip, Thank you for your opinion. I always think that children would rather watch paint dry than indulge in some hard work. That's their default position. If we don't push them then they will wittle time away. Congrats on your son being in the top 12. That's some achievement. I have heard parents say that their children would be happy doing any job but if the parent has indulged them with expensive gadgets and gifts then they are setting the child up for high expectations. Any old job does not guarantee a same standard of living. Thank you again. x

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