How many of us over these past few days have looked at British tennis star Emma Raducanu and wondered what on earth her parents did right?
It’s not just the sporting prowess, which led to her winning the US Open at just 18 years old. It’s the fact she seems like such a thoroughly good kid. There’s a poise, a strength, an inner confidence, an outer radiance and, well, I could go on. What’s her secret?
The answer to that, one assumes, is an optimal combination of unusual natural talent and the right amount and type of nurturing. Few among us can dream of watching our children win a major sporting title. But are there broader lessons we can learn here about how to raise a strong and successful daughter or son, whatever success looks like to that individual?
If there was a magic formula we’d all be doing the same. Which probably means there isn’t. Still, Raducanu’s parents’ approach has turned out pretty well for all concerned.
Judging by what Raducanu has said about her Romanian father Ian and Chinese mother Renee, they don’t subscribe to the “all shall have prizes” mentality. Speaking to NBC Today, she said on Monday: “They’re my toughest critics and so hard to please – but I got them this time!”
The teenager from Bromley in Kent has previously credited her parents’ “high expectations” for fuelling her ambitions.
“That’s a big driving factor as to why I want to perform,” she told Vogue, attributing her groundedness to “many years of them just being super-focused, and not getting too high, but at the same time, not getting too low when the losses come.”
After her final Wimbledon match in the summer they told her “I’m proud of you.” And that, she said, was all she needed to know.
It’s a notably different approach from that espoused by many parenting experts today. The prevailing orthodoxy holds that the right kind of praise is instrumental in building our children’s confidence and encouraging them to be the best they can be.
“Praise is a massive thing for self-esteem for a child,” says Kirsty Ketley, a parenting consultant and mother of two children aged eight and four. “Praise and encouragement are really important. If you’ve had a bad day with your children, which we all do, I like to tell them three positive things about [their] day. It helps that [they go] to bed knowing I did see something good in [them].”
Ketley suggests some parents are confused about whether they should be saying “well done” all the time, or pushing their children harder to do better next time around. The trick is to strike a balance, she believes, and argues that we should be aiming not so much to push our children but to guide them.
“We all want our kids to succeed and do well but I don’t think you should put too much pressure on them,” she says. “It’s about working with them.
Maybe pushing them to believe in themselves – that’s important. If you can see they have potential, it’s about helping [them realise it]. There has to be a degree of nurturing.”
A lesson from the Raducanu family is that children also have to be given the opportunity to discover their talents in the first place. When Emma was growing up, her mother took her to ballet and tap lessons. Her father introduced her to golf, motorsports, go-karting, dirt biking and tennis. It’s tempting to think her parents, who both work in finance, were spreading their bets.
Sue Atkins, parenting coach and former deputy head teacher, says: “You can’t make talent like that but you can nurture and encourage [it].”
Whether you’re playing tennis, golf, chess or anything else, there often comes a point when the child will plateau; when their enthusiasm and drive will falter. What makes one child give up and another stick at it and push on through to the next level is a mixture of their natural tenacity and encouragement from their parents, Atkins suggests.
“You can’t create [a child like Raducanu],” she adds. “There is a gift you’re born with and then it’s that gentle nurturing, [parental] encouragement and if you can, giving them the best opportunities.”
A child’s strength, meanwhile, is arguably built by allowing them to do what’s fashionably known as failing upwards. Not getting too low when the losses come, as Raducanu put it. Or, in other words, “if things go wrong, [teach them] the thing is to get back up and have another go,” says Atkins.
Ensuring their entire sense of self-worth is not bound up with one particular skill is also important – something Raducanu’s parents have clearly been alive to. On A level results day this year she received an A* in Maths and an A in Economics. All her eggs are not placed in one basket, so to speak.
“You want a well-rounded [child],” Atkins says. “Her parents seem like they have created a lovely person.”