Mister Litlove sent me a link to a hypnotically fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that, the last time I looked at it, had garnered over 2,700 comments. It’s entitled ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, a provocative little header there, and is written by a Chinese mother, unsurprisingly, explaining that the route to academic and musical success is unbending parental discipline. She describes how her daughters have never been allowed to get less than an A grade, have been forced to play the piano and the violin, and forbidden all tv, play dates, sleepovers, extra-curricular activities, etc, in the pursuit of excellence. The crux of her argument is that Western parents worry too much about their children’s self-esteem, which is a form of lack of confidence in them.
‘If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.’
The best lesson, the author writes, is the one that shows the child that it can succeed, despite initial failure or resistance. And since children are fundamentally lazy, they require a ranting mother at their side to impart the necessary motivation. She claims, and I’m sure quite rightly, that this is not a lack of love on the parent’s part, quite the opposite in fact, since the Chinese mother will put endless graft into the education of her children to ensure the right results. It’s just a different model of what good parental love looks like.
Now of course, this is interesting to me because it’s about education, as well as parenting. But on the parenting side of this issue, I want to suggest just one thing: children are very malleable, particularly when little, because they both love their parents excessively and require them absolutely for survival. Parents underestimate time and again how much power they wield over their children. And probably just as well they do, because if you thought too much about it, you might be crippled in action. But still, it’s perfectly possible for a parent to forge a child in the image required, particularly if you are not too choosy about your methods. However, the exercise of power reflects scarcely at all on its victims, but profoundly on those who use it, and only the very best rulers know how to avoid being corrupted by it.
But let’s look at the education side of this. There’s a basic question here that risks being overlooked: what do we put children in education for? When they emerge from the process, what is it most important for them to be able to do? In my perspective, education is about teaching children skills and discernment. They want to be capable of a whole range of abilities, and I don’t really mean calculation and literacy, I mean problem-solving, self-expression, critical thinking, and they need to know when and how best to use them. It’s not like the facts about geography or history that you learned at school are the things most useful to you in later life. No, it’s the ability to think and reason and evaluate that sticks with you, the ability to find things out, and work creatively and appropriately.
So here’s the first problem with the Chinese mother’s approach for me: it is too one note. It lacks discernment. It insists there is only one response to be taken towards non-mastery and that is to practice and practice and practice, until mastery is achieved. Now I agree that it is not the best idea never to force a child to keep going in the face of frustration, but at the same time, it’s no answer to never let them admit defeat, either. The skillful approach, it seems to me, is to help the child see when tenacity is worthwhile, and when honorable retreat is equally useful. This is a tricky thing to learn, and it might be best to wait until the child has enough emotional intelligence to really understand the nature of the conflict that is self vs. immovable object. You might, as an educator, recognize that sometimes this problem requires more resources than a ferocious mother – it might be better solved in group work, where children are very easily and happily motivated by the company and the engagement of their peers. It might be more vividly taught in an extra-curricular activity that the child is particularly passionate about, which can then be taken as a transferable skill into the realm of schoolwork.
I agree that motivation and determination have to be acquired, but I think that this doesn’t have to be through traumatic battles of wills with parents, that it might be less painfully acquired, more cannily acquired, in favourable circumstances. All the child really learns otherwise is that it has to perform or else, and that’s horribly restrictive. You want that child to come out of education with a whole range of behavioural strategies at its disposal, able to push ahead or to hold back as appropriate, able to compete when it’s valuable to do so, and husband energetic or intellectual resources when it isn’t. The key notion is what is appropriate, what is skillful – just teaching one response is ultimately very reductive.
The other problem with the Chinese mother’s approach is the question of whether excellence at set work is the only truly important achievement in a child’s school career. There’s a statistical problem with her never allowing her daughters to be anything less than first in their classes – what would she have done had she had twins? And let’s not even begin about the issue of socializing. But the point is that if education is to be of any value to its culture, then it has to find ways to encourage children to see themselves as valuable, worthwhile members of their community, able to contribute usefully to it in later life, because they have a very specific set of accomplishments and innate talents. There is no point in pointing all children towards the one goal and forcing them to compete for it – the world beyond school doesn’t work that way. Our cultures gain more from innovation and originality than they do from people able to produce white-collar professional work in a reliably accurate way. In fact, if we were perfectly honest, our lives would fall apart if it weren’t for the legions of overlooked and unsung employees cleaning houses and offices, looking after small children, keeping public areas safe and tidy, nursing in hospitals, driving lorries and stacking shelves in supermarkets. Any education that dares call itself decent ought to be able to instill pride in all its student for the things they CAN do, not shame about the things they can’t.
I have plenty of experience of the products of Chinese-style mothering, because often they turn up in my rooms at the university, stymied by higher education. One of my toughest cases was an Asian lad who arrived determined to be the best student the university had ever seen. His approach to this was to work 23 hours out of every day – perfectly in keeping with the dictates of this article. He was throwing himself at the problem of his work, over and over and over again, believing this would be the best way to solve it. Alas, whatever intellectual resilience this approach may foster, Chinese children are biologically the same as any other. He suffered from a massive physical breakdown and was forced to leave the university on grounds of ill health. Not that he wanted to go, or his parents wanted him to go. In fact when his mother appeared to pick him up, she flew at him in a violent rage. ‘There was nearly a punch-up,’ declared the Senior Tutor, in shocked tones. No, the college authorities made him go because he was physically and mentally incapable of working. And then there was another student I saw, who had lost all motivation for his studies almost from the moment that he had entered the country. His mother was safely on the other side of the world, and without her overbearing pressure, surrounded by students who often didn’t work when they didn’t feel like it, he found he just couldn’t force himself to knuckle under. Plus, he wasn’t at the top of his year group and a rapid assessment had assured him he probably never would be. There was suddenly nothing left for him to strive for.
So I don’t believe this article very much, not in the value of the principles it preaches, or the methods it embraces. What’s intriguing to me is the wealth of comments it has brought forth. It has evidently touched a raw nerve among the parenting community who read the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t read all 2,700 odd, but they polarized in much the way you might expect, some expressing extreme horror and disgust, others arguing that it’s about time we toughened up on our children and stopped producing namby-pamby surrender monkeys. There are probably all kinds of excellent comments I have missed. But it seems to me that the proper response to this article is to dismiss it as a piece of provocative fluff, attempting to cause a fuss in order to sell the book that this particular Chinese mother has apparently written. But if we can’t just laugh this off, then it suggests that we are becoming increasingly confused in the Western world as to what education really is for. And that the relentless insistence on examinations and grading is starting to erode our sense of what is valuable in schooling. Because one thing this article never mentions is that if we put such importance on our children passing their exams with top grades, we have to be really, really sure that those exams actually do represent the best education has to offer and I, for one, am not at all sure about that.