This morning I read three different articles about the scholastic success of Asian students as opposed to the poor results of many American kids. The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, and Stanford boast about 1/4 of their top students are Asian. For the University of California at Berkley nearly 1/2 are Asian. 47% of Asians over 25 hold Bachelor’s degrees (compared to 27% overall), the median income for Asians is $10,000 higher than the median incomes of other ethnic groups, and 16% of Asians hold advanced degrees (compared to 9% overall).
At about the same time these statistics were published there were two books that hit the market about how Asian parents raise such high achieving children. The first one was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, in which she audaciously claims that if American parents would follow her iron-fisted “Chinese mother” approach, their kids would be straight-A, concerto-playing, super-achievers like her two daughters. And the second was Bitter Melon, Cara Chow’s novel about a teenager girl coming-of-age under the thumb of a controlling, high-expectations immigrant mother. It explores the psychological dilemmas, and damage, that can result from extreme Chua-style parenting.
The third book is Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers – and How You Can Too by Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim. It discusses 17 practices that are common throughout many Asian households, as well as a section discussing the parenting pitfalls to which many Asian parents fall victim.
So what are parents to do? Do they become Tiger Moms demanding perfection and driving their kids to high achievements? Or do they doom their children to mediocrity because they have been trying to do what the earlier books said about self-esteem?
I know most of the parents reading this blog don’t have school aged children. So, why am I even discussing this?! I have a keen interest in children and parenting children. I’m concerned that parents may make a knee-jerk response to all this recent media blitz. I’m also worried for those who will feel guilty and hopeless because they can’t be what they are told they must be to have successful children. So here are some nuggets I gleaned from what I read today:
- Among all children, whether Asian or American, there is an equal share of gifted and challenged. No matter how hard we are on some children, they cannot score As. And no matter how easy we are on others, they will find a way to excel beyond their peers. So for any given child the goal is for each to do their best, not be the best. If we set unreasonable standards, many children will become bitter and discouraged, whether they are Asian or American.
- There is a parental attitude that underlies Asian parenting that is often less developed or missing in American parents. This attitude is that education is the major task of childhood. They believe it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure their child has everything necessary to succeed and the child’s responsibility to cooperate and obey the parents’ and teachers’ directions. Since we all want our children to do well, this is an attitude to adopt.
- Asian parents, as a whole, are far less interested in extra-curricular activities for their children unless they have some educational value. Therefore, there is more time and energy available to the child for educational endeavors. We want to be sure our children have the opportunity to be children, to exercise, and learn the disciplines of athletics or music. But we don’t fill every waking hour with planned activities.
- Successful Asian parents have learned the secret of positive reinforcement. This is not the self-esteem techniques American parents have been force-fed to believe is vital. For example, when a child has been having difficulty with arithmetic and comes home with a C on his report card. The American parent has been conditioned to say, “You are such a good boy. I know you’ll do better next quarter.” The Asian parent, on the other hand, says, “Son, I know you have been working very hard on your math since last quarter. That’s good. But we need to see now, what can help you do even better next quarter.” It is not that Asian parents don’t acknowledge effort, they do. But they go a step further and try to find a way for the child to have better results for his effort.
Here’s a link for a discussion of extra curricular activities and the self-esteem issue.
Although many of you won’t have to deal with these issues for some years yet, I thought it is worth alerting you to changing trends in the media. For now, do everything you can to instill in your child a love of learning. Stay with your child while they are learning a new skill. Encourage them to keep trying, and help them feel pride in working diligently enough to master a difficult task. This will go a long way to helping your child succeed when they get to school.