More Thoughts on Education

Each week seems to bring new books and new thoughts about educational approaches and policy. This week I came across a review of a new book, “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” by Lenora Chu. Chu, the mother of a three-year-old boy, grew up in Texas with Chinese immigrant parents, and her book points up cross cultural differences in child-rearing and education.

Presently living with her husband in Shanghai, they exerted considerable effort to have their son enrolled in an elite pre-school. From the first, however, the methods and approach of the school raised questions in their minds about their decision. The methods used included coercion, public competition with rankings posted for all skills and behavior, and threats of the police for not napping.

At the same time, they were impressed by their child’s rapidly developing self-sufficiency, sense of discipline, math and Chinese skills. He also was learning to navigate an obstacle-filled world and was figuring out how to work around strict rules, typical of life in China, much to his mother’s delight.

The author reflects upon her own teenage rebellion growing up with immigrant parents who demanded excellence and expected to largely control her decisions. She recognizes that she is trying to replicate her own educational and cultural experience but with the roles of her life reversed. Her son’s school is providing the parental expectations of her own life experience while she functions more like an American parent.

In examining the larger Chinese educational system Chu recognizes that the Chinese system is designed to weed out and filter students while the American goal is “No child left behind.” The American schools feel soft, with too strong an emphasis on individual desires to the detriment of weaker areas. This seemed particularly true in the teaching of math where Chinese students memorize what they have to before exploring more complex applications.

This book is reminiscent of, and raises similar questions as an earlier book by Amy Chua, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” although in that instance it was the mother who had the high expectations and strong methods, trying to counteract the “soft” schools. Her methods seemed coercive and punitive to many American mothers while at the same time admirable for the results.

Chua describes the Chinese model of parents as including coercive strictness, punishment and shaming. She describes Western parents as too anxious about their children’s self-esteem and too worried about how their children will feel if they fail at something. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because their children can get them, and if they don’t it is because they didn’t work hard enough.

The Chinese parents, believing they know what is best for their children, override all their children’s own desires and preferences. Lenora Chu, growing up an American girl, apparently rebelled against this kind of Chinese parenting yet in some measure is trying to provide it for her son in his school experience. Her conflict is not unlike that of many American parents who were not raised by Chinese parents.

The different cultural mind-sets lead Chua to be contemptuous of American parents’ concern for children’s self-esteem and feelings. These concerns reflect our values of individualism, self-expression, and the right to question authority. Yet they were not always incorporated into our child-rearing practices. Americans, too, once believed in parents as the authority, and used some of the same methods of enforcement. These beliefs gave way to new theories growing out of child development research.

Our problem now as American parents is that we want the Chinese results but without using their methods. One answer may be that in moving away from practices that damaged children in one way, we have given them the sort of control that creates other kinds of problems.

Perhaps it is this conflict between old ways and new ideas that we see reflected in the current writing about education and parenting.