Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Eastern Parenting Wisdom: What Asian Moms Know

It's interesting to me how Western-centric all education and parenting literature is. On the rare occasions when Eastern moms do feature in Western parenting literature, they  are largely stereotyped as high strung, demanding "Tiger Moms" who care more about grades than real, deep learning.

Unfortunately, Eastern mothers  don't formally research and publish their views on parenting and education though they spend hours discussing these subjects with each other. Yet, after living in Singapore for three years and spending many, many hours with Asian moms and Asian students, I feel strongly that the East has some real parenting and education wisdom that they should share with the world.

Singapore and its East Asian neighbors (China, Japan, and Korea) rank at the very top of international tests for Math and Science. In the US, Asian kids shine academically; I recently read that close to 70% of students at Stuyvesant, the prestigious and competitive magnet school in NYC, are Asian, even though Asians represent only 12% of the student population in NYC. I can hear the response to these statistics though: "Asians are good at taking tests, so what? That doesn't mean they can think critically, creatively, and independently."

Well, how about these statistics then? In the Intel Science and Math competition held in the US every year to identify innovative young scientists, over half of the finalists are Asian, mostly of Indian or Chinese descent. Indian entrepreneurs have started a stunning number of companies in Silicon Valley, and many PHD programs in STEM areas are populated by Asians and Asian-Americans. Most importantly, Asia itself is advancing rapidly, and more high quality, original research is coming directly out of Asia. So clearly, many Asians are moving beyond just test-taking and beginning to think creatively and critically, particularly in STEM fields. In my own experience here in Singapore, I routinely encounter Asian kids (South Asian and East Asian) who impress me tremendously with their original and insightful minds.

I think that some of the Western criticisms of Asian education and parenting are possibly valid. It is true that over the last four centuries, much of the innovation in the world, particularly in Science and technology, has come out of the West, so clearly Westerners have figured out a way to encourage creativity and innovation while Easterners are still struggling to get to that point, despite the huge leaps that they've made in the last thirty years. Eastern moms know this, and most of the mothers I speak to think deeply about ways in which they can learn from their Western counterparts. They know that to really prepare their kids for the 21st century, they need to blend age old Eastern traditions that work with new ideas and openness from the West. But, that's often hard to do because Eastern and Western values tend to clash, not mesh. Yet, the mothers I speak with are working very, very hard to find that right East-West balance.

Here are EIGHT techniques and beliefs that Asian moms use to raise successful kids; additionally, here are some of the challenges that Asian moms face as they try to raise kids who have that perfect blend of Asian values and Western creativity.

1. They teach kids how to focus and concentrate: Every Asian mom (Indian and Chinese) that I know makes her children sit at a desk and do some amount of academic work on a regular basis. Their rationale for this is simple and straightforward: their kids need to learn how to focus their minds on a specific task and work through it in a disciplined and logical manner. In an age of technological distractions, the Asian focus on concentration and discipline is key to why Asian kids succeed academically. Quite simply, their parents have taught them how to concentrate their attention in a world that does everything it can to prevent kids from paying attention.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Parents need to make sure that they balance structured academic work with outdoor time, play time, and time for self-initiated exploration, since all these open-ended, unstructured tasks allow kids to think creatively and independently.

2. They believe in building strong foundations, particularly in Math: The Indian and Chinese moms that I've talked to speak passionately about making sure that their kids attain mastery over basic concepts, particularly in Math. If left up to schools, particularly schools that use Western curricula such as 'Everyday Math' or 'Investigations Math', kids may or may not master foundational concepts. If parents are not actively involved in making sure that kids know their basics, their kids are at high risk of developing "swiss cheese foundations" (a term coined by Salman Khan, founder of the Khan academy) or foundations full of holes and gaps. Asian parents understand that mathematical learning is cumulative, and kids must know all their basics well to be able to succeed in high school and beyond, so they take full responsibility for making sure that their kids master basic concepts.

3. They work hard to create a mathematical environment in their homes, and they try their best to immerse their kids in activities that develop spatial skills, problem solving skills, and number skills: chess, board games, building sets, robotics, counting games, puzzles, tangrams, origami activities etc. (Interestingly, Chess originated in India, Tangrams in China, and Origami in Japan.) While all the mothers I spoke with encourage reading, they seem most concerned with making sure that their kids are immersed in math and science on a daily basis. I find this very interesting because in Western parenting and education literature, the focus is largely on reading to kids and creating "language rich homes" as opposed to "Math rich homes." If you're interested in more detailed ideas on how to build a "math rich home," check out my earlier blog post:   http://www.mayathiagarajan.com/2012/06/creating-math-rich-home-learning-from.html

Challenges for the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Building homes that are equally rich in language and math, and encouraging reading as much as they encourage mathematical activities. Reading, self-expression, and oral communication are all extremely important in the 21st  century, and Asian moms need to work on these areas as much as they do on Math.
4. They try to make learning "challenging" and "meaningful" but they don't  worry about making it fun.
I was recently talking to a Chinese teacher at the school where I work, and I asked her what she though the biggest difference was between her Western and Eastern students. Her answer was interesting: Western teachers and kids are really focused on having "fun." They believe that everything must be fun and enjoyable. Easterners have far lower expectations for "fun."

I think that most Asian moms do NOT focus on making learning fun. Indian and Chinese moms routinely describe the work they give their kids as "challenging," "rigorous," and "demanding." Interestingly, intellectual work that is challenging and demanding can be very, very satisfying. Maybe it's not "fun" the way that a game or a party is, but it is satisfying in an altogether different way. I think that most kids figure this out along the way.

In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, education professor Jin Li describes the way East Asians believe that learning is a very serious (and even sacred) endeavor. She describes how the Chinese view learning as a "weighty personal matter" because they view it as a "personal moral obligation and commitment."  This is quite clearly very different from expecting learning to be "fun."

5. They believe in the ancient Asian ideals of family loyalty and filial piety: When I speak to Indian and Chinese moms, I think that they struggle with this aspect of parenting. They desperately want their kids to be "independent thinkers" and "creative thinkers," but they also believe strongly that kids should respect their parents and listen to their parents. Many of the Indian moms, particularly, described a tension between these two contrasting beliefs. How much discipline and structure is good? How much freedom is good? The Asian moms that I have spoken to seem to feel strongly that unfettered freedom and individualism are not healthy for kids, but they also believe that many Asian parents are too restrictive.

Living in Singapore, I'm constantly struck by the similarities between all Asian cultures when it comes to the values of filial piety and family loyalty. Much like India (where I'm originally from), Singapore is also an "auntie-uncle culture." In other words, kids call all adults "aunty" or "uncle" in an effort to show respect. This way of addressing adults also serves as a reminder to the adults of the responsibility they have to all children: in "aunty-uncle cultures," all adults are caregivers of the younger generation. Together, this symbiotic relationship between respectful children and responsible adults works well to create community. I strongly believe that Asian communities provide kids with a sense of security and belonging.

Since all Asian cultures stress  filial piety (respect for one's parents) and family loyalty, kids in these cultures have a strong sense of their role in the family. In The Analects, Confucious describes the tremendous importance of filial piety, and similarly, in the ancient Indian epics, the heroes are repeatedly revered for their unquestioning obedience towards their parents. Across Asia, the value of "li" (Chinese) or "dharma"(Indian) emphasizes the roles that each member in a family must play based on their relationships with others in the family and the community. These values help to maintain traditional social systems: intact families and close-knit communities being the most important of the lot.

 I think that the sense of direction, security, and belonging that Asian kids feel because they grow up in close knit families and communities helps them alot. Asian kids know what their roles are; they derive a deep sense of security from this knowledge. Similarly, Asian parents have a strong sense of their role as parents; no one expects them to be their kid's best friend. As a result of this, Asian parents find it easy to discipline their kids, and they tend to feel much less guilt and anxiety about their parenting techniques than their Western counterparts. Similarly, Asian kids feel less rebellious and angst-driven than their Western counterparts. Everybody has a well-defined role, and these roles create security and safety for everyone.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Giving children the opportunities to question authority and express their own opinions while also preserving the discipline, hierarchies, and structures needed to maintain close families and communities.
  • Balancing an Eastern  reverence for authority and knowledge with  Western  skepticism that encourages questioning authority and challenging knowledge/conventional wisdom.

6. They tend to believe that hard work is good, and that pressure = motivation. Many Western teachers and parents that I speak with seem to believe that making kids work hard will somehow make kids hate learning.  On the contrary, Asian parents believe the exact opposite. They believe strongly that hard work can be motivating and satisfying, and that eventually hard work will help kids feel competent and confident. (This is in contrast to the Western idea that fun=motivation.) They also believe that any kid can become competent with enough practice, so they don't worry as much about damaging their children's self-esteem.

There is a danger here, however. Asian parents and Asian societies have to know when to draw the line so that their children are not overly stressed and anxious. Furthermore, too much pressure can perhaps prevent children from taking intellectual risks and thinking outside the box, and a narrow focus on effort and results may prevent students from developing a deep-seated love of learning.

7. They tend to emphasize competition. Now, I'm not sure whether this is good or bad. I personally would rather have my students and children feel motivated by a deep and intrinsic love of learning instead of a desire to be at the top of the class. However, most of the Asian moms I know stress competition as they urge their kids to work harder and do better than their peers. In some ways, this makes sense to me. The world is a competitive place, and the competition for Asian kids in particular is fierce and intense because there are so many Asians. SO stressing competition is preparing kids for the real world in a very real way. The danger of course is that kids who focus too narrowly on grades may never develop a deep and abiding love of learning. At the end of the day, we want our kids to love learning and to engage with learning for its own sake, not just for mere grades.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:

  • Balancing competition with collaboration; encouraging our kids to work together so that in the future, they can strengthen and build a stronger society.
  • Emphasizing  satisfaction behind the learning process instead of focusing completely on results, achievement, and grades.

8. Asian parents literally revere and worship learning: In India, once a year, all kids celebrate "Saraswati Puja," where they worship Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and the arts, and they ask her to bless their books and musical instruments. All Indian children are told to "respect books" and they are reprimanded if their feet ever touch a book. Books are literally revered and worshipped.

Similarly, Confucianism in China imbues learning with a sacred purpose. In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, Jin Li writes that the Chinese believe that the ultimate purpose of learning is a moral one; through the arduous process of learning and through a deep dedication to learning and knowledge, the Chinese believe that they will become better people. The effects of this belief are obvious in Asia. I was not at all suprised to find out that  during Chinese New Year, adults give children red packets of "Hong Bao" along with blessings for the quest for knowledge and academic success.

The key here is to make sure that all this reverence is directed at the pure and ideal joy of learning and not at merely getting good grades (although obviously, good grades are important.)

I think that Asian kids whose parents hold tightly to Asian traditions and beliefs while also drawing on the best of the Western intellectual tradition will thrive in the 21st century. These kids will have the best of the East: discipline, concentration, a strong sense of belonging to the family, strong roots in their cultures/communities, a deep belief in the value of learning, a reverence for knowledge, and strong foundations in math and science. They will also have the best of the West: the Western belief that inquiry, investigation, and exploration are valuable ways to learn as well as the Western emphasis on language and self-expression. Equipped with both the best of the East and the West, these global Asian kids will be truly well prepared to succeed in the 21st century.