Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"...Thoughts from South Korea

If you have not seen this article in the Wall Street Journal, you must. It's adapted from a book by Yale professor and Chinese-American mother Amy Chua. 

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids, the article begins. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover 
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
It goes on to enumerate stereotypical differences in parenting styles between Chinese parents and American, parents.  Bullying, spying, berating are all part of the job for Chinese mothers, along with untold hours of tutoring, coaching, and supervising mandatory study or practice time. All the meanness comes from love, of course, and a confidence that their children are capable of the best.  In the US, by contrast, parents are excessively concerned about their children's self esteem. They are loathe to force them to do anything and far more tolerant of failure. 
South Korean mothers are also notoriously strict and controlling about all matters of education. Ajumma, the term for a married woman, comes along with a significant helping of fear and dictatorial power.  Behind every successful child is an education-crazed ajumma and a passive father, I'm often told.
I have not met this exact Chinese mother in South Korea, though I imagine she exists. I have seen their academic devotion in other ways. I have talked to women who quit their jobs to manage their children's school careers, who form tight circles of friends to share secret information about the best tutors, and who will spend their child's entire winter vacations reading book after book with them.

 I have not been there to see any homework supervising but practically every Korean child I know is already programmed to study until 10 p.m. or later every night either at a public school or a private cram school.
I have also talked to Korean moms who are worried that their children don't have time to relax or to discover what they are really interested in, because they have no time to find out. Virtually every Korean mother I have talked to complains about academic pressure and costs. Many parents, particularly those whose children do not excel in school, want them to go study in the US, where they can find another way to succeed. Keep in mind, while parents have high expectations for their children in Korea, it would be VERY hard to enforce Amy Chua's same list of rules in Korea. Not every one who works hard here can get an A; only the very top students in the class get the best scores. And by the time high school rolls around, virtually no one is still playing violin or piano, (unless they are pursuing a career in it), because everyone is studying ten hours a day for the upcoming college entrance exam. School plays are a non-issue. Computer games...well that's a different story.
I recently talked to one woman who was three months pregnant with her first child. Over coffee she fretted about the long school days in her child's future, the high cost of private cram schools, whether her child would need to study Chinese in addition to English, how he or she would compete for college and social status. "What is the point???," she disparaged abruptly.
Later she rushed to defend the Korean system's strengths when compared to the American system:  greater guidance from parents, a smaller chance that children "will go the wrong way," and a smaller gap between the worst student and the best ones, though "that's problematic too," she said, because "it's hard to be outstanding."

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