"Isn’t it terrible how Asian children have so much homework, study all weekend, and have to give up any social life?" This has been a common response in American households this last week. Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, revealed how demanding a parent can be: no sleep-overs until your piano lessons are perfect. And network television aired a documentary on Korean students slaving to pass college entrance exams.
But a few months ago, Americans were distressed to see students from Shanghai eclipse Korea, Taiwan and Singapore for top scores on the PISA, an international test where the U.S. barely rated average. There is a connection here folks! We cannot be fretting over poor academic achievement while dismissing the work and study ethic that is necessary to excel.
Asian versus American attitudes on education have been studied extensively by researchers. Poll Asian parents and they will rate their child below their actual performance and lay responsibility for doing better on the student. American parents generally rate their children much higher than their actual performance, and lay any blame at the foot of the teacher. It is a matter of culture and history.
The parents of the current generation in China have known hunger. Their grandparents have seen starvation. China’s parents have worked hard and saved hard—an average of 40 percent—to give their child a better life. But this sacrifice has strings attached. China envies our social security system but has been unable to implement a nationwide equivalent. When a child fails academically, it is an economic failure for the whole family.
The modern Chinese family is: "Four grandparents, two parents and one little prince or princess." Americans would probably end the phrase "..and one little spoiled brat" since all family resources are directed to this critical child. But in Chinese culture, a ruler is a "mother-father" figure, responsible for the well-being of the population. So the child, as prince or princess, carries the burden of providing care for parents and grandparents. The suicide rate for students who fail the college-entrance exam is high, not because they were nagged to study and had no social life, but because they failed their family.
The American grandparent who retires with social security and a plentiful pension to brag: "My children will never have to worry about caring for me" says what is simply unthinkable in Asia. Our financial "freedom" allows us to be less concerned with the academic progress of our children.
We still see an exceptional work and study ethic in our swimmers and gymnasts we send to win gold at the Olympics. But they now represent the exception, not the rule to our students’ attitudes. In China, students study at full-throttle and it is difficult to stand out among a sea of other students who are doing likewise. But come to the U.S. and they easily stand out.
The U.S. did have a widespread study ethic following the Great Depression and World War II, when hard work and hard study were the ticket to a better future. Get in trouble at school and you got in trouble when you got home. That was five to six generations ago.
China has advanced that far in the last two generations. "Responsibility" and "sacrifice" may disappear from the vocabulary of their next generation. Chinese parents and professors, while glad to see some of the austerity and pressure gone, regularly lament how this generation of students "have it easy" even while they are still blowing the rest of the world away in test scores.
Studies of Asian-American immigrants show superior scores and study ethic begins to fade with the second and third generations. They become more like pussycat America. –Where most parents let television and videogames babysit their children. –Where we value sports, entertainment, self esteem, and "finding yourself" over the rigorous hard work that leads to genuine accomplishment.
Before we decide to condemn "tiger moms," maybe we should decide if we want to remain a pussycat nation.