Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chinese Parents and Education

When I wrote about Zoe’s kindergarten graduation, I wrote half-kiddingly, "My goodness, it doesn’t take much imagination on my part to see her in 12 years, ... or in 19 or 20 years graduating from law school or medical school, or getting her Ph.D."

Allen commented, “I think you just sound like a Chinese parent.” LOL! I’m not sure you mean that as a compliment, Allen (even though you’re a Chinese parent)! But I give Chinese parents a lot of credit for stressing the importance of education, though they are often given a bad rap – and maybe deservedly so – for pushing their kids too hard in that regard. But it’s not like that’s an exclusively Chinese phenomenon – one of my all-time favorite book titles is Toilet-Trained for Yale: Adventures in 21st Century Parenting. The author takes a half comic/half serious look at American parenting excesses to prepare kids for future success.

One reason Chinese parents push their kids (especially sons) to excel academically is purely practical – that’s the ticket to economic success. And given the tradition of parents living and being supported by their son in their old age, the more success your son has, the better your retirement years will be. Investing money and time in your child’s education is like making payments into a pension plan – your sacrifices now will pay off in the future.

But I think the Chinese value education, in and of itself, over other kinds of success. In China, there’s a centuries-long tradition of venerating scholars (derailed by the Cultural Revolution, but back on track). Scholars are more important that politicians and rich men and basketball players and rock stars. If you asked a Chinese parent, “Which would be better – your child winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or an Academy Award for Best Actor,” and most would pick the Nobel Prize. What do you think the answer would be from American parents?

Certainly, Chinese parents are often thought of as too concerned about education, too single-minded about academic success. Just before the May 1 holiday, I saw a poster go up on the bulletin board near the law school. It was a team photo of the women’s inter-mural volleyball champions, and one of the team members was in my class! I congratulated her, and since we had been talking about the students’ plans to go home for the holiday, I asked if she was going to take a picture of the poster so she could show her parents. She laughed and said her parents wouldn’t care, that Chinese parents only wanted to hear about good grades and only bragged about their children winning scholarships. I think that’s a little sad. Maybe she’s wrong about her parents’ reaction, but they have certainly created the impression in her that they only care about academics.

Now, I admit, as important as I think education is, I think it is more important for my children to be happy than to be well-educated. But I admit a bias in thinking that the two are rarely mutually exclusive. After all, the real value in education is in helping us to figure out what makes us happy. And I make a point of complimenting my girls for all of their talents and abilities, not just for being “smart.” They are also kind and generous and thoughtful and loyal and strong and artistic and graceful and persistent and funny and honest and curious and beautiful. I want them to know that I value all parts of them.

But having said all of that, I still respect the way Chinese parents value education. (What do you expect me to say?! I'm a university professor!) So, Allen, thanks for the compliment!

P.S. Alright, I CONFESS! I had to ask my students to translate Zoe's kindergarten report card. The students were pleased to tell me (and I was tickled to hear) that the first column, where all her checkmarks are, is "the very BEST!"


Anonymous said...

Mazel tov on Zoe's report card. Jewish parents also push their children in academics. My grandmother thought "her son-the-doctor" could do no wrong because he was a doctor. My "child-the-attorney" is also a blessing to Jewish parents. (My mother thought she could die happy when I decided to go to law school - let alone licensed!) It is an axiom of many Jewish families that given a choice of earthly possessions, books are highly prized. All of which goes to say, provided the basic needs are being met, I think many cultures place a high value on learning - despite our American commercialism.

Flower Mound

Anonymous said...


As a retired teacher (and one that comes from a looooong line of educators) I must say I wish there was a way to find that proverbial happy median: balancing the importance of aceademics with all other accomplishments. As one who truly enjoys athletics (our son was a pro cyclist for many years) this country, in my very strong opinion, has become waaaaay too enamored with athletics, Hollywood, etc. as the standard our youth dream of. Education is the road to so many more realistic opportunities. I won't go on and on, but, again, I congratulate you on a job well done with your girls!

Anonymous said...

I'll bet it is helpful to read your children the Little House on the Prairie books, starting at a very young age. Laura could not have stressed more strongly how she valued the chance to receive an education. Her perspective certainly has always had an impact on my thinking as far as the importance of education.

Elizabeth in KS (a Little House state!)

Salome's Mom said...

Being Cuban I can tell you that we do the exact same thing. Cuban parents will push you to the limits. Our culture also places high value on learning. My daughter adopted from China last year will have many opportunities to learn. I won't push as hard as my parents did.

Allen said...


Thank you for bringing up this topic. I totally agree with you on your thoughts expressed in this post. Academic achievement should not be a child's only goal in life. I was being sarcastic, albeit in a good way, when I posted my previous comment. Yes, a lot of Chinese parents today still only care about their kids' academic achievements. I came to America in the late 80's and experienced the dotcom boom firsthand. Many of my generation of Chinese immigrants understand the importance of being a well-rounded individual instead of being someone who can only get good grades at school. Without good leadership or public speaking skills, it would be hard for someone to succeed in America, especially in corporate America, even though s/he has the best grades from the best college. We have long been aware of that and consequently decided to send our kids to a good private school (a Wesleyan School) for their K-12 education where they are trained to be well-rounded individuals. Academic is important; so are sports, leadership, social skills, emotional maturity and spiritual growth. Many of our Chinese friends love to compare their kids’ academic achievements. For example, is your child in the Advanced Class? What level of advanced reading is your child at? My 2nd grader can do multiplication and division. Has your child started learning multiplication and division yet? These are real. I am not making them up. The worse pushing by Chinese parents that I have seen is to push their kids to skip grades, which is encouraged in China and Taiwan. In where we live in America, skipping grade is not allowed. So what do some Chinese parents do? Their kids go to a Chinese language school on Saturdays (so do ours). Those parents fought very hard to get the Chinese language school to allow their kids to skip grades if they could pass the grade level test. As I am writing this comment, some poor Chinese kids are spending their summer brushing up on their Chinese language so that their parents will have face come August when the new Chinese school starts. That is just pathetic and sad. Children become the objects for parents to show off – a true selfish ambition on the parents’ part.

On the other hand, achieving academic excellence does provide more opportunities for success. Getting a good college education is vital to having more opportunities. As a Chinese professor friend once told me, Chinese kids have to work harder at school because they will be competing against other Chinese kids during college admission. According to my professor friend, that is the reason why Chinese parents keep pushing their kids. For example, according to a research finding, the University of Texas at Austin currently has less than 20% of Asian or Asian American students. But if ethnic background isn’t taken into consideration during its admission process, UTA should have over 50% Asian or Asian American students. Ethnic-based college admission should be abolished if you were to ask me. UTA is considered a tier 2 university in America. In order to get into some good colleges, especially those in tier 1, Chinese kids will have to work harder, much harder to get in. I I am not saying other ethnic groups aren’t good at academic work. I believe kids of all ethnic groups are endowed with the same brain caliber. It’s just that Chinese parents push their kids a lot more than other groups of parents. You snooze, you loose.

A good balance is needed. And I am still looking for this proverbial balance. I know it's not just Chinese parents, but also a lot of other parents push very hard on their kids' success at school. But we need a good balacen. Anyone has good advice?

Anonymous said...

Advice for Alan: Just follow your're doing fine!
Grannie Judy :-)

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