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!"