Another Take on Asian Students and Their Parents

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Yesterday I wrote a post on Asian parenting after reading a disturbing essay in the Wall Street Journal that was written by a Yale law professor/mother, who admitted to calling her daughter “garbage” and demanding that her children be No. 1 in academics.

Here is my original post: Asian Students At UCLA, UCSD and UC Berkeley: The Price of Success?

Readers, many indignant, flooded the WSJ with comments. I just checked and there were 2,601 comments posted on the newspaper’s website and they are still rolling in.   I’ve read dozens of the  comments, but I think one of the most thoughtful ones came from someone who read my post.

I really enjoy getting comments from my readers and I wanted to share this thoughtful take on Asian parenting with you. Unfortunately, I don’t know the identity of the author. Here goes…..

Growing Up Asian American

I’m an Asian brought up mostly in the Western style by first generation immigrants. Perhaps the schools in my small NH town of 25,000 population were just too easy, but I and my sibs did very well, always at or near the top of the class. Four of us went on to Ivy League schools (despite none of us playing piano very well).

I think this debate on child-rearing is parallel to the debate on management of employees. Human Resources departments have a common practice of having bosses identify strong and weak points for each employee, and usually employees are told to find new challenges that can help improve their weaknesses. Perhaps they don’t work well with the team, aren’t fast enough performing certain tasks, or need to speak up more in meetings. Often their rating and compensation is tied to improving those weak points.

Focusing On Your Strengths

The alternative style is exemplified by Marcus Buckingham’s approach as detailed in his books “First, Break All The Rules” and “Now, Discover Your Strengths”. He advocates focusing on one’s strengths and not wasting any time on trying to improve one’s weaknesses which is counter to what HR groups have been pushing. He believes one gets much more enjoyment and satisfaction from becoming a superstar in sales, or customer service, or networking people, and that employers would do well to reward people for that. Rewarding people for working on weaknesses is inefficient and means diverting time and resources away from those that are much better at those tasks.

This latter approach is like the Western style of parenting – do what you like and get really good at it. The former approach is more like the Chinese style – everyone has the capability, one just needs to train it well to get good, but it involves hard work and little pleasure at first. And in fact, this latter approach is often idealized in the west – “I just need to buckle down, and do it” – e.g. The Karate Kid or My Fair Lady. Laszlo Polgar in Hungary famously said, “geniuses are made, not born”, and to prove it, he taught his three daughters Susan, Sophia, and Judit, to become world champion chess players.

And these debates likewise mirror the genes vs. environment debates in biology and medicine. Chinese parents believe strongly in the environment – the regimen the children get at home helps them reach their potential. Many Western parents believe strongly that certain capabilities, whether sports, math, language, or music, come from the genes as an innate strength – almost as if the future chooses the child. I have worked in clinical medicine and pharmaceutical research, and I come firmly down in the middle for all three of these debates. Neither extreme in any of the debates is the optimum all the time. The solution in the vast majority of cases is probably some combination of both sides.

Nothing Is Fun Until You’re Good At It

For child-rearing, I have to agree with Amy Chua’s statements that, “nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

I know Western parents who insist that their children practice music for ten years despite not liking it very much because otherwise they believe the children will not gain an appreciation for it. However as Amy also recognizes, “This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.”, and I’ve had my share of those cases. When I am in a kids’ team situation with other Western parents, I back off despite sometimes feeling strongly that the kids need to put in more time and effort.

I believe that as a child, many many skills are trainable, but as they get older, the brain pathways get more set, resistance to new thinking sets in. Every kid learns their native language whether Chinese, English, or Apache, but many people believe learning new languages later in life is much more difficult. The right environmental influences early may be more advantageous for gaining skills than trying to overcome ingrained habits later on in life (as opposed to the employees’ situations where I think it’s better to focus on your strengths).

The Chinese parent approach tries to expand the brain for what are deemed practical skills for life before it’s too late. You could also say the Western parent approach is doing the same thing but for different skills – perhaps creativity or other hard to measure talents.

Evolution weeds out individuals and populations with weaknesses so the world is probably better off for having a variety of approaches.

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