Thomas Friedman wrote in his column, "How about better parents
?" (The New York Times, Nov 19), that parent involvement is key to student success.
Fed up with the status quo of American education, and desperate for an alternative model, some readers peppered the word "Asian" throughout the comments section for Friedman's article. One reader wrote: " the question among the coaches was the usual, why were so many of our top students are Asian. I asked when was the last time they had an Asian parent complain about too much homework."
This statement, however, proves nothing except the theory of relativity in human opinions. Asian parents in the United States rarely complain about children's homework because it is a picnic compared to what we had to go through in our younger days in our home country. But in Asian countries, like any other, complaints abound. In China, I constantly hear parents complain that their children cannot go to bed till 11 pm because they have too many assignments.
Active involvement of Chinese parents is at best a myth, and the myth is running wild in the media. After discussions on the "Tiger Mom" (Yale Professor Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mom), the Chinese media recently brought to light a certain "wolf dad", Hong Kong-based businessman Xiao Baiyou, who used chicken feather dusters to spank three of his children into Peking University, one of China's top institutions of higher learning.
First tigers and now wolves, I suppose we'll get the entire animal kingdom covered pretty soon. Such reports of Spartan parenting instill fear among Western parents and complacency among their Chinese counterparts, none of which is healthy or justifiable.
Generally speaking, Chinese parents lag far behind their American peers in participating in the education of their children. In the Chinese countryside, many parents leave home to earn a living as migrant workers. Their children thus live with grandparents, who often have little or no education. Pre-school is either unavailable or expensive. Many such children, often called "left-behind children", grow up without either proper parenting or school education.
Though children in middle class families live with parents, real involvement is far from desirable. Many Chinese families in towns and cities are dual-income families, some by necessity, others by choice. Some American moms quit their jobs after childbirth to take care of their children. Chinese moms often quit their children to take care of their jobs. While parents are busy with their jobs or careers, many children are brought up to a large extent by grandparents, or "outsourced" to private tutors or even nannies.
In either situation, a predominantly materialistic worldview drives parents to spend their time and energy making money to "guarantee" their children's future. Most spend money generously on children's education, buying them good things and sending them to private classes. Money can buy some relief from the guilt of staying on the margins of their children's development, but children do not get what they really need from parents: their time, for instance.
Friedman quotes a report by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that parent-child reading time correlates to student achievement in PISA tests. When was the last time you saw a Chinese parent returning with bags of entertainment reading from libraries or bookstores as American parents do? How often does a Chinese parent actually read a book together with his/her child?
Many parents even forbid their children from reading "useless" books such as novels, fairy tales or poems for fear that such reading will distract students from preparing for exams.
The wrong focus on exams frees parents from participating in their children's education. Apart from not reading, parents don't work with children on school projects, because much of homework is exam-related which children are supposed to work on individually.
Parents' role is thus reduced to that of an alarm clock - to prompt children to do this or that at certain hours of the day. No wonder, nannies can do substitute parenting. Fortunately, even an alarm clock has its virtues. Chinese parents do a fairly good job of ensuring their children spend adequate time studying. Such increased time on educational tasks partially explains why they excel in international benchmarking tests. That being said, involvement can be deeper and richer in a child's path of growth. Chinese parents should spend more time with their children, rather than keeping time for them like a clock. Parents should work with children as a developing person, not just a test-taker. Parents ought to meet the kinetic, artistic, mental, social, psychological and spiritual needs of their children.
Remember that children are human beings in stages of development. So why not forget about tiger moms and wolf dads, and focus on being human parents instead?
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.(China Daily 11/26/2011 page5)