This Q & A starts with a preface:

It seems like there’s always a hot debate over how much pushing and high expectations are ok when it comes to raising kids (as evidenced by the comments in the Tiger Mother post a couple days ago…so much great insight I wanted to say “amen” to).

The bottom line for me is that it comes down to knowing your kids.  I don’t know if the generalized “Tiger Mother” mentality would believe in that because excellence is required, no questions asked.  But I believe that in really knowing your kids you can know what they are truly capable of.  That’s certainly easier said than done and I am definitely not a pro at it, but I think it’s the key.  First of all, no two kids are alike.  I can sure attest to that with the five very different personalities Dave are in the midst of trying to raise.  Some of them take school head-on, are aware of every single grade and assignment like it’s lit a fire under them, and others just breeze on through.  “Assignment?  what assignment?”  We call it the “squirrel” mentality in our family (watch the movie “Up” if you don’t know what I mean).

The point is that we need to know our kids well enough to know how much to push.  That comes from constant conversations, praying our guts out, caring what they care about, putting ourselves in their shoes, loving them unconditionally…blah blah blah, all that time-consuming and never-ending yet rewarding parenting stuff.

Dave and I expect the best from our kids.  We were both raised by parents who expected the best from us.  They wanted us to reach our potential.  If kids are never pushed and expected to do tough stuff, chances are that the majority of kids won’t.  But doing hard things creates confidence.  And I believe confidence creates happiness.

I talked about a little experiment Grace and I read about back HERE where a group of kids were tested on their academic abilities.  After the test, the administrators labeled one group of the kids as “gifted.”  The teachers were told to expect a lot from these particular kids and the kids felt like they were pretty important.

The kids labeled “gifted” excelled dramatically in school.  The interesting thing was that in the end, the people running the study let everyone know that the kids labeled as “gifted” hadn’t really tested that way after all.  Their names were randomly selected to be part of the study.  The difference was that those kids felt exceptional because people believed in them.  The kids believed it.  The teachers believed it.  So it became true.

I think that’s how life is in many ways.  If we believe in ourselves, we can make things happen.  If we believe in our kids, they rise to the expectations.

Ok, on to the questions:

Is this school your children attend a high-ranked school? Do the Chinese have levels like that, where instruction is more demanding or easier or focused on vocational training (like the German system), or do all parents expect this out of their children?

I don’t think I can generalize “all parents” but I believe it’s totally part of the Asian culture to push like the kids are pushed at this school.  It is considered an “International School” but because it is attended by mostly Asian kids who’s parents are paying for “excellence,” they have adapted to require it.  And it’s good in so many ways.  I really do like this school.  The teachers are outstanding. But I’m just glad that we have a little more diversity in our education back in the states.

I’m just curious why you have a tutor for Grace to help her in math and science. If she is already an honors student, she’ll still be one when she gets back home. Why does it really matter if she does poorly for a few months? I ask this because I have learned from my children’s experiences that it does them no favors to be ahead of their peers. 

We’re not worried about her doing poorly grade-wise, we just want to keep her confidence up.  In this sea of Asian kids who are so smart and prepared, so willing to take on more and more, poor Grace was starting to feel “dumb.”  She was starting to lose track of the notion that she could do it!  I agree with the math teacher that there’s no harm in building an extra strong foundation for math…that’s only going to help her in the long run.  I went and met with her science teacher and he was so impressive.  He told me his theory about his student’s hearts: He explained that he sees some of their hearts open up and want to figure things out.  And he sees others who’s hearts just turn it off and throw their hands up in the air when they don’t understand.  As with anything in life, I want Grace to learn to open her heart to the challenges that will come her way and work through them, whether they are in school or any area of life.  I want her heart to be one that can take a challenge and learn and grow with it.

As I was walking with my kids to the metro the other night (we have gone on that thing every single day this week on account of the fact that we can study for mid-terms on the train and we are all getting nervous that our time here is running out) I told them we needed to have a mock debate about Chinese vs. American schools.  (Elle and Grace have both been assigned different debate topics in their classes and have enjoyed learning how to take a side they may not agree with and trying to find the good in it.)  I told them I wanted to hear them take the side that proclaims Chinese schools are superior to the ones in America.  Grace looked at me with that rolling-eye look and told me she could not do that in her most dramatic voice.  But I slipped my arm around her and my three girls and I had a pretty great conversation about Chinese vs. American schools from their perspective. (Max and Lu were way ahead of us.)

Part of the information I got from my girls I used in my Tiger Mothers post a couple days ago (here), but part of it I just let rest in my heart for further contemplation.  Their initial answers, after some prodding to think of the positives, included that kids will gain more knowledge the more they study and memorize and read and write.  We are so grateful for all they are learning here, but it sure gives us a renewed appreciation for our schools back home.  I know everyone thinks their way is the best way.  We have learned that quite dramatically here with so many comments alluding to the fact that American schools are sub-par.  There are so many different schools in America and certainly the ones my kids attend are not the best in the history of the planet.  But they are helping these kids learn.  Maybe not the same strict academics that they are learning here in China, but they are learning different kinds of things and expanding their horizons.  Will they be sufficiently prepared for college?  Probably not.  But I don’t know that anyone really is.  If academics are pushed too hard in high school, there may be other aspects of college that will be tougher (social, emotional, etc.), and visa versa.  I believe that’s part of what college is all about.  I remember my first semester at college was like I got hit in the face with reality.  It was so hard and so much was expected of me.  But I knew I better get busy swimming, not sinking. (Taught by my parents and their high expectations.)

So I did.  
And that process of pushing myself and growing in new ways is probably one thing I learned the very most from in college.

Is there really a “winner” when it comes to Tiger Mothers vs. Western Mothers?  I think the winner is one who takes from both and listens to the hearts of her children.

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  1. Great comments, Shawni. I love hearing this perspective and admire your ability to embrace the good in both American and Chinese cultures.

    I also want to endorse THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD. It's a fascinating book and truly inspiring. I think Americans and much of the world have forgotten that kids can be motivated and inspired to learn. They don't have to be pushed if they've embraced the "why" of education. A child studying from dawn until dusk because they are paranoid about a test, a punishment, or getting into college, etc… will never have the same satisfaction from what they're learning as a child that studies from dawn until dusk because they want to master something or learn something or grow in some way.

    A lot of people would balk at this, claiming that children aren't capable of such motivation, but it's just not true. We spend too much time in this country talking about being able to compete with China or how to make kids college-ready so they can be career-ready, but what about the satisfaction that comes from learning in and of itself? The ability to create, the ability to become a more enlightened individual, the ability to communicate and express ourselves clearly, the ability to discover and calculate and do something we couldn't do before—these are all so satisfying in and of themselves, and yet we rarely discuss this!

    They are much more skilled at motivating children in Finland where few tests are given (only one standardized test at the end of high school), little homework is assigned, and teachers are given a great deal of freedom in both what they teach and how, and yet Finnish children are clearly at the top of the world according to a variety of measures.

    Sometimes believing in kids means not just believing that they can do something, but believing that they can WANT to do something all on their own.

    1. So beautifully said, Lindsay, and such a key point in this whole discussion. If kids WANT to learn it makes all the difference. I definitely need to read that book. Thanks for sharing your wisdom…Maybe I need to get you to do a guest post on HOW to help kids understand the "why" a little better, your kids seem to have it down. Hope you guys are doing well…love and miss you!

  2. Well, I was going to add a comment to the post the other day, but there were already so many conversations going on in that one that I didn't feel adding my voice to it would add anything…but today you've said what I was thinking. 🙂

    In essence…first, love your child.
    Secondly, know your child – the way they operate and deal with life and its ups and downs.

    If you do those 2 things before anything else, you'll do what's best for them.

    For example, you said that w/ Grace (I think?) that you'd coddled her a little but it made the situation worse. So, next time, it was more of a "bummer – keep working – you'll get it" type of situation and it worked. But the reason that worked was because she already knew you loved her and that you'd always expect and believe that she would do her best.

    With a child who already doesn't feel loved and/or doesn't believe their parents believe they can achieve, it would either deflate or anger them. (Granted, it also might anger or annoy the 1st type of child, but the end result would be appreciation of the parent who didn't let them get away with less than their best rather than feeling more of an "I proved you wrong" type of attitude towards the parent. The end result might be the same but the feelings in the relationship would be different.)

  3. I think there is a difference in making kids ready for college or trade school post high school – we need plumbers too, and making them get straight a's and excel at various activities at the same time. It's a hot topic because we all have kids. Not everyone with "education fever" is happy that they are stuck in that culture. I think it's scary to think of it coming closer to home. No one is going to think they didn't spend enough time studying or working or that they went to the wrong college on their death bed. Just like a parent can think on their death bed they were are work too much, I'm sure parents in education fever cultures think the sent their kids to school, extra classes, extra activies too much.

  4. Thank you for answering my question. I totally agree with what you said and the comments above–it is about knowing each of our children as individuals. And loving them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Here's an interesting insight for your debate: A friend of mine was talking with a Chinese student who had come to study at an American university. She asked the student if school was harder in China or in America. The girl responded that it was MUCH harder in America. Surprised, my friend asked how that could be. She said "In China you just have to memorize and memorize and spit things back out on the test. I got really good at that. But then I come here, and my teachers want me to analyze things and form my own opinions! THAT is hard!" I don't know if that is how everyone would feel, but I thought it was interesting in light of this conversation.

  6. For me, it's the difference between my child being "the" best and doing their best. There are a lot of incredibly talented people who are never going to be at the top of their academic class and that's okay. While I believe that education is really, really important, being educated is not necessarily the same thing as getting straight As or being at the top of the class. I want my children to find joy in learning and discovering new things. I want them to know where to go to find answers and I want them to be in tune with the spirit in such a way that it guides them to truth and light. I don't think American schools are doing a good job of that either. That's why I don't think there's much point in debating American vs Chinese schools. There's a whole lot of knowledge that can't be demonstrated on a bubble sheet. I am raising some bright kids (if I can say that without sounding like I'm gloating) but in the end I want my children to grow up to be kind, responsible, hard-working and generous and I hope they gain testimonies of the gospel and come to know their Savior. Their grades, their vocation, their extra-curricular activities are all secondary to that. I think much can be learned from "tiger mothers" and other philosophies of education. But when it comes to education, we need to look at it from an eternal perspective. In the end, we won't have to give an accounting of the grades we got in high school and we won't be asked if we had a prestigious career.

  7. Also, I am crazy jealous of the experiences that you are having over there. IMO, your visits to cultural sites are every bit as important as "book learning" and I would so love to give that kind of experience to my kids. I am in awe of the way you make opportunities for your children to do humanitarian work and service and to see parts of the world that are so different from what they know. In college, I took a semester to teach English abroad and it forever changed my life. I think I learned more from the dirty faces of the kids that I was teaching than I ever did in my college classes. My concern with "tiger parenting" is that I'm afraid it that putting so much emphasis on academics and grades might push aside other opportunities for spiritual growth and service.

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