Welcome back to the Around the World in Six Weeks Parenting Blog Carnival! Deb of Urban Moo Cow, Jessica of School of Smock, Lauren of Omnimom, Sarah of Left Brain Budda, and I have been writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders, exploring parenting practices around the world. For more information about the Parenting Blog Carnival, and future topics, click here.
Join us as we examine how culture shapes our parenting!
This week we are focusing on the subject of academic pressure, and how different countries around the world, including the United States, approach academic excellence and achievement. The book begins its discussion of teaching kids around the world with a look at the educational philosophies of Asia. I’m sure we all have our own stereotypical images of Asian parents pushing their children to achieve, insisting they study as much as possible to ensure their placement at a prestigious university. And in many ways, though many families are beginning to aspire to a more Western approach, that stereotype holds true.
Gross-Loh highlighted some difference between the education systems in Asia and in the United States. The American educational system embraces creativity and individuality far more than the systems in China and Korea, which I think is a strength. As mentioned in the discussion on self-esteem, Asians place the highest emphasis on effort rather than innate talent, and believe that only effort leads to achievement. I believe there is something to be learned from that mentality as well. Gross-Loh indicates that children who perform well academically are more popular than other students, rather than the class clown or social butterfly. She also noted that suicides from bullying are on the rise because of this competitive mindset.
Do Asian families put too much pressure on their children? Parenting Without Borders examines the cultural values and practices of both China and South Korea. Gross-Loh noted that Chinese high school seniors who are planning to attend universities study for up to 90 hours a week. Both Chinese and Korean educational philosophies are based in Confucianism, and according to Gross-Loh, “Learning is both a moral endeavor and a family obligation.” In South Korea, many parents believe that obtaining a college education is the only guarantee that their children will have a comfortable adult life. In order to achieve this, children prepare for their exam by studying late into the night for years. One South Korean mother mentioned, “We want our children to be number one at everything.”
Is this level of parental involvement healthy? One thing that struck me about this chapter was the concept that this intense parental dedication to education is actually an expression of love. This manifestation of affection literally feels foreign to me; when I was growing up, my parents’ mantra was, “Do the best you can.” I have integrated this policy into my own parenting, and I can’t quite fathom a fervent pursuit of academic excellence translating to love and support when applied to my second grader. Gross-Loh shared the story of one South Korean mother who committed suicide after her child left for college. She had poured so much energy and so many resources into her child’s education that empty-nest syndrome was too much for her to bear. On a positive note, a sense of responsibility and closeness to parents, particularly during adolescence, can actually be helpful and increase engagement in learning.
I was starting to feel much better about amount of pressure Americans place on their children when compared to children in Asian cultures. Gross-Loh repeatedly used phrases such as “rat race” and “frantic treadmill” to describe the zealousness with which Asian families approach learning. I was feeling grateful that there was no real societal mandate for me to be drilling my seven year old daily, encouraging hours of study, and years down the road, ferociously pushing her to score as high as possible on college entrance exams. The last thing I want is for my daughter to feel that we are pressuring her to rise to the head of her class.
Then I read the chapter on the Finnish educational system. I felt the simultaneous urge to laugh, cry, and pack a suitcase for Finland. Here are some highlights of the cultural academic values in Finland:
- Children learn best when they are motivated and when given tools to make responsible choices.
- Teachers help kids reach their potential by connecting with them, respecting them, and creating the best conditions possible for success.
- Children do not begin academic study until they are seven, and they do not have homework or grades until age eleven.
- School hours are shorter, there are no gifted programs or private schools, and no high-stakes standardized tests.
- Teachers are highly qualified, must have a master’s degree, are respected as much as medical doctors, and are given great freedom in their own curriculum and teaching strategies.
- Vocational education is not stigmatized, the integration of these skills into the curriculum and opportunity for hands-on activities makes it clear that vocational professions are valued in Finland.
- Almost all students in Finland perform well.
Sounds utopian, doesn’t it? It makes sense. And it works. So what are we missing in American schools? A Finnish mother of two children explained her struggles with advocating for her daughter’s unique learning style when living in America. “Here in the United States I feel like I spend all my time fighting for a situation that can work for her. they try to fit her into a box. In Finland, they fit the box around her.” Gross-Loh added,
In Finland her learning style was not a problem. In America, it became a disability.
Finland’s system is successful for many reasons; they focus on the bigger picture, foster every child’s individual potential, and rather than emphasizing competition, they value equity. Gross-Loh comments, “The most significant difference between Finland and the United States is that Finnish kids have more time to just be.” How many of us have struggled with a sense of being over-scheduled, a pressure to make our kids more well-rounded, or more successful? How many of us have agonized over challenging homework assignments with our six year olds? (Surely I can’t be the only one!)
I was shocked when my daughter Izzy came home with daily math homework in the first grade. In fact, she and I both began to look forward to Fridays, the one day of the week when we experienced a homework reprieve. In addition to math homework, we had weekly spelling tests to practice for, and a reading log that was turned in every Thursday. Perhaps I would have shrugged this off more readily were in not for the fact that math homework caused my daughter great anxiety. I was an excellent student and memorized new information quickly and easily.
The math curriculum at my daughter’s school frowns upon this type of rote learning and memorization, which I reluctantly admit is a good thing for optimal comprehension, but it has made the math homework a struggle at my house. One day, my daughter came home with a shirt full of holes. Tearfully, she admitted she had poked holes in her clothes during math because she was so nervous. I worry about the days when standardized testing becomes a more significant part of our lives; as the daughter of a teacher, I am well-acquainted with the flaws in the system pertaining to the place of standardized tests in the schools.
Fortunately, we were graced with one of those teachers who was undoubtedly put on Earth to be a teacher; she is effective, nurturing, and creative. Even though the first graders were expected to participate in math homework four times per week, my daughter’s teacher made it clear that it was okay if they were unable to complete the assignment or needed extra help the next day at school. Her nurturing acceptance helped to balance out the academic expectations. At the end of the year, the students participated in an awards ceremony in which each of them was called to the front of the room to receive a certificate of achievement. I was incredibly moved by how well their teacher understood each one of them; during my daughter’s turn, she referenced how much Izzy loved reading and writing, and then commended how much she had improved in math thanks to her hard work.
I felt this ceremony encapsulated a celebration of individuality, an acknowledgment of interest and innate talent, and accolades for effort and improvement.
I suppose, as with most things,it is all about striking the right balance. Gross-Loh mentioned that a hybrid of Eastern and Western educational philosophies would be ideal, and quoted Eva Pomerantz, a psychology professor, who said, “I think we could use a little Chinese parenting, and they could use a little American.” I envision an educational system in America that values the individuality of each child, allows for freedom and diversity, teaches a well-rounded curriculum that values music, arts, and vocational skills, and yet still inspires students to achieve and put forth effort into learning.
The balance of parent involvement plays a large role, and I think it is possible for parents to be supportive and accepting while still encouraging their children to put forth their best effort. We are currently satisfied with our daughter’s school, but I admit I am anxious about what may lie ahead; many parents I have spoken with feel that America’s school systems are in need of a serious overhaul. After reading these chapters, I was inspired by the values encapsulated by Finland’s educational system, and I believe that our country would benefit from learning a few lessons from them.
Don’t forget to stop by the other posts in the series:
School of Smock: Whose Fault Is It That American Education Is Broken?
Left Brain Buddha: Suspended in Webs of Significance We Ourselves Have Spun
Urban Moo Cow: How Should We Educate Our Children?