Why American Kids Do So Poorly

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The hottest commentary of the year appeared in the Wall Street Journal: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua. The story has 7,200 comments and counting, and every other outlet including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and everyone else, including tens of thousands of bloggers. The author's name yields more than one million Google hits.

The thesis was simple. American moms coddle their kids and protect their self-esteem; Chinese mothers, in contrast, work their kids hard, accept nothing less then excellence, and help the kid accomplish real things so that self-esteem is rooted in reality. The response was beyond belief, with mobs of angry mothers claiming that the author was essentially advocating child abuse.

I'm not entering the fray on child-raising techniques. Rather I would like to draw attention to something that seems to be lost in this debate: the institutional context that has led to the American tendency to let the kids grow like weeds.

The problem begins with public schooling itself. Teachers and parents alike report the widespread tendency of parents to take a strong interest in their child's education from preschool through second grade. But after the child learns to read, more or less, and life gets busy to double-income households, the job of tending to education is left to the authorities, who give off the illusion that they are taking care of all important matters.

The child is meanwhile swimming in a world of peers and the distance between this world and the world of the parents grows, and by the time the child is in middle school, there is very little connection left between the parents and the child that would allow anything like close monitoring of educational outcomes.

Child rearing becomes a waiting game and a matter of a huge checklist. Reading: check. Basic math: check. Middle school: check. High school: check. SAT prep: check. College admission: check. Then the magic age of 18 arrives and it's off to college, a time when parents sign huge checks and the child learns that life is a blast with few responsibilities beyond repeating on tests the blather they hear from the expert standing up front.

What about the child's individual traits, such as strengths and weakness, talents and preferences? These are private matters, not something readily accommodated by the great system of K through 12 education, which is really a type of central plan. Most parents don't even think twice about it but it is true: this country has an approved tract for all kids and the goal of the system is to force conformity to it. If a child is faster than the plan allows, he or she has to learn to wait. If a child is slower then the plan allows, he or she had better speed up. Each year that goes by is a marker, like a production goal in a Gosplan.

You can see it in the educational codes of every state, which have a century of accumulated cruft that reflects a slight change in educational philosophy that is written into law every ten years or so. We must have open classrooms and language experience! But no child can be left behind! Values clarification! Back to basics! The old priorities are not repealed but rather become like a layer in an old growth tree, the branches of which are a gigantic bureaucracy living off the taxpayer. But who can complain since the system is "free?"

Any child who deviates from the approved path is considered to be a problem. What if a child is ready for college at the age of 13 or 14? You can count on school administrators, counselors, teachers, pastors, and other parents to all say that it would be a disaster for the child to skip a step. Is it even allowed that a child can graduate that early?

And look at the shock and horror that has greeted the success of homeschooling: people who do this are seen as short-sighted, freaky, and even unpatriotic. Certainly they are doing the child no favors in denying him or her the glorious socialization that comes with staying with the central plan. When the homeschool child performs well, and all the data indicate that they do, this is chalked up to some exogenous factor and then ignored by the central planners.

Has this system reinforced a certain pattern of negligence among parents, the sense that there is no real need to push the child in this direction or that or otherwise insist on excellence and help the child achieve it? Certainly that is the usual path that central planning takes. When we are no longer owners of a resource, and no one in particular takes responsibility for outcomes, and the things we do to affect those outcomes don't produce substantial results anyway, why bother?

This might be the real reason for the American tendency to approve of things the child is and does. As a culture, we've come to trust someone else to take on the essential responsibility of molding the next generation.

The central plan has instilled a kind of parental lethargy. We let the state take over the core responsibilities from the age of 5 through 22, and then we are shocked to discover that kids leave college without a sense of work ethic, without marketable skills, and even without the ambition to succeed in the real world. So we let them become boarders in our homes, "reverts" who specialize in Wii and Facebook updates. Growing up takes longer and longer because the machinery we have in place saps individual initiative and punishes any outlying behavior.

As for the Chinese approach, it might reflect a sense that authorities can never be trusted with the essential job of training a child for life. Long enough experience with a central plan will tend to teach that lesson. Americans are just behind the learning curve in this regard.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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