commentary of the year appeared in the Wall Street Journal:
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 authorís name yields
more than one million Google hits.
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.
Iím 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.
begins with public schooling itself. Teachers and parents alike
report the widespread tendency of parents to take a strong interest
in their childís 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.
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.
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 itís 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.
the childís 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 donít 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.
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
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
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.
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 donít produce substantial
results anyway, why bother?
be the real reason for the American tendency to approve of things
the child is and does. As a culture, weíve come to trust someone
else to take on the essential responsibility of molding the next
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.