Amy Chua has an essay in the Saturday WSJ about the superiority of Asian parents. Although there are some extremes in the story that I find distasteful, there is one overarching theme that has gone woefully missing from our society:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.
We are so concerned for the self-esteem of our children that we forget what gives people self-esteem. It’s not endless praise and spoiling from parents that makes you feel like a worthwhile person. We feel self-esteem from attempting something difficult and succeeding at it. And the only way we get good at something is by practicing it.
Particularly in the realm of education, this concept of “practice until you’re good at it” has gone woefully missing. We’re so concerned with making reading fun, or acknowledging different reading styles, or making sure no one’s feelings get hurt. With all the fuss, we’ve forgotten that we actually have to make students like reading. If students are bad at reading, it’s nearly impossible to get them to enjoy it. So, from an early age, we just have to make kids read. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. If a student is good at reading, a good teacher — or even a vaguely competent teacher like I was, can convince the student of the work’s importance.
While debates rage as to how to fund schools and how to choose better teachers, little debate has been had about the pedagogy itself. All the underlying demographic factors would seem to encourage more learning. Students go to school for more hours; fewer teenagers are working; parental levels of education are at their highest levels ever. Maybe, students are learning less because the way of teaching is so much worse. Rather than the virtuous cycle of practice, success, feeling good, we have the vicious cycle of sloth, weakness, and feeling terrible about school.
Yes, your children should play, and imagination is important. I don’t advise verbal insults or tyranny (as advised in the Chua essay). But instead of setting the next generation up for having fun, why don’t we set them up for success?