There are two students sitting an exam, one from Australia and one from China.
The Aussie student gets 90%, drawing cries of delight from the parents. They call in other family members to share the good news and immediately log onto social media to share the result with their online friends. There may be a special celebratory dinner or at least, an extra helping of dessert.
Meanwhile, a Chinese student gets the same score, drawing cries of anguish from the parents. They call in witnesses to determine what went wrong and immediately contact their teacher and other parents on social media to commiserate and compare results. After a tense dinner, the student can probably look forward to an extra helping of homework.
Ok, I might be exaggerating just the tiniest bit. I know some Chinese colleagues whose parents were relaxed and encouraging and Aussie friends who didn’t want to go home if they received a B on their report card. But having lived in both cultures and experienced their education systems first hand, I’m confident that I’m not far off the mark.
So the question is, why do Chinese parents tend to come down much harder on their kids than their Western counterparts over the same score?
Competition, for one thing. China is the world’s most populous country with limited spots for good schools and jobs so naturally, competition is a little tight. Objectively speaking, 90% is a brilliant score; but in a class of 40-50 students, brilliant isn’t quite good enough. There’s a very good chance that at least one classmate got 100%, maybe 5 more got above 95% and just like that, a child moves from the ‘star pupil’ to the ‘can do better’ category.
Another reason is the stress generated by so much homework and extra classes. From primary school onwards, students start feeling the homework pressure every night, and helping them finish it is a full-time job in itself. After coming home from a day at work, parents (mothers, mostly) get very little time to relax. After a quick dinner, they check the homework that their kids hopefully finished earlier and right after that, make sure that they practice a musical instrument.
Now, it’s very rare that all this is done without any tears, fighting or arguing as the kids get pushed harder and harder. Interestingly enough, this is seen as an example of love in China - that the parent cares so much about their child to invest all their spare time and energy into them. If they didn’t, they could easily pour a bottle of red and grab the TV remote without much of a second thought. However, they probably expect a good return for their emotional investment, something in the region of 100% on their exams.
I help out when I can as well, though sometimes I feel like I’m treading a fine line. I grew up with a pretty free and unrestrained childhood and don’t always agree with the Chinese way of doing things. At the same time, I want to maintain consistency and support my wife as much as possible. I usually opt for the middle road and give the kids a little time to rest and watch TV, before making them do their homework and practice at least one instrument before dinner.
After the homework is done, the instruments have been put away and the kids are in bed, mum can finally relax right? Pfft, yeah right. In the evening, it’s straight onto one of the many WeChat class groups to compare notes and check for missed homework. WeChat, as you may have guessed, serves as important function for parents. Like so many others, we no longer have the time to go to fancy dinners, exclusive fundraisers or cocktail parties, so we have to make do with social media.
When my oldest son practices the trumpet, his videos get uploaded to WeChat, so the teacher can give instant feedback. Looking back on recent conversations in the group, I can see that the atmosphere is quite positive. The parents offer encouragement to each other and praise their kids. They make sure to thank the teacher for his time and feedback, finally stopping close to midnight so that the exhausted teacher can finally get some rest.
However, there are some parents who aren’t so encouraging, such as the one parent my wife told me about in a different group. Important exams were coming up and she was complaining that her daughter was unmotivated, lazy and totally unprepared - clearly not hearing the crashing sound of collective bulls**t meters flying off the charts, through the roof and crash-landing somewhere on Mars. They all knew that her daughter usually cleaned up in exams and so it proved the following week. This mum might have congratulated herself on her brilliant use of psychological warfare, but I think she would have fooled more people by standing in a corner of a room, holding a star above her head and pretending to be a Christmas tree.
So those are some possible reasons why Chinese parents may feel more anxiety and burn-out and come down harder on their kids. China is pretty unique in terms of population and pressure and so, it’s understandable that parents have higher expectations for their kids and react very differently to failure. On the plus side, the boys enjoy school, have many friends and really like their teachers. I hope that parents will continue to encourage and support each other and that it will filter down to the kids as well. God knows, they need as much encouragement as they can get.
Tags:Language & Culture Expat Rants & Advice Expat Tales Lifestyle
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