Tag Archives: Gaokao

Confucianism and the Drive for Self-Cultivation: Parenting Without Borders, Part 7

[Note: This series started two years ago! I had hoped to finish it last summer, but packing/moving made that a bit more complicated than I thought. I finally finished reading this book this past weekend, so I’m confident that the last several posts in this series will be published in the coming weeks. Thanks for sticking around!]

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.” In Part 7, we’ll explore what education is like in East Asia.

Early on in this chapter, Gross-Loh explained that Confucianism has a big influence in China and South Korea. In particular, learning isn’t seen as a means to an end, necessarily. Rather, learning is a way to better one’s self through self-cultivation. While my understanding might be somewhat limited to my experience, I don’t know that I’ve met many people through my extensive education in North America where the goal was self-cultivation and not a means to an end (i.e. get the degree and get out). That’s not to say that that’s necessarily a bad way of looking at education, but just to highlight possible differences.

There’s one passage that emphasizes this ideal of self-cultivation. Gross-Loh is visiting an elite boarding school in China. As her trip is wrapping up, she was meeting with some of the people at the school:

On our last day in China, I met with Gao Chen, head of the entire school, with two teachers and interpreters. After our conversation, something happened that really surprised me. Gao Chen asked my advice, my thoughts, on learning, on how to raise children to become successful in life. The moment I began to cobble together a hesitant answer, every person in the room bent her head down to the table and began writing down every word I said. No one, not even the illustrious head of one of the most elite schools in China, was going to let a potential opportunity for learning and self-improvement pass by.

Even these experts in education, at a well-regarded institution, thought that they could still learn something from their humble guests. How wonderful!

Earlier on in the chapter, we learn the importance that East Asian cultures place on learning “skills.” For instance, in the school discussed above, every student must be skilled in Chinese, math, and science. This ideal is shared amongst East Asian cultures, too. The quote that hammers home this idea of the importance of skills:

No one thinks it’s interesting if a calligrapher breaks rules of calligraphy that he has not totally, and utterly, mastered. Once he has mastered the rules, that’s when thinking outside the box is interesting.

There’s certainly merit to that. Sometimes, it takes knowing a topic inside and out before you’re able to see it from a different angle and appreciate that different angle.

As the chapter comes to a close, there’s a discussion about the level of children’s responsibility through adolescence. In North America, children feel a decreasing sense of obligation to “hang out with their family,” whereas in East Asia, this doesn’t happen. In thinking about the two different cultures, there appears to be a logical reason.

North America tends to be “individualistic” and so it’s natural that as children make their way through adolescence, they would stretch the boundaries of the individualistic culture. Similarly, East Asian cultures tend to be “collectivistic,” so you’d expect that there’d be a strong sense of family and community that continues as children mature.

The key difference in the research shows that this hands-off approach in North America might not be what’s best for children still trying to internalize goals and expectations:

Research on American adolescents’ drug and alcohol use shows that teens who are emotionally close to their parents and know they disapprove of substance use are more likely to abstain.

The researcher quoted goes on to note that there’s a dearth of research on what happens to children after early adolescence who’ve had a closer connection with their family.

“I think we could use a little Chinese parenting, and they could use a little American,” she said with a laugh.

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