Survivor: Extreme Parenting

by Daniel Chiu | 10/17/05 5:00am

Make sure your children come straight home to study after school. Forbid them to see their friends until the weekend. Only allow them fifteen minutes of phone use and an hour of television per week. Give them additional homework after they've finished with their schoolwork.

These extreme methods of parenting are espoused by Jane Kim and Soo Kim Abboud, interviewed by Alex Williams in a recent New York Times article ("Item: Sisters Think Parents Did OK," Oct. 16). In the article, and in their new book, "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers - and How You Can Too," the sisters advocate the so-called "Asian model" of parenting. In this paradigm, rigorous academic focus is enforced while friends, social lives, and popular culture are viewed as frivolous and of secondary importance. Practiced by many Asians, this traditional success ethic is, according to the Kim sisters, the perfect formula for all parents who want to produce successful, productive young adults. However, despite the importance of education and the value of developing diligence in children, this narrow, inflexible approach is, at best, flawed and at worst, oppressive and ignorant of what's truly necessary for success in our society.

Statistics seem to indicate that this formula works: according to the article, Asians make up a quarter of the student population at top-tier schools like Stanford and UPenn (and a sizable 14 percent at Dartmouth, according to collegeboard.com) even though Asian Americans comprise less than 4 percent of the total population. Furthermore, as of 2002, the average Asian American median household income was $10,000 above the national average. Yet despite the palpability of the academic and financial fruits of this approach, the old-world standards of success that it fosters will not suffice in contemporary American society. Children who are raised in this type of stifling atmosphere may become diligent and book-smart but will suffer in other respects. By the time these kids enter college, they'll be at a disadvantage in a world that requires much more social and cultural awareness than their sheltered upbringing could provide. If pushed too hard, they could end up lost, out of touch with their peers, and feeling as if their childhood had been stolen from them.

In some ways, the efforts of Asian parents to create academic demigods out of their children are understandable, even admirable. They sacrifice their own leisure time for the sake of improving and bettering their children, to give them a life they never had. But they miss the forest while focusing on the trees. The primary problem is that traditional Asian conceptions of success are too narrow: success for many Asian parents, as far as their children are concerned, involves acceptance into a top college and subsequently attaining a career in one of the conventional professions of law or medicine. So intent are they on academia and this limited conception of achievement, they fail to realize that success in American society encompasses a wide array of professions and pursuits and requires more than simply hitting the books. Success in this multi-faceted, ever-changing world requires the social skills and street smarts that you only acquire from friends, parties, MTV, and interactions and exploration outside the classroom.

This article may make it seem like this extreme form of parenting is more prevalent than it really is. Many Asian parents today are more moderate than in the past in their parenting methods (which was the type of environment I was lucky enough to have been raised in). That said, there still exists the mindset that this approach is the best way to attain success. A better solution would be a more middle-of-the-way methodology that instills diligence and champions educational values without cutting off the myriad other aspects of growing up; parents, Asian or not, must realize that this would be far more advantageous in the long run that obsessively focusing on studies. It would also help to eliminate the intense need to rebel that many kids who are brought up in this environment inevitably feel.

Ultimately, it's a child's own drive for achievement that will make success a reality. Parents should and must give children a nudge in the right direction, but ambition must be discovered, not instilled. Many children of all backgrounds eventually develop a love of learning and a desire to succeed without drastic parental micromanagement -- and this occurs because they discover what they love instead of having something that's expected forced upon them. Only when children and young adults are allowed to explore and develop their interests and skills outside of academia and pushed to discover this whole other facet of growing up is success truly achieved.

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