10/13/2019 – Last month I called a few important items to my readers’ attention in my article What Kind of Society do We Want to Have?.
That article noted the following three items:
- A CNBC article “6 Dutch parenting secrets to raising the happiest kids in the world“
- The New York Times bestselling book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“
- and finally a new Netflix documentary “American Factory“
The CNBC article was written by Rina Mae Acosta, a young Asian-American woman from San Francisco and a UC Berkeley graduate who married a Dutch entrepreneur and moved to the Netherlands.
It describes a method of parenting that is diametrically opposed to those used in our area and is certain to make some parents draw back in horror. I personally have my doubts about some of these techniques, but I have always believed in listening to ideas outside of my comfort zone and trying to evaluate them as objectively as I can.
I strongly urge you to take the time to do so too. I am going to try to show multiple sides of this critical issue because something is clearly wrong with our current society.
Mass shootings are frequently in the news. Closer to home, our local Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO) felt the need to open their first meeting of the school year with a presentation on mental health resources. The following two slides from SMUHSD Board meetings in 2018 and 2019 show significant numbers (almost a third!) of our students listing themselves as “sad” in a survey. Contrary to their 2018 goal, the District made scant progress in reducing this statistic.
Clearly this is a topic worthy of the time of all parents of school age children!!!
Returning to Rina Mae Acosta’s CNBC article, she writes,
My parents set the standards for academic excellence exceedingly high, and any failure or shortcoming brought family shame. Ensuring that my brothers and I had a happy childhood was more of an afterthought. Now, ironically, I’m an American expat in a new environment, navigating and exploring parenthood in new ways.
Raised on equal parts Catholic guilt and immigrant work ethic, the Dutch approach seemed too easy-going, self-centered and lazy to me. They had midwife-assisted births (ideally at home and non-medicated) and didn’t send their kids to music lessons or any academic-enriched programs. What was wrong with them?
But a year into motherhood, I stumbled upon a 2013 UNICEF report claiming that Dutch children were the happiest kids in the world. The report was a follow-up to one conducted in 2007, in which the Netherlands was first named as a prime example of childhood prosperity. The U.K. and the U.S. ranked in the two lowest positions.
A handful of other organizations, including Britain’s Child Poverty Action Group and the World Economic Forum, have also ranked Dutch kids incredibly high in personal happiness.
Her CNBC article (which is basically a short summary plug for her more detailed book) also references a parenting article by Esther Wojcicki, the mother of three girls who became the CEOs of Bay Area companies YouTube and 23andMe as well as a professor of pediatrics.
Along similar lines to the CNBC article is a short documentary about Finnish schools by Michael Moore (a controversial left-wing film maker). Even if you can’t stand Michael Moore (I think he definitely tends to extremes at times.), I would encourage you to take the nine and a half minutes required to watch this short film.
Contrast the above with Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” about which Amazon’s review says:
“[E]ntertaining, bracingly honest and, yes, thought-provoking.”—The New York Times Book Review
At once provocative and laugh-out-loud funny, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ignited a global parenting debate with its story of one mother’s journey in strict parenting. Amy Chua argues that Western parenting tries to respect and nurture children’s individuality, while Chinese parents typically believe that arming children with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence prepares them best for the future. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chronicles Chua’s iron-willed decision to raise her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, the Chinese way – and the remarkable, sometimes heartbreaking results her choice inspires. Achingly honest and profoundly challenging, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is one of the most talked-about books of our times.
“Few have the guts to parent in public. Amy [Chua]’s memoir is brutally honest, and her willingness to share her struggles is a gift. Whether or not you agree with her priorities and approach, she should be applauded for raising these issues with a thoughtful, humorous and authentic voice.” —Time Magazine
I read this book eagerly several years ago when it first came out. I share Ms. Chua’s desire to mold her children in positive ways. I do not believe that children should be left completely to themselves to “discover their bliss.” My parents guided me with the selection of activities to which I was exposed. I might like to think that my career was ultimately my own choice, but there is no doubt that they gently steered me in the direction of their influence.
Ms. Chua wrote her book in part to answer numerous questions from her friends as to how she raised such accomplished children. She credits this to traditional strict Chinese “Tiger Mom” child-rearing methods. However, Ms. Chua’s book also describes the battles and public screaming matches with her daughters about violin practice and the other regimented activities that filled their lives.
Interestingly Ms. Chua’s younger daughter Lulu, who often fought her mother bitterly, had a change of heart about her mother later in life as described here.
Many of my tutoring clients are Chinese-American families, and family life usually lies somewhere in between the permissive Dutch and strict Chinese positions above. The one constant, however, is the constant focus on academic achievement, particularly the focus on taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes, SAT/ACT prep classes and spending summers in summer school instead of “idle play.” Ultimately the goal is to test well and get into a top college.
It is not my goal here to preach or advocate one method over another. I will be happy if parents simply take the time to look at the material I provide above and come to their own conclusions.
Before I wrap this article up though, I also need to mention the new Netflix documentary “American Factory” which, surprisingly, also has bearing on these issues.
The film is about a former General Motors auto plant in Dayton, Ohio which was shut down in the middle of the Financial Crisis. Many residents of Dayton lost not only their jobs, but also their homes and, saddest of all, their self-respect.
Several years later a Chinese company named Fuyao, bought the abandoned factory and turned it into a glass manufacturing facility for automobile windshields. 200 workers were brought from China with the goal of training up to 2000 American workers.
The Chinese workers were separated from their families for two years and not given any increase in pay for their time in America. Numerous scenes show them listening politely and quietly to Chinese managers, never questioning what they are told, and then going out and working hard.
By contrast many of the American workers, despite being relieved to finally have work again, come across as prone to complaining (e.g., their salary at GM was $29 per hour versus $12 per hour at Fuyao plus safety violations at the factory are a problem). Many are significantly overweight and far less motivated than the Chinese workers.
Eventually a battle erupts to join the United Auto Workers union. Originally the company had top American managers, but the failure to stop union agitation results in the ouster of the American managers and their replacement by Chinese managers. Fuyao gives the workers a $2 per hour raise and mounts a vigorous anti-union campaign to influence the union vote outcome. I will not reveal the result.
Fuyao also sends the lower level American supervisors to one of their factories in China to learn their methods. Once again, everyone marvels at the excellent and hard working Chinese factory employees and the contrast with the American workers is stark. However, Chinese work days begin with a military style drill. No one questions the management. The Americans see some workers sitting in piles of broken glass, trying to sort it for recycling without having basic safety equipment.
Meanwhile, although the Chinese workers do have a “union,” the union leader is the brother-in-law of the company chairman, and also the leader of the local Communist party organization. Clandestine talks between the filmmakers and Chinese employees reveal that the employees don’t see their families for months; children are often back in villages under the care of grandparents while mothers and fathers toil long days and live in dormitories. (Note that a different Taiwanese company in China at one point had to install suicide nets outside the windows of their dormitories.).
However a Fuyao company party that the visiting Americans attend paints an overall very happy view of everyone. Employees are even wed at the event and this brings an American to tears.
There can be no question that the Chinese Communist Party has succeeded in effecting the biggest emergence of people from abject poverty that the world has ever seen, and China appears to be optimistic about its future.
At the same time, the methods used have significant drawbacks.
I have always found it to be the height of irony that Karl Marx developed Communist doctrine in response to the evils of the Industrial Revolution such as low wages, unsafe working conditions, child labor, etc. Now we have the world’s most successful Communist country engaging in precisely many of these practices!!
Besides this hypocrisy, theft of foreign intellectual property has been another factor in this economic expansion, though this is countered by saying that if foreign countries want access to the Chinese market, they must pay to play.
But central to both the Chinese and American scenarios is the hard life for those at the bottom end of the economic scale. Both American and Chinese elites live very high on the hog, while workers are made to feel fortunate to have a job.
This increasing competition for limited resources is apparent not only in the context of the “American Factory” movie, but also right back home in our children’s struggle to get into top colleges and be “successful.”
As I mentioned in the title of this article, we create society through our choices.
Currently, the world is engaged in a race to the bottom for a significant fraction of its population. In the process, industrial production is polluting the environment and creating increasing concerns about major climate change.
How do we deal with these challenges? If our workers have to compete against a military-style Chinese work force whose management cares little about safety or environmental impacts, then we are competing (dare I say “fighting?”) with one hand tied behind our back. There are international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) who should be able to remedy some of these problems, but clearly to date, they have not been able to resolve these issues. Meanwhile on the home front, the tendency is to remove “excessive regulation” rather than enforce/increase it.
China values a “harmonious society” and points to the constant arguing, stalemate and violence in America as evidence that our system no longer works. It is hard not to think that they might have a valid point here.
However, I want to close this article with one final recent media event.
Last July was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I was awed by the Todd Douglas Miller/CNN film Apollo 11. If you have not seen this film, I would strongly encourage you to watch it together with your children.
I grew up watching the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions. They played a significant role in spurring my interest in science. They inspired Americans with the idea that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. “Failure was not an option.”
Watching this movie, one holds one’s breath throughout with the realization that many things could have gone tragically wrong at many points of the mission. For example, Armstrong lands the Eagle on the Moon’s surface with just seconds left of fuel remaining in the lander, and then he and Aldrin are reliant on a second engine/ fuel supply in the upper pod to leave the surface of the Moon!!!
There are constant scenes of worried NASA engineering staff. But these people are not ones who “move fast and break things!”
They take pride in their work and as a result, everything works!!
Looking back at this, we have to remind ourselves that this was US not that long ago! Despite all of society’s problems in the 60s (and they were immense, not the least of which was the threat of nuclear annihilation!), America accomplished amazing things.
These were the accomplishments of a free people who asked questions and debated the multiple possible answers, not ones who meekly accepted what they were ordered to do by a dictatorship.
Our success was not achieved by turning our students into standardized test-taking drones and damaging their interest in academics in a frantic race for college admissions!
Nobel Prizes are not won by taking tests, but by those who develop a life-long interest in a serious field of work! Our teachers should be helping develop these interests. Instead they are required to teach to standardized tests that contain very trappy questions designed by the College Board to help “spread out the curve” so that elite colleges can determine who is “truly worthy.”
The stress of these tests and the race for college admissions is a significant reason students are “sad.” The attractiveness of our teaching jobs are also diminished by this system.
The AP system parallels the examination culture found in many Asian countries where large populations are competing vigorously for very limited resources. This is a culture of POVERTY, not one that fosters human development! We have become obsessed with our international test rankings to the detriment of our children and their teachers!
We need to step back from the precipice, understand the reasons that our children are sad and anxious, take pride again in what we do, and show the way forward – gently – to our children.
Despite the constant drumbeat of negative media, there are still many people in America who share these values.
They are much more numerous than the nay-sayers would have you believe!
Please note – I welcome your Comments in the Comments section below and have included an additional important supporting detail to my thesis there. Please also consider supporting this blog simply by signing up for article alerts. Your e-mail address will not be used for advertising or any other reason other than for article alerts which appear only once or twice a month.
8 thoughts on “Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices”
Not sure how I missed this. I am subscribed to your blog. Great piece!
Thanks, Bob! I alerted you to the article soon after it came out. Perhaps WordPress hadn’t circulated it to your feed yet?!?
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One follow-up detail about the AP system – In the last few years I have purchased a short book for my calculus students called “The Calculus Story” by David Acheson. I do this because it is important for students to know something about the history of a subject, why people were ever interested in its problems in the first place – in this case physics and astronomical problems were an important motivator. Sadly, this kind of material has completely disappeared from the AP curriculum in the relentless **and demotivating** drive to prepare for the exam!
Here is a link provided by a colleague to an interesting Psychology Today article about related problems in college students:
Thanks, David. I need to see the Factory movie. You always have interesting, provocative thoughts from which I learn.
You’re welcome, Kevin! I know we differ in our opinions on AP classes, but I hope you saw my comment above following the main article about the loss of historical context in AP Calculus, for example. I find it curious that the California CSET Exam in Math, at least when I was teaching, still required teachers to study the history of mathematics, but I have rarely if ever seen any use of this in classes, especially in the fast-moving AP programs.
I enjoyed reading this David. I appreciate how you relate the individuality of the student and parent experience to the larger societal context of American innovation. I was also struck by your observations of Americans and their work ethic. We are sometimes hard on our kids, as parents can be, because of our Midwestern roots.
As someone who grew up near Dayton [Cincinnati, to be exact] I have two thoughts:
1_Ohio is a hard-working culture, but not an innovation culture. In spite of having a strong heritage of invention; such as the Wright Brothers, Procter and Gamble, etc. This feels like the past, not the current environment. The place just doesn’t have the same get up and go that California has. In all fairness Columbus is better than Cincinnati/Dayton because they were never defined by manufacturing like Dayton/Toledo/Cleveland. That said, the ease of finding a job in manufacturing for so long may have robbed the state of a spirit of entrepreneurialism.
2_Immigration is potentially a source of new thinking and ambition. ProPublica published a documentary about Dayon called “Left Behind America” details the plights of Dayton with one bright spot: Ahiska Turks have prospered with shipping and now purchasing homes in Dayton. I believe that mass immigration would really help fire up the innovation engine in sleepy old Ohio. Check it out, I think you’d find it informative.