American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

“East Asian Parents Must Be Immune to Whining”

A revealing moment for me occurred during a recent radio interview. The host asked me how East Asian parents deal with their children’s learning in school. After I had been responding briefly, he chimed in with a knowing tone:

“So East Asian parents must be immune to whining!”

I believe that my host’s internal thinking was going something like this:

“Kids everywhere dislike schoolwork. One way they try to get out of it is by whining. East Asian parents must be resolute enough to ignore their kids’ whining and insist they get down to work.”

That says far more about my host’s Made-in-America beliefs and expectations than it does about the behavior of East Asian parents. Let’s inquire further.

How Americans Think About Children and Schooling

Americans understand that schools, and much of what schools teach, are critical for the health of society and the well-being of children. They regard classroom learning as a GOOD IDEA, but also as burdensome and stressful for children and parents. People do it for its practical usefulness, but many wish they didn’t need to. We’d prefer to discover things for ourselves on an as-needed basis, otherwise enjoying our friends and entertainments.

Maybe it’s too strong to say that many Americans think of classroom learning as a “necessary evil.” But I’ll stand by my statement that most believe it’s burdensome and stressful, and that therefore adults should do whatever it takes to insure that their children participate – and stop whining about it.

So how do we insure that our children participate more and whine less?

We do our darndest to insure that school is an attractive place where there are fun things to do in addition to academic learning, and where the academic learning is delivered in a manner that’s as enjoyable and low-stress as it possibly can be.

Uh-oh! What’s that I hear? You’re upset with me because American schools are stressing children to the breaking point. Right?

A Little Historical and Cross-Cultural Context

If American schools are the only schools you’ve ever known, how will you make comparisons? After all, schools have been in use since pre-Christian times and have existed in an endless variety of cultures.

Historically, what stands out for me is that in the majority of schools in the past, punitive measures insured that students studied. I’m talking violence and abuse. Students must have dreaded attending many of their classes!

Cross-culturally, what stands out for me is that in the majority of schools in other cultures, attention to academics was, and still is, the undisputed focus of students’ participation. I’m talking no sports, no clubs, no pool or gym, no or few electives.

And in those academically focused classrooms there was, and is, little or no effort by the teacher to motivate the students through enjoyable activities, or to nurture their creativity, draw out their opinions, or match each one’s “learning style.”

Americans try to overcome children’s dislike of school by eliminating punitive measures, moderating the demands made on children’s time and energy, lowering the bar for getting a high mark, trying to make learning fun, and adding expensive non-academic enticements.

In historical and cross-cultural context, we’ve reduced the unpleasant features of schooling and increased the pleasant ones. Yet our children continue to whine.

Another Way of Thinking About Children and Learning

To write The Drive to Learn, I immersed myself in the 500+ research reports that were amassed through studies of East Asian learning, schooling, and parenting during 1970-2010. I don’t recall any report’s discussing whether or not East Asian students whine. But they had a lot to say about families.

What stands out for me are…

  • Differences between East Asian family-centered culture and American individual-focused culture
  • Differences in how East Asian and American parents – and their children – think about academic learning
  • Differences in the expectations East Asian and American children have about their role in classrooms.

East Asians think of themselves mainly as a member of their family unit, which presents a united front to the world. Each child’s role is to learn the family’s ways and values, and to adopt and fit into them.

Historical and cultural tradition identifies academic excellence as a key way in which a family gains respect, and in which children become Good Human Beings. Families unite around the goal of academic excellence for the children. The children share this goal.

East Asian children bring to classrooms a family-oriented, emotionally driven expectation that their role is to be receptive to what is taught there, and to learn it well.

East Asians try to prevent children’s dislike of school by sending them to classrooms on a mission to burnish their family’s standing and become a Good Human Being. The children embrace this mission.

Some scholars conclude that, in East Asia, our distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for children to learn simply doesn’t apply.

I’m not saying there’s never any stress or whining in East Asia.

I am saying that East Asian students’ expectations make a huge difference in the whole school experience.

The distinction between overcoming children’s dislike of school, and preventing their dislike of school, is based on David F. Lancy (2015), The Anthropology of Childhood, 2nd Ed., Chapter 9, “Taming the autonomous learner.”

For more on the distinction intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to learn, see my new book, The Drive to Learn, Chapter 3, “Exploring Motivations.”