I recently sat with parents of International Students over dinner in their own home cities. It was a wonderful experience to meet them and discuss the progress of their children and their hopes and fears for them.
As parents we all want the best for our children and thus it was interesting to hear of these parents’ views of school in China and in Australia.
These parents removed any doubt I may have had that children in China work hard and long at their school work. Malcolm Gladwell popularised the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice. Conscious practice clearly develops skills, knowledge, resilience and self-discipline. Focus and effort leads to growth and improvement, especially when it comes to success in tests and exams, so common from a young age in China. School children in China work long, long hours.
Our parents in China suggest that many children in China focus on their school work to obey their parents and for their parents’ approval, growing up as they do in a strongly hierarchical family context. These parents were worried that working hard to please your family or employer cannot be sustained through life. They worry that a passive and compliant young person will be swamped in a fast-moving and complex world.
I asked what motivations do they look for in their children that will build their skills and knowledge and be sustained in adult life? This topic kept conversation flowing at more than one dinner (and given my knowledge of Mandarin and their knowledge of English, kept the translator busy).
These parents suggested the most reliable answer is passion and interest, curiosity, the enjoyment of the process and pursuit of success.
It was through this process that we arrived at my key question: why do they send their children 10,000km to live in a new country, a different culture, different food, history and geography and to learn in a foreign language? I have often thought how I would feel if I was sending my boys to Shanghai to live with a Chinese family and study Years 11 and 12 in Mandarin at a local school in Shanghai? The benefits would have to be substantial to take such risks with my own sons.
Some of the answer was obvious and reasonable: to know and be able to use both Mandarin and English provides a substantial language advantage; Australia is safe, clean, with many trees and less densely populated; it is a pleasant place to live.
However, the second part of the answer was a surprise. Our Chinese parents love the Australian character, so well-established at The Knox School; the confidence and self-assurance our children show in meeting new people and speaking in public; how articulate and thoughtful they are in expressing themselves orally, sometimes expressing critical thoughts; their enthusiasm and passion for causes and interests, their initiative and care and support of each other. They see these skills and dispositions as significant advantages for their children, worth the cost, pain and absence of sending your child away to learn them.
We need to be mindful of the advantages others already see in our children. We need to encourage our children to pursue academic excellence and success, to put in the practice, but we should also encourage them to find enjoyment in the doing, in being with each other, to have space to explore, and discover their own interests and passions. The combination will set them up to flourish as adaptive adults.