It was not – nay, is not my intention to force my child to be a swot. Indeed, living in East Asia is likely to confirm an in-built antipathy in any self-respecting Westerner to molding infants into high achievers from the word go. Pushing kids to get top marks at school, rather than laying the emphasis on encouraging them to find their own interests, may be natural given the intensity of competition for places at schools and universities. But so too, at least for many Westerners, is balking at the fad for turning your free-spirited toddlers into a virtuoso pianist and linguistic genius all before the age of 6 – and probably a short-sighted, stressed teenager in a decade’s time. It’s all just too Jane Austen.
And yet, what parent doesn’t want their child to be bright and go far? Isn’t a little bit of pushing – to try a new sport, instrument or language and stick with it for a while – a necessary evil? Where to draw the line?
The subject cropped up recently in a chat with a Beijing friend of mine, who I know scorns the tendency to put kids on a production line to Finished Accomplishment, when I confessed that I had just begun teaching my 3-year-old son Daniel to read in English. "Why?" Well, Dan is inexplicably proud of his Britishness. Asked where he is from he will reply loudly, "Yingguo" (Britain), and readily boasts that he speaks English and a "waiyu" (foreign tongue), meaning Chinese. Yet, since he has lived in a primarily Chinese-speaking environment since birth, his English is inevitably less advanced than his "waiyu." With the aim of enabling him to communicate with the English branch of the family on the rare occasions they meet (and alright, with his future prospects in the back of my mind), I have therefore brought out the English reading cards and bought a blackboard.
My hutong-raised mate was nonplussed. Perhaps, like his fellow local entrepreneurs, intimate knowledge of the ways of the world has brought a keener sense of disillusionment with them: Too many kid-geniuses grow up to find that society has little use for them, he says. He concedes that his girl will have to attend school, but insists there will be no forced extra-curricular activities.
Still – and this may be especially true of laowai – it’s easy to get into the habit of acting (and parenting) out of a sense of opposition to what we see as society’s ticks, like pressuring kids inordinately to study. The tendency may be to go further, reactively, in the opposite direction. So I am left wondering, "Isn’t there a happy medium to be struck between an entirely hands-off approach, and needling a kid to learn to the point where enjoyment and free time disappear?"
Thus far, Daniel has been as enthusiastic about our ten-minute "classes" as I have. He loves learning new words, playing games, and calling me "baba laoshi". But the novelty is wearing off a bit, and concentrating for more than ten seconds has started to bring on the fidgets. I am trying to stay patient, keeping things light and playful and going with the flow.
As he gets older, though, I know the day will come when I feel that he is old enough to learn to pay attention. Ultimately, if there is a clash between making sure Daniel becomes fully bilingual and my more laissez-faire inclinations, my teacherly instincts will prevail. After all, apart from having taught for a while myself, I am the son of a headmaster. The very word cards that I am using with Daniel are family heirlooms, made by my father to teach me to read as a lad. Though my tutor was scrupulous not to push me academically, there was a minimum of supplementary home study. Most importantly, Dad proceeded to read to me (lots), which apart from being fun and building the father-son bond is also a proven way to build reading skills. Besides my uncommonly protracted enjoyment of bedtime stories, I probably have my old man to thank in no small part for my love of books and my career as a writer of sorts. Penury aside, it’s not a bad legacy.
I comfort myself, therefore, that one day Daniel may thank me if I push him – just a little bit – to learn English. And to sit still and shut up.