It sometimes seems that the American success ethic stops at the schoolhouse door. We encourage ambition in youth sports and entrepreneurial enterprise, but our families are often suspicious of the value of scholastic competition.
If you told your neighbors you had little Seymour in gymnastics with an eye to the 2028 Summer Olympics, they’d likely laugh but agree it was important to start early with a lofty goal like that. Were you to tell the neighbors that Sofia was doing abacus training as preparation for the 2028 International Math Olympiad, conversation might simply stop, because, well, who does that?
We should. Quanyu Huang, a professor at Miami University of Ohio and the author of the new book “The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids,” argues that a subtle shift in mind-set transforms the study hall from a demoralizing workhouse to sweaty training gym, where hours of toil pay off during the big fight. If to be a student is to be a warrior (not a prisoner or a victim), suddenly a million familiar sports metaphors apply: free throws and math problems become interchangeable signifiers of a rigorous and inherently worthy training regimen. And a great coach, either at home or at school, is a beloved ally rather than an suspect adversary.
Dr. Huang’s book asserts that Asian families begin with the end in mind, that the progression from preschool to graduate school is perceived as not dissimilar to the hero’s journey of monomyth, and that culturewide certainty of purpose is fundamental: “Education is a life-or-death struggle,” he writes. “Education is a battle of elimination won through selection and competition. … For Chinese and Chinese-American children, their introduction to education is the beginning of a lifelong battle that they must win at any and all costs.”
“Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?”
Practically, “Hybrid Tiger” suggests that Chinese-American families are structured so that the children are considered star academic competitors and the parents have a significant but clearly secondary role as their devoted trainers.
Dr. Huang describes touring colleges with his son and observing unencumbered Chinese kids trailed by parents “loaded up like pack mules … allowing [the kids] to wander about entirely unburdened.” (One is reminded of Rocky Balboa in the ring, shrugging off his robe and handing it back to Mickey.)
Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” had a similar observation about the role of parents in promoting academic success:
Coach parents … spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia — and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.
Khan Academy’s founder, Salman Khan, writing in One World Schoolhouse, also found power in the idea of coaches:
Have you ever noticed that some kids tend to loathe and detest their teachers but worship and adore their coaches? … I believe that a big part of the reason kids revere and obey their coaches is that the coaches are specifically and explicitly on the student’s side. Coaches are helping them be the best they can be, so that they can experience the thrill of winning. In team sports, coaches inculcate the atavistic spirit and focus of a hunting clan. In individual sports, the coach stands tall as the main if not the only ally. When kids win, coaches celebrate along with them; when they lose, the coach is there to comfort and find a lesson in defeat.
“Hybrid Tiger” itself is shot through with the kind of inspirational aphorism familiar to anyone who follows Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, on Facebook: “Happiness is always connected to competition,” and “In order to win, one must be able to withstand suffering.” Dr. Huang also lays this on us: “Here are two ancient stories all Chinese children know: A man, whose name was Sun Jing, tied his hair on the beam that ran through his house when he studied, so that he would wake painfully if he began to fall asleep while studying. Another man, whose name was Su Qin, jabbed his hip with a needle to keep himself awake while he studied.”
Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?
Dr. Huang’s thoughtful book makes a persuasive argument that, in light of the demands of our current cutthroat global economy, American parents may do well to think of themselves as cognitive coaches for their kids. We should look at the homework spread across the dining room table playing field and say with all appropriate gusto: “Game on.”
Jennifer Arrow is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer who blogs about preschooling, afterschooling and children’s literature at Post-Apocalyptic