Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Great Expectations

I was reading an article in the New York Times about the book Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers - and How You Can Too by Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim (free registration required to read). Dr. Abboud and Ms. Kim are two Korean-American sisters writing about what the article describes as their “relatively strict” upbringing. I would not describe their parents’ approach as strict so much as dutiful and honest. An example from the article:

"WHEN they were growing up, Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim used to sit, like many children, in the shopping cart next to the candy racks at the checkout line and wail loudly, hoping that their humiliated mother or father would cave in and shush them with a Snickers bar. But their parents, who were hard-working middle-class immigrants from Korea, had other ideas. Eventually they set a rule: Read one book from the library this week, receive one candy bar the next."

This parenting approach impresses me by its fairhandedness, and the way that it communicates the relationship with the child. The message is not “Do What I Say!” but instead, “There are things expected of you.” The more I think about it, the more important this distinction seems to me. When you do what is expected of you there is fulfillment, though it isn’t always directly material, like a candy bar. This approach requires a conscientiousness and sense of duty on the part of the parent that also appeals to me.

The article goes on to talk about the ruthless, exam-oriented Japanese educational system and how it chews up and damages a lot of the kids who enter it. Koushun Takami’s 2002 novel Battle Royale is a great indictment of this system. In the book, a class of Japanese ninth-graders was isolated on a small island under the Battle Royale Program of an oppressive totalitarian government. The kids are given a random assortment of weapons and expected to fight to the death with until only one remains. The graphic novel and film concentrated on the incredibly controversial but compelling premise, with typical high school lusts, crushes, friendships and fallings-out magnified to an absurd degree by the cruel Program. Yet in a system where you must actually defeat your classmates in a steeplechase of exam after exam, and enormous family and school pressures cause you to see them as competitors for rare and valued places in a college, the stakes of the real battle royale are very high.

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