December 17, 2011

Better Parents Needed

I'm going to hijack this blog away from my typical expat theme this once to write about a topic dear to my heart - parenting. Well, I guess I can write about whatever the hell I want, this being my blog and all. And parenting and being an expat is not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary.

This article caught my eye the other day: How About Better Parents? by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. It basically states that you can beat up on teachers all you want and decry the state of American (and other) public schools till the cows come home, but that it is really up to the parents to ensure that their kids do well in school. And it's not even particularly difficult. Just reading with your elementary school kids on a daily basis will go a long way.

My first reaction to reading this was DUH! Doesn't everybody know this? I mean, wherever you have parents who CARE about education, whose highest goal in life is education and lifelong learning, there is NO DOUBT that their kids are doing well in school and beyond. That is why you'll find so many Asian kids who are top students, and you'll also find them learning instruments and excelling at them at a disproportionate level. Education is of central importance in most Asian cultures, and therefore the kids strive for it too.

What I like about Friedman's column is that he shows the research that is behind this assumption. The Program for International Student Assessment (also called PISA) has added surveys to their regular testing program of children in OECD countries, conducting extensive interviews to find out how parents raise their children. And without fail, children of parents who are more involved in their kids' education, whether it is by reading to them when they're little or even simply asking them how their school day went and overseeing their homework, far outperform the other students on the PISA tests.

I've often said that I believe it almost doesn't matter where your children go to school, because at the end of the day you, the parents, determine their later success in life. Not by being a drill seargant beating the times table into them, but by being role models who value learning and display a thirst for knowledge coupled with discipline from the day they are born. That doesn't mean I don't love the school our children go to and they learn a great number of life skills there, but the real key to your kids' accomplishments lies with you and you alone.

Which sort of ties this back in with being an expat. Most expats I've spoken with spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over their kids' schooling and whether they've made the right decision moving them across an entire continent or hemisphere into a completely different school system with possibly a new language involved as well. And school choice is often the one thing holding a family back from making any bolder moves like going to an even more exotic country or extending their stay beyond the agreed-upon two years. But if you think about it not in purely academic terms but through the lens of lifelong learning, the question of the right school is really not so important as the values you as a family project. Your kids will learn a ton of things from an international move, useful, important, even life-changing things, provided education and learning and open-mindedness are at the heart of your parenting.

If you don't do anything, please find a way to read to your children every day. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are the ones where my brothers and I would pile up on the bed while my mother read to us, transporting us into a magical world for away. And she didn't even have Harry Potter on her bookshelf - a series that makes it so much easier nowadays, because it's  hard to find a child that doesn't like Harry Potter, or an adult who doesn't enjoy reading it aloud, for that matter. If you need more suggestions, check out the Read-Aloud-Handbook by Jim Trelease.

What better time than Christmas to start gathering your family for regular reading sessions around the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa? Or, if you're here in South Africa, lounging on the patio with a few cool drinks?


Bing said...

My mother used to read to me and my brother every night before we went to bed. She had a full time job and still did that every night.

She used to read us Chinese legends/mythological stories. I remember dragons and phoenixes and emperors. There was always a moral teaching to each story and Mom would explain it to us. Those were really special moments in my life.

Sine said...

Sorry, just saw this comment:-). You know what, if you hadn't told me this, I still would have known your mom read to you, judging from the level of your education, your competitiveness, and from the other things you told me about your mom. There is no way she would have let that opportunity pass by.

I also have very fond memories of my mom reading to my two brothers and me. She always brought a nice thick book on our summer vacation, and to this day I remember those vacations not so much by where they were, but by what we read that summer. I can still hear her voice in my head, she had a wonderful way of imitating different personalities when she read.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

One of the problems with American parents is that too many of them while recognizing the value of the education don't see that they have a responsibility too. The assumption is that all that is needed is to send the kids to school with the admonition to study hard and do what you are told. Then when the results don't immediately measure up they assume it is the school's fault. Now, I am typically very critical of the US education system (the public side of it anyways) but I am aware that too many parents (and often the ones whose kids need the school system the most) don't realize the responsibility for the education that needs to be happening at home.

Sine said...

Two thoughts on this:

- everywhere I've lived, the people of that country were pretty critical of their education system, thinking it lacked behind other countries. I think public education in the US is better than people give it credit for. Not to say it couldn't be better, but it could also be much worse. And private school aren't as much better as they are more expensive. our son is now at a public university (U of Tenn) and while he got into many private ones as well, we just didn't see the sense of paying ten times as much money. Surely the education there wouldn't have been 10 times better.

- totally agree on your second point. I've often said, if you do things right as a parent, model reading from an early age, read with and to your kids, encourage them to solve math problems, spacial thinking, puzzles, blocks, excursions to places, debates... it almost has NO bearing where they actually go to school, they'll turn out fine. In fact, maybe they'll learn more "character" if they attend a bad school at some point in time. Certainly it's great to have a wonderful school and see your kids thrive there, but i'm pretty sure our kids would be fine no matter where we send them to school. I would never leave the education of my kids to the school, and also not expect it, and therefore I'm not prone to complain too much. Don't get me wrong, I hate bad teachers just like the next person, but you get those everywhere, it's the law of averages.