East and West in the classroom: when the pursue of comfort meets the strive for excellence

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Last Thursday there was the first and only teachers-parents meeting of the year. We arrived 30 minutes a little early and were soon joined by fellow parents, as anxious as we were to know all and everything about our little bundles of joy. Parents in a classroom resemble tragically enough children in a classroom. They start to look around, talk and eagerly lift their hands as they did 30-something years before.

The ex first-of-class doesn’t wear thick lenses anymore but shows the same impatience in getting the undivided attention of the teacher. The ex cheerleader is still gorgeous, and shares her worries about the amount of sugars and fats her children are gulping down at the canteen. (“I want to manage the number of treats I am giving to my children and monitor the amount of fat and sugar they are assuming”, dixit). The shy guy in the last row sits against the wall and takes notes, avoiding other parents’ look. The class socialite still flies around making friends and small talk. And then there’s me, looking at other people and mumbling in my head, losing track of what is being said and secretly fearing that the teacher will ask again, decades later : “What’s going on in your head, Miss?”.

The social architecture of the average classroom is intact. But that shouldn’t make anyone feel safer. In these times of global travel, it’s not anymore a question of extraverted vs. introverted, first-of-class vs. shy guy, socialite vs. cheerleader. It may become more complicated.

More than ten nationalities are represented in class: mainly Europeans with some Asians and a few Africans. Europeans were worried about safety (“I am not leaving my child if not in class”), food quality (“Why is the school’s caterer providing so many dairy-based desserts?”), psychological balance (“Are you sure your teaching method doesn’t foster unhealthy competitiveness? My child needs to play!”), and physical comfort (“Who’s taking the younger children to the loo?”, “What if they are tired after lunch?”). They asked tons of questions on the daily details of their kids’ day, their activities and the importance of teachers being available, to them and to their offspring.

The English teacher went through a detailed explanation of how the children are going to learn to read. “First, they learn three-letters words – she said – Some of them, though, can already read six-letters words and even write short sentences. It’s the case of Vikram”. And she goes on showing to the class a perfect notebook with a whole page filled with phrases. A very proud mother in a cotton sari stands against the blackboard, listening to the accomplishments of her son.

There was a moment of silence. It’s not just Vikram (the name is not the actual one). All the Asian children in our school are at least a year in advance. They are outstanding. And you know what? Their parents never worry about comfort, the size of the loos or the amount of organic food provided. They think of the results. What they are learning, what opportunities the school will give them, how they will strive for excellence.

Where they look at the road, we seem to be looking at our shoes. I am myself a little too focused on quality food and quality time and it’s not a simple matter of “tiger mothering” vs. “goose mothering”. What are we building on our pursue of comfort? What are they losing in term of quality of life? What will the bottom line be in a few decades?

I can’t but think of an Asian friend telling me many years go that ” you, Europeans, you waste so much time arguing on futile problems instead of sticking together, ready to face the coming challenges. Because, I tell you this, the Chinese and the Indians will pull the rag from under your armchair and won’t leave you the time to think”. It never sounded so real.

9 comments

  1. Hmmm, plenty of food for thought in this post. And not of the organic, low fat, non dairy kind! In Ireland we have a lot of other nationalities and yes, it is strikingly obvious that some are very much more motivated than our own children. And, also, much more respectful of their parents.

  2. dear ottominuti, we are italians, who lived in holland for 4 years and now have been living in shanghai, china, since 2009. having my kids attending an international-hong kong based school, I can tell your asian friend was damn right many years ago, and still is. the asian school here (and chinese, in particular) is very tough and the reason is… they are way more than one billion people, who have to find their little/big spot in the light.
    now they have a chance which they haven’t before: study, learn, explore, enjoy.
    and they’re hungry for all the things some far away countries in the world have been having for the last decades. they now have the will, the money and the strength to live a good and wealthy life. how – and who are we? – to blame them?

    1. I know! That’s why I am absolutely fascinated and worried at the same time because I think the West is losing track without even realizing it. Our children’s world will be very different from the one we grew up in…

  3. Dear Ms. Ottominuti, I humbly observe that adopting such an overindulgent and nefarious attitude is neither necessary not unaivoidable. I suggest everyone Larry Winslet book, which I can summarize in one of his mottoes: “Life is your own damn fault”. Respectfully, Francesco Spisani Mestre

    1. Hello Mr. Spisani, thank you for your comment. Could you explain yourself a little more though? I don’t get what you mean by overindulgent and nefarious attitude. Regarding what exactly? I am interested in understanding since there might be a misunderstanding.

      1. Dear Ms Ottominuti, I try to explain. In my everyday life as a parent of two, even in a small town like Mestre (wich is everything but an international city) I’m recognizing many ways of behaving like the good lady of your post, very concerned about dairy products and much less about her offspring’s skills. Believe it or not, I’m regarded as a sort of Chinese mother ( I’m male…) only because I insist everyone must bring his backpack when going to school, homework and study come before sport/dance and other activities and if the teacher scolds you, she is probably very right. This said, it is my choice to do so: no one compels me to join the bandwagon of many others, whose motto is “do as little as you can” in very Bart Simpson way… Of course, it takes effort: you have to explain, insist, and explain again. In Larry Winslet books, I found useful tips about how to do it, and if you do his way, perhaps you will less scared about chinese and Indians

  4. Dear Mr. Spisani, thank you for taking the time to explain, I really appreciate it. I never said I am scared, I did say that I am “worried”. My post doesn’t express “fear” of tiger mothers and of the East. On the contrary, I am in awe of how much Asian children accomplish in international competitions compared to Western children. It is true that you do what you want of your life, you are absolutely right but beside being free individuals we all also function as part of a certain society, in a certain place and in a certain time. For years I had the perception that quality (possibly organic) food, psychological and physical comfort were of utmost importance for my children. That’s how it is around me, in my system. Now that I am confronted first-hand (and not just by listening to friends’ stories) with another set of values I am naturally led to question my own way of living, my system’s set of values. When I was a child, parents didn’t worry as much as today about safety nor they talked in terms of sugar and fat balance. We ate whatever we wanted, we played anywhere and didn’t stand a chance to discuss the teachers’ judgment. That was the norm in the 70-80s. There were advantages, and disadvantages, as in all things of the world. Thirty years later there’s a common tendency in the West to pay more attention to psychological and social development. We want the children to be comfortable in their shoes, to enjoy sports, to have fun while learning and in many European countries we stress very much the need for them not to be under stress at school. Nowadays European children are maybe better fed and better looked after than their parents but there is a clear risk of taking it too far.
    Globalization makes us question our own little world and that is a fantastic thing!

    1. Dear Ms Ottominuti, I completely agree, particularly with your last phrase. When I was a child, I wished I would travel the world. I never did, or I didn’t as much as I’d liked, but thanks to globalization a little bit of world travelled to visit me.
      This said, I must apologize twice. You certainly don’t seem an easy- to- scare -person, I was thinking about people I know in this small town of mine… Then, one should never quote writing on a bus, and absolutely never if on the bus he is he is with his children… the book I was quoting is in fact Larry Winget (not Winslet) Shut up, stop whining and get a life. A kick butt approach to a better life. Seems the same old American stuff, but strangely enough contains echoes of Stoic philosophy and also of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church…

      1. Don’t worry, I text a lot while I am doing other things and I know how it can become confusing. I looked up Larry Winslet and he does exists, as a photographer:-) I will look now for the real guy, Winget. I hope I have explained myself better, I had troubles getting the nefarious attitude part:-)

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