by Bill Lauritzen
I’d been teaching in China for five years. Before that I worked in the USA teaching for many years in many different schools and colleges and at many different levels. As a child in the USA, my parents were American Tiger Parents and I was pushed all the time to greater and greater heights. My own feelings were never taken into consideration. However, pushed by my parents, I became a rote learner, always trying to get high marks, never stopping to connect what I was learning to the world around me. I won many awards and honors, and I received a secure government job when I graduated, (in China called a “golden bowl.”)
I hated my job because I didn’t understand it. I was probably an average worker, but after always being the best in my classes, average felt like a failure. I left the job, blaming all the people around me for my difficulties.
However, it slowly dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t as smart as I thought, and perhaps I needed to examine some of my past educational materials again. I let my interest lead me through all the various subjects again, this time looking up all the words in the dictionary and linking those words to the real world. It took me a several years of late night work, digging deeper and deeper into the past, all the way back to kindergarten, but an amazing transformation occurred in me.
Whereas before I had always felt a constant fear in the pit of my stomach, I now had a relaxed confidence. I became a teacher, wanting to help others to learn correctly. I remember going into a job interview with a principal at a major high school, and he remarked, “You are unusually relaxed.” I told him I had looked through the textbook and there was nothing there that I didn’t understand and could not apply. I got the job.
So while it is certainly good to structure your child’s time to allow for study, don’t be so eager to see the child move forward. Most teachers know that there is a zone, which is different for each child, in which optimum learning takes place. Push them too much above this zone, and they will be overwhelmed. Teach them too much below this zone, and they will be bored. Obviously in a large classroom the advanced students will sometimes be bored and the slower students will sometimes be overwhelmed.
However, with one-to-one tutoring you can precisely locate the child’s optimum level, where the material is somewhat challenging, but neither overwhelming nor boring. With one child, I could tell from subtle facial expressions and body posture that he disliked learning this particular subject. I probed and searched until I found materials that were at his exact level, and he suddenly sat up straighter in his chair and became interested in the material. I noticed this subtle but important change, but his Tiger Mom did not. She wanted to know why we were doing such simple materials. I tried to explain politely: because he did not fully understand, because he needed a firm foundation, and because this was the right level for him, but she wasn’t listening. We needed harder materials and we need to go faster, she said, without, to my amazement, ever even consulting the child. She pulled her child from my lessons. Had they stuck with them, he might have gone on to enjoy the subject and to learn it voluntarily.
I wonder if she would push her child into the deep water of a swimming pool before he had mastered the necessary skills in the shallow water. Some parents apparently do. I have seen children and adults swimming frantically across the pool, not enjoying the wonderful feel of the water as it slides by them or the delightful buoyancy holding them up, their one purpose to get to the other side as quickly as possible without sinking.
I am a former swimming instructor, and sometimes these people ask me for advice. Although they are probably expecting me to give them a very advanced technique, I say, “Can you float on your stomach in the water with your body completely limp and relaxed?” Of course, they cannot. They never fully learned it. After I teach them to do this, I put a coin on the bottom of the pool (we are in shallow water up to our shoulders) and I say, “Can you get the coin from the bottom?” They cannot. To reach the bottom you have to exhale all or most of your breath, but when they try to get the coin they are desperately holding on to every molecule of air in their lungs. They discover it is actually very difficult to sink and much of their fear of drowning evaporates! Eventually they learn to let go of the air, and they sink slowly to the bottom and retrieve the coin. They have learned buoyancy. I have them do these fundamental skills until they are comfortable and confident before giving them too much instruction in the swimming strokes themselves.
When one masters a skill, whether playing the piano, playing tennis, or speaking English, or when one masters some study materials, whether vocabulary, the multiplication tables, or the Periodic Chart of the Elements, one feels comfortable and confident. The student who studies to pass the exam without really understanding the material, as I did, has buried deep inside themselves the secret of their incompetence and is always afraid that the teacher or others might find out.
Good teachers recognize mastery, and only then go on to the next skill level. I think that some Tiger Moms, maybe not all, anxious and fearful themselves, push their children too soon, before they have mastered the subject. Perhaps some of these children go on to become corrupt officials, also Tigers, causing a drain on society. Someday I’d like to hear about a mom who says, as the teacher begins to go on to Step 2 of the materials, “But my child has not mastered Step 1 yet.”
Of course, beyond this, there is finding the child’s special talent, whatever that may be. The child usually grows up in a different world than the parent, one that requires different talents. I don’t think this talent can be dictated by the parents, but is probably the result of a mixture of the child’s genes, their parents, their peers, and their society. This special talent should be nurtured carefully, not ignored or twisted by trying to make the child into something the parent always wanted to be.
Bill Lauritzen’s website is www.BillLauritzen.com