Chinese Parents Want to Know: What Does it Take?


For the past two weeks I’ve been with the family in China, where I talked to a lot of parents. We don’t fund many parent groups at the Foundation, so it’s always a treat to talk to parents about my work. I was asked to talk about what parents should do to get their children ready for college. Now, if you ask my own mother, I am not the right person to be giving anyone parenting advice! But they don’t know my Chinese tiger mother, so I thought I would just go for it and show them the kind of tiger mom I am!

I talked about how there has been this movement to define what 21st century learning looks like and how we don’t even know what kinds of jobs will exist in the future. I often ask leaders what skills they think graduates will need in the future to get good jobs.  One response quietly surprised me. This particular leader said that he looks for how well candidates can deal with ambiguity. Folks who are successful at his company know how to deal with situations where there might be more than one solution. They have to think on their feet, be creative, flexible and size up an unknown situation.

I ended with two stories about my own efforts to get my children college ready. Story #1: In Alice in Wonderland, the Queen says to Alice at one point, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” This inspired me to invent six impossible things that I ask my own children to do every year:

  • Become an expert at anything. You can choose, but know everything there is to know about it.
  • Teach someone something. The best way to know you have learned something is to teach someone else how to do it.
  • Be a leader. Get out of your comfort zone and take on something where others see you leading.
  • Solve a wicked problem. Find a problem around you in life, and look for a solution. Do some research and try to make a case for how to solve it.
  • Do something for your community. Don’t just sit there; look around and see how you can contribute.
  • Make a place more beautiful. Get creative and find a place that could be more beautiful and make it so.

I love it when my daughter says: Ok, mom, but if I do that, I am definitely crossing it off as one of those impossible things! Or my son gets that twinkle in his eye and tilts his head after he asks me a “why” question that I can’t answer.  He’ll wave his finger at me, smile and conclude: Now that’s a complex problem for sure!

Story #2.  Since my children were very young, I have always told them the secret to making me proud. It was a quest I was on with my own parents, who never told me the answer, so I made up my own answer and am passing it down to my children. It takes a lot to make Asian parents proud. Sometimes the bar seems impossibly high. If you ask my 7-year-old son what it takes to make me proud, he will roll his eyes and say under his breath, “Change the world.” Yes, nothing short of trying to change the world will do.

I’m not quite sure what all of those Chinese parents were expecting me to say but by the look in their eyes as I left, I think they might have agreed: getting young children ready for college and careers is more than just studying for exams. It’s about getting our children to take a look around them, take some new risks and find new solutions.

 – C.