Sunday, July 25, 2010


Funny, I was writing in response to a new post on the site but by the time I finished tapping out my comments, the OG post was removed. In respect to the privacy of the original poster, I'll just paraphrase the part I was responding to: "to what extent should we push our kids to learn things that they may not enjoy?" The OP was talking about Chinese school, a grand tradition that many an ABC can probably relate to. Here's what I wrote in response:

I went to Chinese school for several years as a kid. I retained practically nothing out of the experience and while I won't say it was a waste for time, I do think that trying to master a second language that you're not immersed in at home is extremely difficult, especially if not done at the inception of language in a child's life.

The thing is: my parents made a very conscious choice to raise my sister and I in an English-speaking household; they wanted to see us succeed educationally and to them, that meant mastering English. In hindsight, one can question the logic of their decision; my mother's older sister raised her son (my cousin) in a Chinese-speaking household and as a result, he's very proficient in both English and Mandarin. But I rarely felt like I missed out. I have skill sets other people don't have as a consequence of my education just as I lack some skills that I might have acquired if my life had gone differently.

Do I wish I spoke better Mandarin? Absolutely, especially the times where I'm visiting China. But I don't put that on my parents' decisions. I could have taken Mandarin in college. I could take it now. But just as my parents made their choices, I've made mine too and that's been to accept that, at least right now, learning Mandarin isn't enough of a priority compared to other things I'd rather spend my time on (and in any case, if I was really going to go to language classes, I'd take Spanish first).

All of this is to say: it's complicated. My daughter (5) has her first piano recital today and she's very nervous about it. The pain of her anxiety pains me but I'm glad she's taking piano. I wish I had stayed with my lessons more as a kid but like Chinese school, my lack of progress and general antipathy eventually lead my parents to accept my decision to stop doing it.

Do I wish my parents had insisted otherwise? That's very hard to say. On the one hand, I wish *now* that I had better musical skills. But I can't say, "I wish my parents had forced me to learn." That would have created tension in our relationship by forcing them to force me to practice. Would that tension and resentment have been worth it in the end? Possibly. Possibly not. The old taunt, "you're going to thank me for this one day!" doesn't always get proven right. Sometimes, decades later, people are resentful about what they're forced to learn. That's the risk.

My wife and I talk about this a lot: is it our responsibility to pick what skills we think our daughter should master? Obviously some - how to read and write, how to swim, how to get along with others - have practical social and literal survival skills. But playing piano, learning another language, learning how to draw, etc. - those aren't essential (not to us). I think our current philosophy is to support what she wants to learn but not necessarily pick those paths for her. We wonder, all the time, if that's the best thing for her but like I said, we all make our decisions and have to learn to live with them. As the cliche goes, only time will tell if our choices were the "right" ones.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

No need to protect my identity. The post you refer to had more typos than I could stomach and needed tweaking. I thought I got to it before anyone could read it. It's back up now. Thanks for the mention.

You make a great point about the "stickiness" of things you aren't really enthused about learning. And then there is the situation of forgetting something you don't utilize everyday. My neighbor's child graduated Chinese school, lives near a Chinese language rich environment but says he has forgotten everything he learned from lack of use.

I fully admit that being illiterate in Chinese is one of my hang ups. And I question sometimes how much of what I want my kids to learn is a result of what I wish I knew? What do you think?