Are Asian Children Smarter?

ByABC News via logo

Nov. 2, 2005 — -- Asian-Americans comprise only 4 percent of the United States' population, yet they make up 20 percent of the Ivy League. The daughters of Korean immigrants and authors of "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers -- and How You Can Too" (Berkley), Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim, say their parents raised them to be successful. Abboud is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jane Kim is a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues.

In their book, the sisters share the methods they say many Asian parents use to get their children to achieve in school.

"I think they made sure that we always embraced ... learning," Abboud said.

The Kim parents came from humble beginnings. They came to the United States with only $200. Mr. Kim worked as a janitor and his wife worked as a seamstress. Their techniques for putting school first were simple. They limited the girl's television time to one hour during the week and used candy as a reward for reading a book.

Grades were considered a family affair. Kim said they went over report cards together.

"Everybody got to put their 2 cents in," she said.

When it came to teachers, the Kim parents treated them with the utmost respect.

"Our parents really deferred to teachers," Kim said. "In the Asian culture, teachers are revered."

Most importantly, their parents taught the authors that academic success can lead to happiness.

"You have to do what makes you happy," Abboud said. "If you can't pay the bills you are not going to be happy -- but you have to be passionate about what you do."


You can read an excerpt from "Top of the Class" below.

Instill a Love and Need for Learning and Education

The most important thing parents can give to their children is love -- but a desire and love for learning and education comes in as a close second. Many parents find it difficult to instill this passion for learning in their kids. Not surprisingly, years later these parents find themselves wondering why their son or daughter has no interest in going to college, much less to graduate school. It's never too early to start encouraging a love of learning in your child. In fact, early childhood is the best time to start, as young minds have an incredible capacity to absorb information and establish the necessary values that set the stage for future success.

But before we begin discussing how to get your child to love learning, let us first explain the major reason parents today find it difficult to pass this love on: very few adults today actually love to learn. We live in a society that seeks comfort and leisure above all else; the "American dream" typically includes a home complete with a big-screen TV and state-of-the-art grill. Many working parents today punch in and punch out, in a hurry to get home to sit in front of the TV. They view the process of learning and education as part of their thankfully distant past -- for the majority of us Americans, learning and education stopped after high school and college. After all, hitting the books for more than a decade is enough for any lifetime, isn't it?

Learning should be a lifelong process, not something that stops abruptly in one's early twenties. When your kids are young and start going to school, you as parents are their main role models. They equate the way you approach your job with the way they should approach their jobs (school). If you have to drag yourself out of bed every morning and complain about how miserable your job is as you drop your child off at school, chances are he or she will do the same.

If you're finding this concept difficult to swallow, think hard about your friends and family. How many of them do you truly believe love to learn new things, love the field they are in, or look for new ways in which to grow? On the other hand, how often have you heard parents gripe about their job or vocation?

We would venture to say quite often (and we would be guilty as well). Perhaps you can even relate to what we are saying. Parents have only the best intentions when it comes to raising their children, and all want to be ideal role models in the home. However, it is hard not to complain about a boring or stagnant job or a rough day when you finally return to the comforts of your own home and family. Even if you enjoy your job or career, you might need someone to vent to after an especially tough day. Who better to express your frustrations than to your spouse and kids, right?

We disagree.

Children have no more powerful role models than their parents. Children who witness their parents in an abusive relationship will often learn to abuse others or become victims. On the other hand, children whose parents value family will likely learn to do the same. It's amazing that so few parents realize how powerful an influence they are in their children's lives, and how certain behaviors can negatively impact their beloved offspring.

Along the same lines, if your child sees that you appreciate and love learning, he or she will learn to do the same. If your child sees that you look forward to going to work every morning, he or she will view work (and school) as rewarding and fun. If your child sees that you dread your job, call in sick every chance you get, or badmouth your work environment or colleagues, he or she will come to believe that schooling and education will only bring misery in the future.

You are your child's best role model, so be enthusiastic toward learning and education -- and your career.

It is important to know that an education alone does not ensure happiness or professional success. We know many unhappy people with advanced degrees and hefty paychecks. However, a love for continued learning and advancement in any occupation is essential to professional happiness. Without making this love evident in your life, there is little chance your child will think of any profession as fulfilling.

Right about now, you might be thinking that it's possible to love learning but hate your job. You might love going to museums in your time off and learning about architecture or archeology but hate your job as a data processor or store manager. While this is certainly possible for many Americans, we still firmly stand by our belief that a love for learning and commitment to advancement can make any job, however dull or stagnant, substantially better. Perhaps you hate your job punching in numbers all day and all you can think of is that managerial position in your company that seems so out of reach. If all you do is punch in and do the least amount of data entry possible for that day to avoid criticism from your boss, chances are you'll never be fulfilled enough to excel at your job and get that promotion. On the other hand, if you take advanced typing or data-entry courses to exceed your quota and distinguish yourself amongst your peers as a high producer, and then discuss with your boss taking managerial courses to increase your chances of a promotion, it's likely your job happiness will substantially increase.

Always create ways to actively include learning in your profession. This will dramatically increase your career advancement opportunities and add to your sense of professional fulfillment in a way that will benefit both you and your child.

Of course, no job is perfect, and everyone is entitled to a bad day. If you hate your job and want to complain about it, do so to your spouse or friends, and bite your tongue around your children. Even go as far as to act excited about your career. If you absolutely cannot (we know it's hard sometimes), at least take up activities or hobbies that you are excited about and share this passion with your children.

For those parents who are extremely disappointed with their careers and want to ensure that their children experience the excitement and pride an intellectually stimulating job provides, make it a point to surround your children on a regular basis with adults who are clearly empowered and enlightened by their professions. Surrounding yourselves and your children with these adult role models will not only whet your child's appetite for learning, but it may even inspire you.

A close friend of Soo's from middle school was a first-generation Chinese-American named Angela. Her parents were hard-working immigrants who had opened a nail salon in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, where the rent was cheap and the public schools reputable. Angela's parents worked twelve-hour days, breathing in noxious fumes from the polish and alcohol all day long. After several years of extremely hard work, they had amassed enough money to employ all of their siblings, who moved to the United States one by one. Despite their financial success, Angela's parents had become increasingly disgruntled with their profession. Some days, Angela's mother could barely drag herself out of bed to go to work.

As you might expect, Angela was quite aware of how unhappy her parents were in the business, and it caused her much distress. Every day after school she would rush to the nail salon to relieve her mother of her duties. As a result, her grades began to suffer. Although she became a top-notch manicurist, she was miserable. She nearly failed out of seventh grade, a difficult feat for someone as bright as she was.

Angela had two big problems. First, her parents had allowed their daughter to assume responsibility for their unhappiness. In other words, Angela had taken it upon herself to "save" her parents by rushing home from school and helping out at the salon. Angela's parents wanted their daughter to make school her top priority, but by allowing her to work at the salon rather than concentrate on schoolwork, they failed to make that desire clear. Second, Angela's parents regularly complained about their jobs in her presence, to the point that she began viewing work as an undesirable yet unavoidable aspect of everyday life. As a seventh-grader, Angela's "job" was to keep up with her assignments and do well in school. However, having adopted a similar attitude as her parents toward her "day job," Angela's grades began to fall.

Angela's failure at school initially came as a shock to her parents, who did not realize how negatively their daughter's schoolwork was being affected. Upon discovering that their child's grades had suffered, Angela's parents resolved to change their habits. They stopped complaining about work, and they immediately hired help (despite wanting to keep profits in the family) so that Angela could concentrate on schoolwork and so that her mother could relax and spend some quality time with her daughter.

Angela's mother relished her time off. Now with more free time than she had known in several years, Mrs. Tan became active in the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and in the community. Despite her shyness and broken English, she befriended many of the parents at our small middle school. She offered free manicure services (who doesn't love a nice manicure?) to many of the PTA women, who got to know her on a more intimate level; soon, they began inviting her and Mr. Tan to dinner parties and community events. Slowly but surely, Mrs. Tan also began to view her work as a way to bring the community together, and this greatly added to her professional fulfillment.

In addition to becoming a better role model for her daughter, Mrs. Tan was now in good company with architects, physicians, businessmen, lawyers, and computer programmers, many of whom loved what they did for a living and were eager to share their passion with the younger generation. Although Mrs. Tan realized she might not ever be the ideal model of professional fulfillment or joyous lifelong learning for her daughter, she now had many newfound friends who were. Eager to get her daughter excited about learning, Mrs. Tan soon began asking her friends if they would sit down with Angela and share with her what had led them to their respected professions. Soon Angela found herself having lengthy discussions with these men and women, all of whom delighted in sharing how they beat the odds to secure professions that fulfilled them intellectually and personally. Angela specifically recalls speaking with a software designer whose creativity and technological ingenuity left an indelible impression. After spending a few days at his office and taking computer-programming classes in the summers, her mind was made up. Angela eventually graduated from the University of California at San Diego and became the vice president of a start-up company in Silicon Valley during the Clinton years, the golden era of technology. Today, Angela's family is doing extremely well. Her mother continues to work at the salon part-time and now relishes her role in bringing the women in the community together for regular "manicure parties" to discuss parenting, opportunities for professional advancement, and social events.

Surround your children with people who love learning and are in diverse fields. This will allow your children to develop a healthy respect for learning while also giving them information to pursue various career paths.

If community events and PTA meetings are not your cup of tea, there are other ways you can instill a love of learning and education in your child. Allow us to share another success story with a different slant. Janet was the eldest daughter of our church's minister, Reverend Suh. Reverend and Mrs. Suh were deeply religious and loved their roles as leaders of the church community. Although they attempted to share their passion for God's work and study of the Gospel with their fourteen-year-old daughter, like many children of religious professionals, she rebelled. She wanted no part of the church and could barely be forced to get out of bed for the eleven o'clock Sunday service, let alone attend the teen Bible study group on Wednesday evenings.

Although disheartened that Janet would not follow in his footsteps, Reverend Suh wanted to make sure that his daughter learned the value of education and experienced the thrill of learning firsthand. Janet was a bright and gifted girl, and her father wanted to provide her with opportunities to learn about different career paths from people who genuinely loved what they did for a living. In essence, he wanted to whet his daughter's appetite for a challenging and intellectually stimulating caree -- even if it was not in a field of his choice.

A love of learning is imperative to success in any field and should be promoted with enthusiasm despite any objections you might have toward the professions your child wishes to pursue.

That's when he came up with the idea of having a "Career Day." At the time, our church's congregation consisted of several hundred Korean-Americans, many of whom had recently emigrated to the United States. There was a plethora of Ph.D.s, pharmacists, physicians, business executives, accountants, and engineers in the congregation. With the help of his congregation, Reverend Suh began announcing and advertising a monthly Career Day at the end of his services. Each month, a member of the church would meet with the youth group (children from elementary to high school) to talk about his or her profession and share reasons for pursuing it. A Q&A session would follow.

At first, Janet resisted the idea of having to stay at church even longer than usual. Career Day typically took place after Sunday service and lunch. Suddenly, Sundays turned from tolerable one-hour affairs into dreaded half-day affairs. Nevertheless, she was forced to attend, as were we.

Initially, Janet would sit in the back corner of the room, smacking her gum loudly and fidgeting in her chair. This created such a distraction that some of the more attentive children could barely concentrate on what the speaker was saying. As various speakers took center stage, Janet continued her gum-smacking and rude comments, saying things like, "God, I need to get out of here and smoke a cigarette!" Several Sundays passed, with no change in her behavior. But one Sunday, everything changed.

She was absolutely stunning, which immediately put the boys in the group on their best behavior. Her name was Myung Park, and she was a pharmacist at a local university hospital. Her eyes lit up as she spoke of her profession and the satisfaction she obtained from aiding patients with medications, as well as ensuring their safety. She could not have spoken for more than two minutes before we heard Janet cursing under her breath about how any idiot could dispense drugs off of pharmacy shelves. "It's not like you're a doctor or anything," Janet added with a smirk, obviously hoping her nasty comments would put an end to the session. Boy, was she wrong.

Myung's beautiful almond eyes immediately focused on the rowdy teenager and narrowed with displeasure. In a soft but no-nonsense tone, she quickly put the pastor's daughter in her place, a feat no member of the church (including her parents) had been able to do. "Comments like that show just how misguided you are," she said pointedly. "Too bad your insecurity makes you look down on people who are happy with their work. When you get older, your attitude will stop you from reaching your full potential. When you're ready to talk like an adult, my door will be open. In the meantime, shut up so that others can listen."

The audience gasped as all eyes turned to Janet, anticipating her rebuttal or noisy departure. There was none -- a beet-red Janet remained quietly in her seat while the rest of us (mostly the guys) talked with Myung about the pharmaceutical industry.

Janet never did attend another Career Day, but Myung had left an indelible impression on her. During the next few years, Janet frequently visited Myung at work and eventually became a pharmacist herself. Last we heard, Janet was working in the field of pharmaceutical development.

The message is clear. The best way to get your children excited about lifelong learning and higher education is to surround them with people who are excited about learning and their careers.

The second reason parents have difficulty guiding their children to love learning and education is that many parents are hard-pressed for time. It takes time to instill a love of learning -- precious time that most of us don't have. Many American families today revolve around two working parents or a single parent. After a long day on the job, parents seldom have the energy to spend time teaching their children to read, learn a new word, or practice their arithmetic. Watching TV or playing with your children seems a much more enjoyable and relaxing alternative for your weary minds and bodies. We understand that. Nevertheless, our goal is to inspire you to embrace activities that are educationally rewarding for your child with the same enthusiasm you would approach other pastimes.

In order to instill a love for learning and education in your children, you must  1) exhibit this love yourselves or expose your children to people who do portray this love, and  2) joyfully invest the time to teach this love to your children.

Thinking back to our childhood, we have many wonderful memories of family vacations, Christmas dinners, and trips to the movies. But we also have countless memories of times spent with our parents tackling math problems or deciphering a difficult text. Sound boring? It doesn't have to be, and it certainly wasn't for us.A wonderful example comes to mind. When Soo was a sophomore in high school, she had to take the PSATs, otherwise known as the pre-SATs. This examination was generally considered a good indicator of how one would do on the SATs, so Soo wanted to score as well as she could. When Soo got her results back, however, she was disappointed. Although she did extremely well on the math portion, her verbal score was nothing to write home about. It seemed that her vocabulary needed improvement.

That surprised her a little at first. Soo had won numerous spelling championships over the years and had always managed to get A's in English. But she had to face the facts -- the score didn't lie. She would need to improve her vocabulary and reading-comprehension skills.

Soo was not the only one who was disappointed, of course. After getting over his initial disappointment, our father praised Soo on her math score and asked her how she thought she might improve her verbal score. Soo was at a loss for ideas, with the exception of tackling the entire English dictionary word by word. Thankfully, our father had a better idea.

Days after Soo received her test results, our father scrutinized her suggested summer reading list and selected "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte. At the time, Soo was an avid reader who had read many classic works beyond her years. However, so as not to interfere with her reading pleasure, she had repeatedly chosen to ignore the words she did not understand. "Jane Eyre" would be the first book that would take her an entire summer to read.

Soo was to read twenty pages a day, which seemed an easy assignment. It was not: she was to highlight each word she did not understand, look the word up in the dictionary, and write out its definition in a separate notebook. Our father, whose English was not as good as Soo's, would also attempt to learn the words by reviewing them with his daughter at the end of the day.

In the beginning, those twenty pages took hours. On average, there were 5 to 6 words per page that Soo did not understand, which translated to about 100 new words a day. What kept Soo going at the end of each day was the excitement that our father himself showed learning the new words. Each day after work, our father would review the vocabulary list Soo had compiled and valiantly attempt to learn it with her. His evident love of learning was contagious and soon Soo began to look forward to the sessions. Looking back, both Soo and our father found the entire process to be a wonderful bonding experience.

Weeks after she started the project, Soo began to notice that many of the words she had learned earlier in the book were repeated in later chapters. The more she read, the fewer words she had to write down. By the end of the book, she was highlighting only one word per page. The time she spent reading went from several hours to under thirty minutes, and her confidence boomed. By the time Soo finished the book, she had incorporated more than 500 new words into her vocabulary. Not only did she improve her verbal SAT score the next year, she gained a deep sense of pride in her accomplishment. Soo never read a book again without fully comprehending every word in it, no matter how long it took.

Of course, there are many different ways to make learning fun and rewarding, and not all them involve hours reading books in the summer. Let us give you another example, one that involves our mother and Soo at a much younger age.

Like many immigrant parents, our mother chose to stay home with her two kids while our father worked to support his family. Of course, we now realize that being a stay-at-home mom is much tougher than most jobs. In addition to making the home run smoothly, our mother's main goal was to educate her children. Unlike our father's didactic approach, our mother attacked learning with a more playful style.

When Soo was only two years old, our mother taught her the alphabet, numbers, and colors. She used the typical children's books, but she also used some more innovative techniques. Realizing that a two-year-old's attention span was relatively short, our mother minimized the amount of time spent indoors with books. According to our mother, Soo loved going out with her while she ran errands. She would always point to the various signs on the road with curiosity and delight or get her hands on as many products (mostly candy) that she could at the grocery store.

Our mother began asking Soo to identify letters and numbers on everything from road signs to candy wrappers. Within days, Soo was babbling in the car, reading aloud the letters and numbers that she recognized on road signs. Soo eventually became more interested in reading the letters on the wrappers than she was in eating the candy!

These are only a few examples of the many ways parents can teach their children that learning is essential, fun, and rewarding. Our advice to ambitious and loving parents is this: your children will enjoy learning if you show them that learning and education is fun, rewarding, and worth your time. We think it's so worth your time that we're going to give you two other examples from our childhood that show how you might educate your children while creating happy childhood memories.

In Asia, decorative school supplies and accessories are extremely popular among children and young adults. Companies spend millions of dollars designing colorful pens, erasers, notebooks, and numerous other school accessories to be purchased by eager students and their parents. Going to the school-supply store is a fun and memorable affair. Although they lived in America while we were going to school, our parents brought many of their Asian traditions with them. While many of our peers compared returning to school to entering a concentration camp, we never dreaded going back. We particularly enjoyed going with our parents to purchase school supplies prior to starting the new school year.

This was the one shopping trip that did not take place at Kmart. Every year, our parents would take us to a special Korean supermarket (these stores are everywhere now and sell everything from food to gifts to school supplies). There, we would rummage through the piles of colorfully decorated pens, pencils, erasers, and notebooks. Jane loved Hello Kitty merchandise (which is now popular in stores across the United States) and would fill her baskets with Hello Kitty paraphernalia. Being a full two and a half years older, Soo felt she was far too mature for Hello Kitty school supplies. Instead, she filled her book bag with fragrant erasers and pencils with hearts on them. Our parents spared no expense, so we typically bought enough supplies to more than last the entire year.

After the shopping spree, we were always eager to use our new supplies. After carefully arranging and proudly displaying our new items on our desks, we would begin "trying out" our new purchases. Jane would write thank-you letters to our parents; Soo would pen semiautobiographical stories about a girl who one day grew up to become a famous writer. Now that we are adults, we understand how important it was for our parents to convey to us that school was exciting and fun. To this day, Jane has a soft spot for Hello Kitty merchandise and will occasionally buy a pen or two for old times' sake.

Our parents were adept at making even the most frivolous activities educationally rewarding in some way. Even a fun, relaxing family activity like going to the movies was not without an educational slant. We remember our entire family going to the movie "Ghostbusters," which remains one of our favorite childhood memories. After pigging out on buttery popcorn, candy, and Coke, and laughing so hard our stomachs hurt (we couldn't tell whether it was from laughing or the candy), our family returned home in good spirits. With the movie still fresh in our minds, our parents challenged us to use the experience to broaden our knowledge base. Soo was encouraged to study the periodic table of elements; Jane learned about Mars by reading our Encyclopedia Britannica (our parents told her that the ghosts from "Ghostbusters" were born there).

As you can see, our parents took the time to incorporate learning and education into all of our activities. Indeed, many of our fondest childhood memories involve learning or educational games. We may not have the same memories as many of our peers, but they are happy ones all the same. The most important thing to remember is that learning should not be associated solely with school or "work," but rather with every fun family activity.

Incorporate learning and education into all your children's activities so that they don't associate learning primarily with school or homework.

The third reason that parents find it difficult to instill a love and respect for learning and education is that their actions don't complement their words. In other words, it is easy to tell your child that he or she must attend college or get good grades. It is not so easy to alter your lifestyle or make sacrifices in order to give your child the best possible chance at obtaining a top-notch education or receiving a stellar report card. Every chance you get you can say that your child's education and commitment to learning is your top priority. However, if your actions don't support what you are saying, your words will fall on deaf ears. Children are smart -- they can easily distinguish between what you say and what you do. On that note, two specific examples come to mind.

A close friend of Jane's was an Indian-American named Susan. Susan's parents were both physicians in busy university-affiliated settings. Both had earned their medical degrees from top institutions and were highly regarded in the medical community. They were also extremely busy and routinely worked twelve- to fourteen-hour days, often leaving Susan in the care of a neighbor or babysitter. When they did spend time with their daughter, they tried to stress the importance of higher education. Pointing to the walls that were covered with their diplomas, they truly believed that their daughter would be motivated to achieve educational greatness simply by being surrounded by it.

They were wrong.

According to Susan, her parents derived little pleasure or happiness from their high-powered professions. She recalls anxiously waiting for them to come home, only to be met with haggard faces and complaints of a "really tough day." Although her parents often asked her about her studies and whether she had completed her homework, they had little energy to actually get involved in their daughter's education. Susan sadly recalls how her parents were even too tired to help her with a biology project one year.

Despite her parents' urging their daughter to pursue medicine or a similarly high-powered professional career, Susan equated higher education with only misery and fatigue. And why wouldn't she? Her parents were as successful academically as they could be, but they were always tired and unhappy. Why would Susan want to be like them?

Susan attended college and began dating an older artist halfway through her sophomore year. Months later, Susan announced that she had taken up painting and that her boyfriend had convinced her she was good enough to make a living off her new vocation. Since Susan had never picked up a paintbrush or shown any interest in the arts before, her parents were understandably worried. Despite their protests, Susan's mind was made up. She dropped out of college and married the artist. As it turned out, her parents' fears were confirmed: her career as an artist floundered. Susan is now divorced and trying to get a degree in communications at a small community college.

So what went wrong? We are not saying that people with a love and talent for art should not pursue their dreams. Susan, however, chose to pursue that particular career path with little talent, drive, or understanding of what it took to be successful. Had Susan's parents shown her that education and learning provided (at least some) happiness, pride, and security, things might have turned out differently.

On the flip side, our friend Christy was the eldest daughter of two Chinese immigrants. Her father was an orthopaedic surgeon, her mother an electrical engineer. When Dr. and Mrs. Wong emigrated to the United States in 1973, Dr. Wong had already been practicing in China as an attending orthopaedic surgeon. Because of differences in medical licensing between China and the United States, Dr. Wong was forced to repeat his orthopaedic surgery residency in Pennsylvania. Although he had already completed the grueling residency in China, he and his wife decided that the advantages of practicing medicine and raising a family in the United States were well worth it.

Although Dr. Wong spent many of his nights away from home, he never complained. When he was home, he made a point of spending quality time with Christy. Although it would have been easier to come home and catch up on some well-deserved sleep, Dr. Wong chose to spend time with his daughter. Christy learned that her father loved taking care of his patients and that his happiness and pride were well worth the long hours and small salary. Christy is now completing her residency in general surgery and hopes to specialize in breast cancer. More importantly, she is happy and fulfilled by her career.

The sacrifices parents make -- even the little ones -- can have a huge impact on a child's life. We know parents who have purchased the smallest house in a great school district just so their children can reap the benefits of a good education. Others have forgone buying a new car so that their child could have brand-new textbooks. Children of parents who make these sacrifices are reminded on a daily basis how much their education is worth. These parents are not complaining about how much time and effort they are dedicating to their children's education. On the contrary, they are content with the knowledge they are doing everything in their power to ensure the best future for their children.

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