Are Asian Children Smarter?

ByABC News via logo
November 1, 2005, 11:22 AM

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.