Thursday, November 14, 2013

Deciphering Thai Parenting

For the past three months or so, I've been volunteering in my son's class every four days. I thought it would help me to learn more about the Thai culture, especially with regard to kids and parenting, since most kids in my son's class are Thai. But the more I learn and see, the more curious and puzzled I get about the Thai parents, their ways of parenting, and their mindsets. Of course, I'm speaking here of only a small number of middle- and upper-class parents, the ones at our school, since I have no experience with Thai parents outside of the school.

Back in the U.S., parenting sometimes could feel like a competitive sport. Many parents with the means and resources enroll their children as young as two or three years old in multiple "extracurricular" activities -- sports, music, language lessons, tutoring. These parents care about their children's academic achievements and are very involved in their children's school lives.

Here, that is not quite the case. Although the parents care deeply about education, and have high expectations of their children when it come to education, they are not very involved. For example, there is no such thing as parent volunteers here. When I initially approached my son's teacher about volunteering in the class, she was ecstatic as she was used to having very active parent volunteers back in the U.S., but was no longer getting this type of support here. But first, she had to ask the school whether it's something that it allows and get permission for me to volunteer!

The parents here also don't really get involved with their children's school or homework. As I was explained by my son's teacher, while they expect the kids to get homework, they also expect the kids to do it on their own. I initially thought it was only when the children get into the upper grades that the parents become more hands-off, but it appears to be as early as first grade.

I've also noticed that many of the kids in my son's class are working at a very low academic level. Even now, with the end of the first semester of first grade only about four weeks away, some of the kids are still reading only very basic words, such as "cat". For math, some of the kids can't even decompose a number like 5. But to me, the more surprising part is the parents' reaction to this. I think, back in the U.S., many parents would be worried and try to get their kids as much help as possible to catch them up to the rest of the class. Here, however, the parents seem to have very relaxed attitudes about it and don't feel a need to get their kids more help. While I think this more relaxed attitude is healthy, their reaction is surprising to me because these parents certainly have the means and resources to help their children. They are able to (and often do) buy their children everything they can possibly ever want, are constantly taking their children on exotic trips, and live lives of luxury. Maybe it is because they're already shelling out a decent amount of money to pay for their children's schooling, so they feel the school should do the educating?

[Related to that last question, while I'm sure the parents want to ensure their kids are getting the best education they can afford, there also is an element of status in this. We've noticed, while in downtown Bangkok, that many older Thai kids will wear their school uniforms on the weekends, and have  learned that the Thai kids will wear their private-school uniforms on the weekends as a status symbol!]

I've also noticed that the Thai kids are pretty coddled and dependent compared to their American counterparts. The parents and their household help do a lot for them, even things they are totally capable of doing themselves. I've seen in public parents feeding children as old as 8 or 9 years old! It was a bit shocking to witness. When the kids returned to school after our October break, many clung to their parents and sobbed like they weren't going to see their parents ever again. When I volunteer in my son's class, some kids cling to me the entire time I'm there and require me to help them do their work every step of the way, even though they've done the same type of work on their own many times already.

Yet despite this lack of pushing on the parents' part, the children are still able to meet and exceed their parents' academic expectations. On top of that, they're also very involved in extracurricular activities, such as music and language lessons. In a few years, some of the kids in my son's class will likely become well-known musicians in Thailand, playing in orchestras and performing for the royal family. I know some 12-year-old students already with full-fledged careers as musicians. They get up at 4 a.m. to practice their instruments for two hours before heading to school at 6 a.m., and then practice for two more hours after getting home from school!

All this has been completely mind-boggling to me: These parents don't need to push and hover, aren't very involved at all, and sometimes treat their children as if they're incapable of doing anything for themselves; yet, they are still able to instill discipline and ensure high levels of achievement in their children. I'm genuinely curious how they do it, and one of my missions is to figure it out. 

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