Not a "how to" guide. But...

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. Despite their one child policy, Chinese mothers appear to have added cradle rocking to their list of national achievements. So, at least, a recent media furore over parenting skills would have us believe.

Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal Article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, has prompted quite a response since it first appeared on 7 January (no doubt to the relief of her publishers). In it. Ms Chua, a law professor at Yale, details the regimen imposed on her children in an attempt to school them for a life of struggle and success. Measures included: no play dates or sleep overs, no participation in school plays, and no choice in choosing their extracurricular activities. In return for such leniency, Ms Chua’s daughters were expected to bring home an A grade in every subject except gym and drama.

Ghastly stuff, responded the critics; that’s no way to raise a child. Maybe not (full disclosure: I don’t have children. But, as a regular contributor to a pension plan, I’m a keen observer of how other people raise theirs). Behind closed doors, however, Ms Chua’s article has prompted considerable reflection and some awkward questions. Are our parenting skills adequate to preparing our children for a lifetime of global competition? Worse still, do they portend the West’s demise? Might not a little “tough love” serve everyone better?

Such questions may sound hysterical, but they are entirely relevant to the shifting dynamics of global competition. It’s no secret that whether and how we educate our children has long been a measure of national competitiveness. Educational reform is a hot button issue wherever you go. Interest here can be measured in the number of speeches and documentaries dedicated to the issue, as well the many private initiatives undertaken by concerned teachers, parents and reformers.

As well intentioned as these efforts are, there are some awkward truths to acknowledge. First, most children are educated for a future they will never see. No matter how much you invest in a child, there’s a good chance that the world they inherit will be nothing like the one they were educated to for. Not convinced? Anyone who has endured the company of a 23 year-old will recognise a familiar lament: that the jobs they studied for don’t exist, that their starting salaries will have them eating out of a can for the next decade, that three or more years in an institution of higher learning failed to prepare them for a life of toil.

They’re right, of course. A 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit report surveyed global executives for their views on the caliber of graduate entering their organisation. Most were decidedly unimpressed. The irony here is that most schools are no better than the average corporation: their sole purpose is to produce standardised products and ensure an adequate set of annual results.

Second, if not entirely bankrupt, traditional educational models are definitely broken. In the UK, the educational system remains largely unchanged from when I roamed the hallowed halls of learning: mandatory education till you’re 16, an optional two years of college, followed by three years in an institutional of higher learning and lower morals. Not good enough. The cost of education notwithstanding, no country is likely to remain competitive if the option to quit school at 16 stays on the table. Just as raising the age of retirement is seen as vital to economic security, so too must we raise the age of mandatory education .

And third, no matter how good one’s education might be, it will never be sufficient to ensuring long-term employment. As harsh as it sounds, an economy driven by knowledge and innovation has little time for people schooled in the habit of pressing buttons or pulling levers. Individuals with little or no education are simply uncompetitive on a global level. High levels of unemployment in the US and elsewhere suggest a great many of these low-skilled jobs are gone for good. The future is writ large: undergraduate fees are just a downpayment for the privilege of lifelong employment.

It’s going to take a long time to fix this mess, which is exactly why parenting matters. How we raise our children will have a direct impact on the value they generate – not just in retirement home contributions, but also in their ability to make good on the widening gulfs in knowledge and ability. Ms Chua argues that a child can never know what it’s capable of unless it’s pushed to realise its potential. The same is true of societies and organisations. Most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more prosperous future. In this regard, her conclusion is telling:

” Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

All true. And yet, that’s only half the picture. A parent’s role is made either easier or more difficult by the the values that inform the society their children live in. What sets Asian students apart (i.e the reason they’re the first into the university library and the last out) is a combination of factors, including: influence of Confucian philosophy, with its emphasis on intellectual cultivation; stable families; a willingness to sacrifice all for one’s children; and a strong social and cultural emphasis on educational attainment as an individual, familial and national obligation.

Confucianism aside, such attitudes are not unique to Asia, and Asian’s aren’t alone in wanting what’s best for their children. That instinct lies in all of us. But if a society wishes to remain competitive it has to cultivate those instincts and values that spur its capacity to learn and grow. Take a page from Poland’s book. There, a long-running campaign encourages parents to read to their children on a daily basis, so as to support their emotional and educational wellbeing:

Thus, even nursery rhymes can make all the difference to a country’s competitive future. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf notes that those families and societies that provide their children with an environment that’s rich in oral and literary culture will inevitably set themselves apart from those that don’t. She continues:

“Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified, and stored in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them.”

Ultimately, the question isn’t whether Asian parents are better than those in Europe, Africa or elsewhere. They’re not; they’re just different. Some of those differences yield a competitive advantage; others don’t (as Ms Chua found out). In a globally connected economy, what matters is the ability to leverage these differences, or to adopt them, refine them and make them your own. It’s not easy to admit, but what’s true for the manufacturing of planes, PCs and widgets is also true for how we raise our kids.