From one decade to another, different child-raising ideas and practices go in and out of fashion. That’s not a bad thing, since there’s always room for improvement. The fundamentals, however, hardly change at all: Good parents bring up their children using common sense and mutual respect. They employ a gentle carrot and stick approach, so that the children become successful and responsible citizens. A sizable number of parents, though, prefer a different parenting model based on a laissez-faire approach to their children’s performances both at home and at school. Those parents do their children and society no service.
The standard of education is very high in many countries and in some of those, pay rates are a fraction of those in the West. Whether we like it or not, most children are going to need a higher level of educational attainment than their parents needed because they’ll likely be competing for jobs not just with young people in their own locality, or even country, but with some of the brightest in the world.
Every three years, the OECD carries out an international study of the reading, mathematics and science abilities of randomly selected fifteen-year-old children. Its latest report (www.oecd.org/pisa/46643496.pdf) was published in 2010. It shows that most Western countries, including the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Sweden, achieved average scores; a few, including Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands, scored above average. The overall highest-scoring children lived in Shanghai (China), Korea, Finland, Honk Kong (China), and Singapore. These results make it clear that for many children, “average” will be of limited use in a globalized world.
Education is so obviously important that I’d feel embarrassed bringing it up, were it not for the fact that some people act as if they’ve been living underground for the last decade. They seem to believe that globalization affects only a minority of industries and that their neighborhoods are somehow exempt. Without listing the numerous companies that have moved operations to low-wage countries, globalization is indirectly responsible for the closure of local video stores, electrical suppliers and bookshops. Even garages have seen profits hit because customers buy vehicle parts online. In fact, almost any item that can be shipped at a reasonable cost can be sourced online at a lower price. That means many local jobs disappear, while local money helps pay wages somewhere else, often in a different country.
The solution is complex and multi-faceted, but hinges on education. Society must ensure that all children achieve their full human potential. That doesn’t just empower those children; it raises the creativity and competitiveness of the entire country. Many parents and schools already play their parts. They foster a sense of self-worth through praising each child’s smallest, but real, achievements; they gently encourage application and competition from an early age and help cultivate team spirit and a sense of fair play through sports and other group activities. These parents and teachers don’t mollycoddle the child, but they’re poised to support the child’s own efforts whenever they feel it’s necessary. The aim is to produce a self-confident, well-educated young adult with excellent social skills, who has a sense of civic responsibility and is not afraid of hard work.
Not all children are so lucky. Despite the global shifts reported almost daily in the media, there is a bizarre, parallel trend to raise children as if their future financial security were guaranteed; as if education were little more than a way of passing the years from childhood to adulthood. One example is the trend to remove competition and grading from the classroom “to avoid stressing young children.” Some schools have even replaced traditional red correction marks on exercise books with lavender colored ones because lavender is a “less stressful” color. If they are shielded from all stress and competition from an early age, it’s hard to imagine these children successfully confronting an indifferent, highly-competitive world later.
The problems extend beyond education. Many parents, even some who have a balanced approach to their children’s education and are not overly concerned about stress and competition, have colluded in a quasi-reversal of the child/parent roles, with the result that children now call the shots in many families. These children are constantly indulged, given almost every toy and gadget they want, yet are not expected to offer anything in return, even gratitude. It’s hardly surprising that so many have a disproportionate sense of their own importance and of entitlement, and show little consideration for others. If such children are academically high achievers, they’ll almost certainly excel at their careers. That risks sowing the seeds of later societal problems because people in senior positions who have an inflated sense of their own importance and have little consideration for others are dangerous. Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times highlighted this danger in his article published in July 2012, entitled “Why Our Elites Stink:” “Wall Street firms now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.” In the same article, referring to executives involved in the Libor banking scandal, he continued: “…these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.”
This societal problem is not new, but it has grown and spread like an epidemic in the recent years. It’s hardly surprising that some of the young adults that emerge from “role-reversed” families act like spoilt children with no sense of responsibility beyond their own narrow self-interests. Nor is it surprising that, when they make huge mistakes (as many in the financial industry did), their sense of entitlement obliterates the shame they should feel when they demand that others bail them out. In a way, the taxpayer has replaced their parents.
Society faces two immense challenges related to children: The first is to make all schools true centers of excellence. The second is to inculcate a strong sense of social responsibility in children. The first is necessary in order to confront the challenges of global competition, the second to ensure that the future business leaders are not the kind of brats referred to by David Brooks, but responsible stewards who would never allow greed bring the economy to its knees.