Just one generation…what will our children teach us?
"My most relaxing time is when I'm sitting on the couch watching TV. What's YOUR most relaxing time?", asked 11-year-old Aaron.
I paused, then said, "Well, I meditate every morning. So that's my most relaxing time." I was a little hesitant to say it because I didn't know how an 11-year-old boy would react to the word "meditate".
"How do you meditate?" he asked.
"Oh you're too young, you don't need to learn how to meditate yet." I waved my hand and smiled, thinking he would want to move on to other "cooler" subjects.
"You know what I heard? If you meditate 15 minutes a day, it'll change your life," he said, his eyes widening a little. "Did it change YOUR life?"
"Yes, it did. It completely changed my life." I smiled and nodded. Now I recognized that I was speaking with a fellow human spirit, and that I had incorrectly assumed that because of his age, and being a boy, he wouldn't be interested in the same human subjects I'm interested in. I also caught myself doing something that I had always found annoying as a child - whenever an adult waved off my question with the phrase, Oh don't worry about it, you're too young to need to know. The reality, I saw, is that this fellow human spirit was full of curiosity, playfulness, and desire to know the truth, just like I was.
"Can you make things glow now?" he asked, waving his hands in front of him like a magician.
"No, not yet!" I laughed. "But I have seen some magic in my life."
He seemed satisfied with that answer. My cousin, his mother, told me that she had selected some sections of the audiobook Eat Pray Love to play for them. The parts she thought they might enjoy.
And I was surprised. Playing Eat Pray Love for a pre-adolescent boy?? Really??
But she was quite serious. We talked more, and I discovered that she is in a fascinating situation with her 13-year-old, 11-year-old, and 5-year-old sons. They are one of the only Asian families in their central Wisconsin farming suburb called Delafield. All the other parents assume that since she is Asian, and her sons do well in school, that she must be grooming the boys to go to Harvard and MIT.
"No, I'm not," says my cousin. She has had them in Montessori school ever since her boys were young and they were living in Princeton, New Jersey, where she was shocked and disgusted by a culture of 3-year-olds doing math problems and memorizing flash cards.
"I know what it's like to be focused all on grades and academics. I went through that system in Taiwan," my cousin says as we walk down the sidewalk in downtown Menlo Park, California. It's demographically not that unlike Princeton, New Jersey, here - an affluent suburb next to a major university - and I'm sure the parents here face as much challenge in searching their souls for the right balance of educational values for their children. In fact, I know this from founding a school and teaching 3-year-olds violin in this very ZIP code.
"I had no space to nurture my creativity. I had no freedom to do that. I spent all those hours of my life studying, memorizing, cramming. I told our school principal that if we want to compete in this country, we need to compete on our creativity and freedom. Forget about competing in math and science, because the Asian kids are already three years ahead of all our kids anyway," my cousin continues. I'm riveted on her every word. "But the kids in Asia will never catch up on their creativity, because you can't teach it. And you can't cram for it. You've got to nurture it, day after day."
I felt my heart open in hearing her say these words. I wanted to hear more. It was a fresh, real perspective on Asian and American education, from someone who's grown up in both worlds.
She filled me in on details of her life I'd never had the chance to talk to her about before. I knew she had moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Turns out it was age 17, after taking the college entrance exam in Taiwan. She wanted to study biology, but her English was not fast enough for her to keep up with the reading at the college level. She was able to switch to engineering because her math skills were not impacted by language barriers.
"So I switched to engineering, not because I liked it, but because I needed to in order to survive. I would have flunked out of college if I stayed in biology, but that's what I was interested in." She chose industrial engineering because it involved a human element.
But she worked on a manufacturing room floor for two years after college. "Talk about not being in my world! I was totally out of my element. So I know what it's like to have to do something that you don't really like, but just need to for survival."
She now works in a global services role within a major multinational corporation, part-time as she raises the boys. "So I'm interacting with people all the time, different people. It works for me. But I'm not going to push my kids to the Ivy League. I'm going to encourage them to find the school that's right for them, to study what they want to learn, what they like."
Maybe the biggest changes we can hope to see in our lives come between generations, not in single lifetimes. I can't know since I don't have children yet, but it was a breath of fresh air to hear my cousin's intentions as a parent. Next year the family moves to Shanghai for a stint of 3 to 5 years. The kids will attend an International School, and be prepared for college in a foreign environment. I can't wait to hear what unfolds.
And I can't wait to watch what just one generation of change will bring for those boys.