Late last month, I finished my semester-long Peking High International Division English seminar by comparing and contrasting two articles from the Atlantic Monthly.
In The Organization Kid, David Brooks visits Princeton University, and reports on how baby boomers have engineered, assembled, and moulded their children for success without instilling in them ‘a vocabulary of virtue and vice’ to provide them with moral guidance and meaningful purpose. In The Apocalypse of Adolescence, Ron Powers examines how adolescents brutally and randomly murder, and blames this phenomenon on a materialistic society that’s indifferent to the spiritual confusion of young people.
I pointed out to my ten Chinese students that the two articles were two sides of the same coin – that the same parental and social emphasis on ‘the unfettered accumulation of wealth’ that can drive one kid to get into Princeton can also drive another to kill his mother.
In The Apocalypse of Adolescence, Powers focuses on Laird Stanard, a preppie who would be ‘The Organization Kid’ except that, angry his parents wouldn’t let him go to a party, he killed his loving, doting mother with a shotgun. At the surreal trial, a psychiatrist reportedly testified ‘in the most sombre, lugubrious voice you can imagine’ that Laird Standard had borderline personality disorder, but once outside the courtroom and freed from his ‘expert’ persona admitted he had no idea why Laird would kill his own mother.
While discussing Laird in class, I mentioned a student who had been expelled for stealing from her roommates. Her parents were fighting the expulsion, and two of the students were close to her, so there was a feeling of unease and tension at the mention of her.
So I also mentioned another, a 13-year-old student from Shenzhen who displayed all the classic symptoms of depression: he overslept, had personal hygiene issues, and couldn’t focus in class. Our teachers spent a semester wondering what was wrong with him, and it was only when I visited his parents that I discovered the answer.
His mother struck me as both over-protective and controlling: she decided things for the student and made excuses for his failings. It was her decision to send him abroad, something that I believed he resented.
When I returned to Beijing, I asked him if he would prefer to return to a traditional Chinese school. That sudden question shocked him into a rare smile, and it was then and there that I realized that Gary’s laziness and indifference were in fact a cry for help.
His mother came to Beijing, where I patiently explained to her that I thought she needed to respect her child as an independent human being with his own aspirations and ambitions. It seemed to have never occurred to her that her son had a right to control his own life, but when I explained to her the consequences of not respecting her own son – a growing, swelling, overwhelming sadness and anger with unpredictable consequences – she finally agreed to respect his desire to return to a traditional Chinese school. Maybe he was making a mistake, I told her, but it was his mistake to make.
My students, themselves under pressure to get into a top American university and loved and supported (if not trusted and respected by their parents), understood the boy’s situation. So wasn’t the girl’s blatant stealing also a cry for help?
Her parents had leveraged their wealth and guanxi to protect her from the consequences of her actions – her lying, her stealing, her bad grades – all the while ignoring her pleas for attention, which were her lying, her stealing, and her bad grades. The fact that her parents refused to admit that their child could lie and steal suggest that she may need to do something much worse to finally get her parents’ attention.
Different students react differently to over-protective, demanding parents. Those such as Brooks’ ‘The Organization Kid’ will become workaholics in the blind pursuit of success and run away from their unhappy, meaningless existences. Powers’ apocalyptic adolescents may end up killing their mothers – or hatch plots to blow up the world. But ‘The Organization Kid’ is the apocalyptic adolescent, and the two examples I’ve given are no different from many Chinese students, because every teenager seems the same: lost, confused, and alone all the while desperate for attention, praise, and love.
I believe it’s important to teach students how to cope with life, and that means teaching them independence and self-reliance, choice and responsibility. To that end, I’ve told parents that many students have bad grades, that these grades won’t be changed, and that a few students won’t graduate, let alone get into an US university.
American parents may see this as a wake-up call, but I’ve already been told by one Chinese parent that this approach is too ‘risky’. It’s challenging enough to prepare Chinese students for the world, but is it even possible to change their parents’ self-destructive behaviour?
I try because I see the reasons sitting in front of me every day in class. I try because I can see a student’s sudden smile when someone finally asks him what he wants. And I try because hopefully if parents are finally confronted with the consequences of a student’s lying and stealing, they’ll perhaps wonder what’s wrong not only with the student, but ultimately what might be wrong with their parenting.