Parenting Prisoner’s Dilemma

My emerging thoughts here, which feel a little jumbled.

All parents struggle with this, to varying degrees. This is from Li Ying in WorldCrunch:

What matters is that the government’s measure combating the academic burden falls into the trap of the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

Chinese parents cannot trust other Chinese parents to limit their children’s educational burden in the same way. They are so anxious, whatever level of society they belong to, that their children can move upwards socially, or at least can safeguard the same level of wealth or status as their elders.

Pru and I think about that. Hey, our kids love to read. They have stumbled into some knowledge.

BUT….other kids are taking extra weekend Russian math classes, and other kids are transferring to private schools, and other kids are…

So we mostly anchor to “Harvard Is Not The Dream” but sometimes we get triggered by other parents, and revert to “Harvard Must Be The Destination! We can’t let D’s friend be better than her. Little D: let’s do some math flash cards!”

For me, at least, luckily I am lazy, so this sensation if fleeting.

Also, we’ve chosen to live in a slightly less competitive neighborhood. If we moved 2 miles north or south, we would be surrounded by more American Tiger Parents, and we’d get triggered a lot more.

In the face of severe social competition, youngsters are under enormous pressure, while parents project great expectations on their kids. Meanwhile both schools and local governments are required to ensure good educational performance. This is why social psychology and social reality ought to be taken into consideration, no matter how good the education concept is, or how well-intentioned it is.

When parents are convinced of the need to boost their offspring’s competitiveness through cramming, and the local authorities are under pressure to improve academic performance, a paper ban or a slogan won’t change anything.

The evolution of education ecology is closely related to social ecology. If the government wants to achieve a reduction in the academic burden, it is not enough to rely solely on an improvement of the educational ecology. For example, unless Chinese employers’ diploma-oriented way of hiring is changed, it will be difficult to change China’s educational ecology completely.

Here is where Pru and I have it easier. We’re very very fortunate: blessed first to be from and now in highly-educated families, and blessed second to be in USA.

So our way out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

1. We don’t see sharp cut-offs in American life, such that we need to claw for 10% stronger academic prowess or 10% higher test scores, at any cost.

– Does that drive some difference in university admissions? Yes.

– Does that university brand difference drive differences in life outcomes (jobs, happiness)? No. There’s good empirical data here.

Is Salem State much different from U-Mass Amherst in what you actually learn? No. Tufts versus Harvard? No. Sometimes you get less famous professors, but those who are more available for mentoring. Sometimes you build self-confidence with admission to a prestige school which is good, but perhaps you are bigger fish in smaller pond at a less prestigious school, and that builds your day-to-day self confidence.

Does the brand matter? Of course, but not nearly as much as you think. Unless you are a poor family, and we’re not.

Once you’re out of college, you mostly get judged on the work you actually do, seems to be the evidence. And if your job requires prestige degree, you can always try again for a masters degree at a fancier university.

2. Emerging jumbled thought:

People in most countries, from South Africa to India to USA, talk a lot about politics and sports. At minimum, something to debate and dream about; often it’s a way to compete.

That seems less true in China. Political talk is constrained. Sports matter but they matter less.

But everyone is allowed to dream about top universities for their kids or grandchildren. I wonder if that affects the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

3. Emerging jumbled thought:

I wonder if an extra 20% of social status in China that comes from more prestigious university affects how you receive justice as an adult.

I’ve read stories where 2 Chinese might be involved in a civil matter concerning, say, a car crash, and one “wins” based on modestly higher social status and not evidence.

Such a reality would motivate me to Tiger Parent more aggressively, because I’d be very emotionally risk averse to the idea that my kids are going to be ripped off.

This is also one reason why much of my career has in education for what we call disadvantaged students. In USA, it seems college degrees for these children may deliver not only increased economic opportunity, but perhaps increased justice (though it shouldn’t be that way, not in USA per the 14th Amendment, not on Earth per Pericles in 431 BC).

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