What kind of parent am I in Cambodia?

Some time ago I spoke to a young Cambodian girl, the daughter of a friend, and asked her a peculiar question. In a sense I didn’t think it that peculiar but when you think about it, it is a question which is not so easy to answer “why do you learn English?”

She had been going to English lessons regularly, almost religiously for some 5 years. Her teacher was a Cambodian man and her class considered entirely of young Cambodians; like herself. She had textbooks which seemed to date from colonial times as it was asking things like “Can we meet earlier at the club for an aperitif?” and £Must one dress for dinner?” They were typical photocopied sheets bound by staples. Her English was poor but she had enough grammar to work out that my question was properly formed, but the answer was difficult. “I am not sure?”  That was the answer.

I smiled to diffuse the tension of making a paradox akin to “How big is the universe and what is beyond it, and what made it?” or “Why is there something rather nothing” the signature question pervading all philosophical, religious and scientific thought, indeed philosophy’s central, and most perplexing, question, according to Bede Rundle and Martin Heidegger. I asked her to imagine an answer and she replied “Because I want to know about everything.” Now I am getting confused. Was this because much of the knowledge of the internet is still codified in English? Or that much of the codified knowledge that exists at all in is in English? Had she learned more about aperitifs in a club than she would have ever done speaking in Khmer? Wow this is getting too big.

I hope you get my jist. I was asking a nonsensical question, you learn English because you just simply do, and you go to school because you are a child and that is simply what children do. as such I was on hte precipice of an infinite regress, or a closed loop, or a complete abandonment of causality. and so literature must come to my assistance and I am reminded of the absurdist plays of the Irish playwrite Samuel Beckett, particularly Waiting for Godot. The play, which I feel asleep at when I was foolhardy enough to try and watch once,  depicts the meaninglessness of life – with its repetitive plot, where nothing much happens. Things are just done to kill or bide time.

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

But this is life and not art, the Cambodian girl is going to school to learn English because her mother did not have money to send her two elder brothers. Is that a more sound reason? Well at least it is an economic explanation. I would then have to interrogate the mother to find out why she had invested in sending her daughter to learn English. But  rather than make everyone uncomfortable any-more with these difficult ‘barang’ (that is foreign) questions I gave up. I asked a more stupid one “what would you do to improve the teaching…” I could have went one better and asked the teacher why he was teaching English, and if he thought he was effective, it would have probably had the same reply.

Erik Erikson, the famous developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, wrote in the early 1950’s : “Parents must not only have certain ways of guiding by prohibition and permission, they must also be able to represent to the child a deep, almost somatic conviction that there is meaning in what they are doing.” This applies to knowledge, skills and behaviour as much as morals and ethics. Their just simply has to be a reason for going to school and learning English, Chinese or Spanish at all and that reason has to be made explicit and understood, shared by parents, the children and the teachers. Otherwise it is a truly empty ritual, and surely tend towards aimless and mediocre performance at best.


As parents we follow scripts that are imbued with unquestioned and closely held assumptions, traditions and expectations. We try and raise our children in accordance with how we remember being brought up, or according to norms we see through media and within our own families and communities. ‘Learning English’ is a subset of ‘Going to School’ and if we note and accept the cultural differences depicted here, then we begin to understand something of the complexity in delivering a curriculum which is aimed at engendering independent critical thinking and problem-solving abilities in children.

It would do well to note that the Cambodian cultural viewpoints contrast sharply with their ‘tiger-nation’ neighbours, in that they are much more delineated in their ideas of school. bearing in mind that many over the age of 40 had their school experience severely disrupted by civil war means that many do not understand what is happening if their kids have their heads in a book or facing a screen. Maybe it is something inherently Cambodian, not in genes but in Culture. The French often brought with them their Vietnamese nannies and artisans, and later their plantations managers and even workers. Is it that Cambodians do not like ulcers and splitting their guts working themselves to death. Is it that they are the Mediterraneans of the orient?

Some of our parenting behaviours and ideas will be conscious, sometimes a conscious reaction to how we were brought up and sometimes it will be unconscious, we will act without knowing that we act in certain ways. We can be told how and what to do by our own parents, family and by health professionals, books, classes etc. We cannot escape the conundrum, that the way we brought up will influence us. Yes, culture refracts and drives different parenting styles. Again, this may be very hard for those parents who experienced the hardships of the civil war period. Many children were orphaned and witnessed terrible scenarios and experienced unimaginable privation. There images of parenting and life have also had to be reconstituted along with the society and its social structures.

As a social scientist, I know that exposure to other belief systems can be upsetting. After all, hearing about some other kind of parenting brings into question one’s own parenting. And we never really understand the true force of our own parental belief system until confronted with a vastly different approach; reading about or experiencing other ways can be self-reflective, even life changing.

Here in Cambodia there are many ways which are endearing and I believe are beneficial to children’s development. First and foremost is the sense of play. You cannot go hardly anywhere in Cambodian and not see children playing. They do so in streets, in nature, they play in a natural manner so much forgotten in the more devloped countries where play is dominated by indoor life and various electronic screens. This is good. What is missing though is many of the structure facilities which one finds in the west -good parks, clubs, and activities. I think of the mini-rugby teams that I used to spend my Sunday afternoons training when my first child was 5 or 6. It provided and framed the reason for being outside rolling in the mud in all weathers. There are no museums, art galleries, elaborate fun parks, bowling alleys and so forth for better or for worse.

And school there are few that one could ever trust in providing what most of from industrialised countries would consider basic. Hunters and gatherers carry their babies all the time. Would my baby be happier if I did that? In most cultures, babies and children sleep with their parents. But I thought a child needed to sleep alone to become independent. Children around the world are in charge of younger siblings. Isn’t that unsafe?

Today’s mums and dads in developed and nearly-developed economies (like Malaysia and Thailand) are twice as stressed as they were in the 1950s. Parents consistently score lower on scales of life satisfaction, marital satisfaction and mental well-being. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Professor of Psychology, found that many American parents were happier sleeping or shopping for groceries than spending time with their children. And in a new book, Parenting Out of Control, Margaret Nelson argues that part of the reason for our offspring over-reach is technology; from baby monitors to cell phones and social networking sites, we are allowed to communicate with, supervise and spy on our kids.

She also finds highly educated adults, who are also spending more time at work, are the most obsessive parents. We have made parenting a profession, pushed ourselves to achieve an impossible ”perfection”, and punished ourselves by sacrificing our own lives.

Amy Chua stirred up a lot of publicity for her book on parenting, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” with an excerpt that was published in The Wall Street Journal. It tells the story of her application of the ‘Chinese child-rearing model’ which she inherited from her own parents. Her controversial and dictatorial approach invoked 3,500 comments, ranging from the horrified (“As a parent of two kids myself, I had an overwhelming, visceral response to this article. Her style borders on abusive”; “this woman’s parenting style is reminiscent of Joan Crawford in ‘Mommy Dearest'”) to the laudatory (“Her style of parenting creates structure, discipline and work ethics. As long as you don’t stop loving and supporting your kids, there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for them”). It makes us wonder whether “Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Indeed, many would view the fact that Chua is herself the product of accomplished academics may have something to do with the capacity of her children to succeed.

Chinese parental attitude towards study and education, shared with Korea and Japan, as the reason why students from these countries fair well in global examinations of language, maths and science. In a review in the Guardian newspaper Benedicte Page wrote: “she assumed the absolute right to dictate her children’s activities and demand rigorous academic standards of them at all times, ridiculing them if necessary to spur them on to greater efforts.”

you fail life

The technique included extreme forms of pushing her children to master and succeed in everything they did, even going to the extent of handing back a home-made birthday card her daughter made for her and telling her that she could do better. In many ways as you read her story, which is supposed to be humorous, she nevertheless seems to treat her dogs better than her children. referring to her dogs:

“I don’t make any demands of them . . . or their future… For the most part, I trust them to make the right choices for themselves. I always look forward on seeing them, and I love just watching them sleep. What a great relationship.”

Even though Chua has all the trappings and privileges that life under neo-capitalism can provide, she is the John M. Duff, Jr. professor of Law at Yale, and her husband Robert R. Slaughter professor of law also at Yale. She seems, in addition to holding down a full-time job, to spend an inordinate amount of time and concern over making sure her children succeed and are the best.

The result is that she admits: “the truth is I’m not good at enjoying life” Elizabeth Chang of The Washington Post remarked: “This memoir raises intriguing, sometimes uncomfortable questions about love, pride, ambition, achievement and self-worth that will resonate among success-obsessed parents. Is it possible, for example, that Chinese parents have more confidence in their children’s abilities, or that they are simply willing to work harder at raising exceptional children than Westerners are?

Such questions strike right at the heart of the matter in terms of the nature and nurture debate. It is clear that some capacities are passed to us genetically, and some abilities and propensities inculcated, but what is the ‘right way’ to parent?

Tom Hodgkinson, whose amusing and provocative book The Idle Parent: Why More Means Less When Raising Kids is the stuff of fantasy for modern parents. He advocates pleasure, laughter, relaxation, leaving the kids alone. Instead of constantly ‘investing in the future’, why not contemplate the present. Why not spend hours singing with them, playing music, dancing and napping? We should give them as much free time as possible to foster their imaginations and self-reliance. ”It is our habit of seeing life as a series of burdens imposed on us by outside forces that creates misery. Once we recognize that we are free and responsible creatures the burden is lifted.” More pleasure, more laughter, more free-roaming imaginations – less misery, more mayhem and madness. These two together, Amy Chua and Tom Hodgkinson couldn’t be more polarised in their approach. Any more authoritarian and Amy Chua would become truly dictatorial and autocratic and an almost inhuman way, any more laissez-faire, democratic and self-determining such as the approach put forward by Tom Hodgkinson,  would be fostering neglected and feral children.

I have been flirting over the last two years between home schooling and teaching and tutoring online, and writing, it has had aspects of both. This has fed into the design of the contextual curriculum ideas which seeks to blend periods of focus and lucidity with free-play and semi-structure. Extreme parenting and idle parenting  both seem to insist that children either strive to meet their parents’ preferences and goals – without knowing why they are doing what they do. Or have no goals at all set for them. Extreme parenting and idle parenting seems to embrace a very narrow definition of what success means, to be happy often means you have to work out a way to prevent yourself starving which invariably means you need to muster the drive to do more than play. This may include doing repetitive mundane boring tasks put upon you by a boss, manager or client. Is this not like doing tons of long division, or working out how x= 2g-5/3? Being able to follow instruction and work within boundaries is crucial and so structured play will show this.


Also in my work life, when I’m working on a client project, such as Idea Source School, the last thing I need on my team is a superstar out for his or her own shiny trophy. I need everyone to be focused on the project and the team’s goals. Supporting team effort, including dialogue with parents and kids, along with individual improvement, is not just a shallow pat on the head for kids – I believe it is absolutely key to what they will need to be doing as adults. Extreme parenting is all about making one child, or both one’s children the best, and where there are winners, it means developing a world-view of lots of inferior losers that are just so op0en to criticism. I mean, why would you want to negotiate and listen to someone who is not in your league of perfection? This is why group-work also features in the contextual curriculum. And it is is OK to fail, as long as the group can reach consensus upon why they failed. By learning their violin Amy Chua’s kids are not going to save the earth in its entirety or put food in all the mouths of the hungry, even if they do perform Mozart perfectly, and grow out of their need for a Doll’s House.

As is the matter the reality of whether you micromanage your child’s experiences, or let them find their own in a world of abundance, the truth of what is best surely should lie somewhere in between. There are times for us to be free and times where we must do things, tasks, solve problems etc. that we would rather conveniently avoid as they seem too much trouble, and distract us from shopping, work, our own socialisation and sleeping.

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