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The most vital lesson

"Teach me, brother, how to live." This line from Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin should be a footnote to what is the most important education for Chinese students.
 
After the high-stake Gaokao (college entrance examination), new students in college face a new test: surviving on their own when they are away from dads and moms. The new independence may be a blessing or curse depending on how well their parents have prepared them for the new test. In the excitement for new beginnings, opportunities, and friends, some students may be annoyed to attend to mundane tasks such as washing dishes, doing laundry or finding their own bus schedules to commute.
 
These seemingly petty tasks used to be performed by parents, grandparents or nannies who unwittingly created a buffer between their children and life while they focused on the number one priority: getting into college. Some worried parents escorted children to campuses to smooth some of the rough edges of transition, but they cannot hover around forever. After they leave, life could explode all around the students.
 
Chinese parents are notorious for focusing singularly on children’s academic achievements at the sacrifice of almost everything else, including physical exercises, healthy routines, and inter-personal relationships.
 
Traditionally, Chinese families, especially the educated ones, taught children skills for independent living.  In ancient China, young people were often taught to keep personal spaces clean and orderly. “One cannot clean up the world if he cannot clean his own room,” says a proverb.  Qing Dynasty (16441911) General Zeng Guofan (1811-1872), known for strong family values, drilled into the minds of younger members of his family that they should rise early, clean rooms, water the plants, and feed pigs, menial tasks that the general’s domestic servants could have done.  But Zeng doggedly refused to delegate such tasks to servants in order to cultivate the character of adolescents and kids in the family.
 
In a similar fashion, US Admiral William H. McRaven of Navy Seal told students at University of Texas at Austin in a commencement speech that making bed is the best way to start a day. One small accomplishment, like a bed well made, will lead to another, and then another. It is not a waste of time that could be spent studying. Admiral McRaven argues, “If you cannot do the little things right, you cannot do the big things right.”
 
There are numerous benefits for letting children do household chores, no matter how busy their schedules are. It provides a much-needed break from mental work to save a student from burnout.  They are physical exercise of sorts. Getting physical environments in order will set the tone for a day. It makes one happy. By handling chores children develop work ethics.  They learn to take care of others as well as themselves. It makes them less selfish as human beings.  Think of the alternative: Messy beds become eyesores to roommates, who get into moods, and start to be judgmental about a person’s upbringing.
 
While students can count on parents to do all the chores for them, I have yet to know a single employer who wants to hire some employees so that they can clean up after them. I have yet to find people who want to get into marriages for the privilege of making beds, washing dishes and doing laundry. By taking all “unimportant” work away from students, parents set up children for failure in life.  I often heard of people talking about how poorly behaved certain kids are when they are guests at other’s houses. Do not let your children become one of those children.
 
Of course, doing chores is but one of the many lessons new college students might have missed.  As parents have been functioning on their behalf in every facet of their lives other than academic study, many students lack training in engaging with people in a way that is polite and thoughtful.  
 
Many are wrapped around themselves having no empathy with others. For instance, some call people late at night, with no regard for other’s rest. Again, such rudeness developed due to the lack of practice in interpersonal relations.  In areas where there is a lack of practice, family members’ instructions about proper behaviors would have helped. However, nobody seems to have time for such small things. Yet these things add up, create vicious cycles and sometimes ruin relationships and careers, undoing academic successes that parents are so obsessed about in their children’s formative years.
 
Fortunately, there is gap of four years before new college students graduate into the “real world.”  So if parents have not taught them the finer and not-so-finer points of life, college students should learn those themselves before it is too late.
 
Originally published in China Daily, September 9, 2017
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