To strive is to be happy

7th September 2007 at 01:00
In the first of a new autumn series, psychologist Oliver James explains why the Chinese love of perseverance makes for motivated pupils

Being in the 11th-most-satisfied profession (out of 81), you teachers may no longer need motivating. But your pupils can do with a boost after the hols and who better to provide it than that wise old owl Confucius?

He said: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do." And words of comfort to every slow learner "It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop."

Because of him, in China perseverance is prized and your best is always good enough. In America, and to an increasing degree Britain, only the outcome is what matters the result, the reward and it's never enough.

This difference is illustrated by a recent study describing what happened when four to six-year-olds in China and the United States were presented with two stories:

1. Little Bear watches his Mommy and Daddy catch fish. He really wants to learn how to catch fish by himself. He tries for a while but he cannot catch any. Then he says to himself: "Forget it. I don't want to catch any fish."

2. Little Birdie is learning how to fly. He jumps off a tree, but falls down to the ground. Daddy Bird and Mommy Bird bring him back up again. He tries again and again, and he falls down again and again. After trying many times, Little Birdie finally learns to fly.

Both sets of children still liked Little Birdie after his efforts but for different reasons: the Americans loved a winner, the Chinese liked a trier. When it came to Little Bear, two thirds of the Chinese did not like him, because of his lack of persistence, whereas nearly all the Americans still liked him, approving of his "forget it" mentality.

When it comes to successful performance, it is much better to be Chinese than American. In a meta-analysis of 128 studies looking at what affected performance in the workplace, academics found that money, promotion or other rewards resulted in significantly less engagement and pleasure in work than intrinsic motivation. Lack of engagement makes for worse performance.

Focused on reward, people become disconnected from the pleasures of the activity itself. For example, pupils were given a three-dimensional puzzle cube. One group was paid to solve it; the others were not. The paid group lost interest sooner than the unpaid, who said they kept going because it was fun, or just because they chose to.

If absorption and perseverance are crucial for performance whether in a four year-old or their teacher how are they achieved? Generally, by not making love or reward conditional on performance. But the Chinese are a fascinating illustration of how complex this can be.

Until the age of four, their culture advocates kindness and infant-centred nurture, usually provided by the grandmother, since the mother nearly always works. In a one-child society, grannies are gagging for the chance to go cootchy-coo, having handed over their own babies to their mothers before them.

After four, however, it's a different story. Extremely strict training is the rule, with public humiliation of a child's bad behaviour (often through mocking imitation) used as punishment. Absolute obedience is insisted upon by parent and teacher.

This teaching style would be a prescription for boredom, rebellion or mental illness in the West. But China is still a collectivist society, where not shaming family and institution comes before individualism and guilt.

Despite a stultifying educational syllabus based on rote learning, and despite authoritarian care from the age of four, children in China are committed to their parents and their values. A key reason is that parents combine strictness with love and understanding.

Unconditional love in infancy, followed by lovingly administered strictness, can be made to work in a collectivist society. What in the West would produce rebellion or deadened conformity, in China gives the child a sense of autonomy. They choose to work hard the holy grail of teachers and parents. I leave it to brains better than mine to work out how this could be achieved in the average school in individualist Britain. But the Chinese system does seem to suggest that a measure of tough love and an insistence on perseverance can be helpful in motivating children so long as they had a decent infancy.

Alas, that is a big proviso in the UK, where parents seem increasingly too workaholic or too chaotic to give their children the time and love they need

Oliver James is the author of Affluenza: how to be successful and stay sane (with a full account of Chinese child-rearing). The second edition of his They F*** You Up: How to survive family life is out now


Little Bear experiment: Li, J., 2004, Developmental Psychology, 40, 595-605.

Meta-analysis of 128 studies on rewards and motivation: Deci, E.L. et al, 1999, Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

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