In recent years, “setback education” has become a fashionable topic of discussion in global education circles. The term refers to the belief held by some experts that parents should deliberately introduce a series of so-called setbacks for their child to encounter, to help them better deal with these situations later in life. Despite setback education’s popularity in China, it is, in my opinion, a deeply misguided approach to raising children.
Earlier this year, while visiting the capital of one of China’s western provinces for a speaking engagement, my host — a friend of mine — asked me to counsel some of his relatives. Usually I turn down these sorts of requests, but he eventually wore me down, and I relented. So, three of his relatives descended on my hotel room one night. The father, Mr. Xiao, was somewhere in his 50s. A graduate of a prestigious university, he worked as a chief engineer at a large firm. The mother, Ms. Zhou, taught at a local high school. Their son, whom they affectionately referred to as “Tiger Cub,” had been held back a year at one of the area’s top high schools.
The first time I heard them call their son Tiger Cub, I had to suppress a snort of laughter. There was nothing about this boy’s demeanor or temperament that suggested a tiger. He was short, a little gangly, and had a somewhat hangdog demeanor. He curled almost into a ball when he sat down, and he couldn’t even bring himself to look me in the eye.
I started our discussion by asking each of the family members to describe what they thought the problem was. The mother spoke first: She said Tiger Cub was an excellent student all through preschool and elementary school, and had frequently ranked at the top of his class. After starting middle school, however, he grew increasingly withdrawn, until he reached the point where he would no longer even go out and spend time with his friends. He was terrified of his teachers, and the second he ran into a difficult problem in his schoolwork, he would grow flustered and lose all confidence.
Tiger Cub’s most pressing problem at the time had to do with tests. Whenever an exam drew near, he would get nervous. Worried he would score poorly, he wouldn’t eat or sleep. At the testing site, things went from bad to worse. His hands would tremble, his heart would race, and his mind would go blank. Suddenly, he found himself unable to answer simple questions. These problems were compounded whenever he got his results back, as they were inevitably quite poor.
Tiger Cub was stuck in a vicious cycle, one his family felt was spinning out of control. With the gaokao — China’s college entrance exam — just two years away, they didn’t know what to do.
In addition to the homework assigned by his teachers, Tiger Cub’s parents also gave their son what they called “snacks.” These consisted of difficult academic problems — usually to do with math and physics — extending beyond what he was learning in school, which they expected him to be able to solve. To Tiger Cub’s parents, these problems ensured that he would never become complacent about his mastery of the test material. In the run-up to each test, his parents made sure to criticize him for his supposed sloppiness in his studies and remind him that he was always unnecessarily losing points on simple questions.
I asked Tiger Cub how he felt about what he had just heard from his mother. Unexpectedly, he jerked his head up furiously and spat, “I’m sick of it!” It was the first time all night I had seen a flash of the tiger in him, and I was thrilled. If he still had enough fire to be able to express his anger, then the situation wasn’t quite as hopeless as it first seemed.
His parents, meanwhile, let out a pair of deep sighs and shot me an apologetic glance, as though I would be offended by their son’s behavior. I decided to approach the problem through the framework of setback education. I began by asking Mr. Xiao if he could remember the last time he had complimented Tiger Cub.
He thought for a full minute before answering haltingly. It had been a few years. He quickly attempted to explain himself. He had two reasons for not complimenting his son: “First, I don’t want him to become arrogant or self-satisfied. Second, over the past few years, he really hasn’t done anything worthy of praise.”
I turned to Tiger Cub and asked him whether he could remember the last time his father had relaxed enough to smile at him. He answered immediately: “He’s never smiled at me. He always acts like he’s at a funeral whenever he’s around me.”
Turning back to Mr. Xiao, I asked whether he had ever experienced hardships or difficulties at work. He seemed moved, as though I had come to some deep understanding of the constant and complex challenges besetting a man in his position. He nodded solemnly. I asked him another question: “When you come home after a long day, how do you want to be treated? Do you want your wife to lash out or act angrily in an attempt to toughen you up for the challenges you’ll face in the outside world? Or do you hope she will be kind and considerate toward you? Which of these two attitudes would be of more use to you when you need to act tough and firm at work?”
Half accepting my point, Mr. Xiao fell silent for a time. I knew continuing this line of questioning might make him defensive, so I decided to change tack. Adopting a warmer tone, I explained: “We’re all people, and sometimes people are vulnerable and in need of warmth. We spend approximately 30,000 days on this earth, and there are always setbacks lurking around the corner. These naturally occurring challenges are more than enough to give us the strength we need; there’s no need to create additional ones to toughen up our children. If you make your home a place where Tiger Cub feels comfortable and happy, then he will naturally have the courage to overcome difficulties and forge ahead regardless of potential setbacks.”
In the 30-minute conversation that ensued, I saw Mr. Xiao let slip several smiles. They were faint, but it was a world of difference from the look on his face when he strode into the room in search of a way to forge his son into Superman. While I did not directly address the question of Tiger Cub’s test anxiety, I told the three of them that if the parents changed their attitude, the problem would resolve itself in time.
Tiger Cub’s first response was to say that after our talk, he felt much less afraid of tests. I believe he was telling the truth, since on a deeper level, his fears weren’t of the tests themselves but that his parents, whom he loved more than anything and who loved him back, would use these exams as a means to pressure him. And on this point, he no longer had anything to fear.
Life suffers from no shortage of naturally occurring setbacks; there is no need to go out of our way to create more. By doing so, parents of young children may actually do them lasting psychological damage. Not only does setback education not help children learn to deal with and overcome problems, but it may also leave them unable to handle even minor issues.
Tiger Cub’s case shows that parenting fads like setback education only fuel bitterness between generations by failing to build trust and confidence within the family. For this reason, setback education is a damaging way to structure a child’s upbringing. Instead, parents must aim to support their kids, praise their strengths, recognize their limitations, and be satisfied with seeing their children become not world-beaters, but the best selves possible.