In Praise of … Cautiousness?

Last week Ava’s teacher sent me an email inviting me to their class assembly.  Ava would be receiving an award so I told her I would be there.  It is a little bittersweet to get an award at the last assembly of the school year before you ride off into the sunset and change schools, but we would take it!  Ava had told me that in class they had voted for their classmates in a variety of different categories for awards to be given out the last week of school.  I didn’t ask too much follow up so I just assumed that was what I was going to be seeing when I went to the assembly.

Dear China,

Please remind me never to assume anything while we are living here.  Thank you in advance.

Sincerely,

Gwen

This assembly had nothing to do with the awards Ava had been discussing.  This assembly was one of the school’s character assemblies.  Yes, character, and not like cartoon.  Throughout the school year, the classes make presentations about specific attributes that are part of their character education program.  I am all for building character, and when I heard about this part of the school curriculum I wasn’t too alarmed.  The school has a religious element, not too strong, but there none the less.  It seemed at first to be just the melding of Western and Asian culture that would help the kids to better understand China and make sense of their experiences here.  It leans heavily toward Christianity, but my kids have had exposure to other religions.  Done well a little character education might be nice, right?

Ava showed me her “character cards” during our parent conference a month or so ago and I asked her some questions about them.  She was vague, maybe because she wasn’t entirely clear on things.  Some of the assemblies and discussions were from the beginning of the year and she had only participated in a few.  These character cards had cartoon animals on them –I am guessing the animal is supposed to represent that character trait somehow—and then a small description.  Some of them were confusing, and there were quite a few of them that I was a bit skeptical about.  There are things like “discernment” and “hospitality”.  The kinds of things that are difficult to define and the explanations didn’t always fit my interpretation.

Last week’s assembly was about “cautiousness” and I was treated to a performance all about following the rules and being obedient.  Some of it was easy to agree with.  I am all for internet safety and leaving the scene when you think you might be in danger, but there were parts that made me uncomfortable.  There was so much of the performance that was about the rules and how following them made everyone safer.  Now, I am not against rules or following the rules.  But I like my rules with a healthy dose of explanation.  I don’t think that kids should blindly accept the rules just because an adult tells them to and I don’t think adults should be offended when kids ask them to explain where a rule comes from or why we all should follow it.  I am not excited to hear people say that we have a rule “just because”.  Sadly, much of this assembly was about how grown ups know more than kids and, for that reason, kids should do what grown ups say.  An administrator got up at the end to thank the children for their work in putting on the performance.  He reiterated how the rules were in place to keep kids safe and that grown ups know more than kids.  Rules help us to have more fun, not less!  All hail, cautiousness!

Next came the awards and I began to get a sinking feeling that Ava was about to get an award celebrating her cautiousness.  Each class gave two awards and one of her teachers stood up to sing the praises of the first lucky student.  He always raises his hand.  He always asks permission.  He always does things at the right time.  He was all smiles as he came up to receive his award.  The Chinese-speaking teacher got up and presented the second award.  I have no idea what was actually said because the combination of Mandarin and the growing dread of Ava being recognized for cautiousness was just too overwhelming.  When her name was called, Ava looked genuinely surprised.  Her face lit up and she rushed forward to get the coveted piece of paper.  She beamed for the rest of the assembly as the other classes handed out their awards.  When she made eye contact with me her smile intensified and she bounced a bit, her excitement unable to compete with her cautiousness, apparently.

When it was finished she ran over to me gushing about the award.  She had never been given an award before and she was elated to have been recognized.  Thrilled.  I shared some of her enthusiasm, but it was tinged with a bit of regret.  I know how hard these last few months have been for her and how difficult it has been to adapt to this new school.  She has trouble sitting still and tends to be the kid who bounces around full of crazy ideas.  Here she has been told that she needs to be quiet and she needs to raise her hand.  She needs to follow directions and she has had to wear a uniform to conform even more.  The first few weeks of this were excruciating.  She was trying so hard and it was so exhausting.  It got better, but now here we are getting rewarded for our cautiousness.  I found myself hoping that they had given her the award only because she hadn’t gotten one before and they didn’t want to leave her out.  I am hoping that they were just being nice, because the alternative is that Ava has squished herself so tiny in the last few months that her teachers actually see her as exemplifying cautiousness.  I don’t want her to be cautious.  I want her to be fearless.

Mark met me on his way to the metro station and I told him about the award and the assembly.  He laughed because he had just spent the last few days interviewing Chinese job applicants and had noticed that they were awfully, um, cautious.  This was starting to look like some sort of Chinese thing, this cautiousness!  He had to snap a few photos of the award to show his colleagues.

Later when I bemoaned the award and my mixed feelings, my friend took up the cause of cautiousness.  “Why couldn’t she have been recognized for “Enthusiasm” or Hospitality?” I had wailed.  “Something I could get behind.”

“You could get behind “Hospitality”? she had asked.

“Yes, maybe.  If it was done right.  I mean, I’m from the South.”

But Ava didn’t get an award for hospitality.  She got one for her cautiousness.  A trait that I am not entirely sure I can get behind.  The more we talked about it, the clearer it became—Mark and I don’t always value cautiousness.  We moved to China, leaving all our family and friends.  We took the kids out of wonderful schools and put our house on the market.  We decided to put our faith in something that has a pretty high failure rate.  That isn’t cautiousness.  That is risk– calculated risk.  We take chances.  We try to think things through, but occasionally we decide that even  though it isn’t 100% safe we are going to jump anyway.  How can we tell our kids to be cautious if it means shying away from a few calculated risks?  I want to raise kids that see the merit in weighing their options and sometimes taking a risk.  I want them to do the unexpected every now and then.  I understand that sometimes it pays to be cautious, but I also know that sometimes it is just the fear talking.  It would have been so much easier to stay home and let things stay the same, but then the kids wouldn’t be learning Mandarin or living in Shanghai.  Those experiences are worth a little risk.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of … Cautiousness?

  1. I have a feeling the values and character you instill in the kids as parents will override the school environment. Remember, for Ava, and any child in a new culture, “fitting in” reigns supreme…at first. Now that she has learned “the rules,” maybe she will also know how to change the rules….with caution. A fearless changemaker is still growing and developing! Hang in there…

  2. I hope you are right, Tia! Changing schools next year will be both a relief and a challenge for her, I think. She will be back in an American system, but now she has had this time with different rules and expectations. She is resilient, but I hate to see the struggling. Fingers crossed that her new school will be a better fit.

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