And why that matters now (Part 1)
Kumon’s logo doesn’t help. The picture of the slightly scared, slightly sad face should be enough to suggest evil intent. But, as one of the largest educational franchises in the world, they must be doing something right. But what, exactly? And what lessons might Kumon provide parents living in a Coronaworld?
My story with Kumon began as horror stories often do. One summer several years ago, my family was invited to a co-worker’s home for dinner. They lived in a fine home, and from all appearances, they seemed perfectly normal.
We arrived on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in mid-June. Summer vacation was in full effect, and yet, when we entered the home, we saw their 4-year-old son, David, sitting at the kitchen table — cue the scary music — doing math problems. Upon reflection, his face was a blend between the sad Kumon logo and the hypnotized character in the horror movie, “Get out.” Blank eyes. Mouth agape.
When I asked him what he was doing, he brightened a bit and said, “Kumon math sheets.” This was the first I heard of Kumon, and as I watched David, I was startled at what I saw. My mouth now hung open.
He was doing addition and subtraction problems. This was solid first or second-grade math, mind you. And he was only a preschool student. Even more astonishing was that he did his computations in his head. No counting on his fingers and no calculator. I sat and watched him dumbfounded. And, perhaps most importantly, David was demonstrating the Independent Learning that I described in an earlier post. No parent was standing over his shoulder.
My son was three years old when we had this first encounter with Kumon. A year earlier, my son’s preschool teacher, Bobby Brooks, inspired me to play the Head Coach role in teaching my child to read. Mr. Brooks was one of the few Black male preschool teachers in the state of Texas — much, much more on the importance of Mr. Brooks and other male teachers of color in future posts — and, perhaps not unrelatedly, he insisted, almost DEMANDED that my wife and I teach my son to read early. He pressed me to lead my son’s literacy and provided a clear process and a structure to do it. Because of Mr. Brooks, I raised my expectations regarding my son’s reading, but my expectations for math were still low.
After watching David’s early mastery of math, I began to sense that I was expecting too little of my son. Within a week, we signed him up for Kumon.
How a Black Father became an Asian Mother
My first day at the Kumon center was a culture shock. I was used to being the only Black male in boardrooms and business meetings, but I was caught off guard in the Kumon lobby. Instead of being surrounded by Black, White, or Hispanic adults, I was surrounded by mothers from Pacific Rim or South Asian countries.
While my son sat with his Kumon teachers, the parents in the Kumon lobby became my instructors. Like Mr. Brooks, these mothers insisted that what happened outside of school mattered more than what was happening in school. And the summer months were especially important.
Mimicking Mr. Brooks in reading, Kumon provided a structure and a process to support learning math at home. And as I saw the results, I began to imagine my son being a “superstar” in math. For the first time, I saw a pathway forward and became inspired by the possibilities. Weeks after beginning Kumon, sitting there in the lobby, surrounded by my new Asian friends, is when I first embraced my inner Asian Mother. There was no ceremony, only a soul-level decision to do whatever I could to make this vision for my son come to pass. And I’m happy to report that, 13 years later, my son turned out to be the math (and academic) superstar I had imagined.
A few years later, I was interviewing a Kumon franchise owner for a related consulting assignment. This owner made a telling, if not outright offensive, statement about the parents in her center. She said, “Each summer, my White parents ask for a reduction in Kumon assignments, saying, ‘It’s summer vacation. We’d like our kids to have a break.’” “But my Asian families,” she continued, “ask for double the number of assignments for the same reason. They say, ‘It’s summer vacation, so our kids have more time.’”
Caution: Now, don’t get me wrong. Kumon has many detractors for many good reasons. The drive for academic excellence can, and often does, warp a parent. Like in my recent post, parents can easily become hyper-competitive and turn education into a soul-crushing quest for achievement. I saw this in some of the parents, and I definitely saw it in the eyes of many of the students. This is not at all what I’m suggesting.
My point for this blog post is simple. I want to inspire parents with the common wisdom of both Mr. Brooks and the Asian mothers I met at Kumon. Each taught me:
“When school is closed, parental leadership must grow, and when schools are open, parental leadership must remain.”Mr. Brooks and almost every Asian Mom I’ve ever met.
In this challenging time, I aim to inspire parents to raise their academic expectations, not despite Coronavirus, but because of it.
School has Changed. Now it’s Your Turn.
From this point on, the home will be, without question, your child’s chief Learning Hub. I want to help you in the following ways.
Please join many other parents and me for a webinar on the first Saturday of each month from 10-11 am CST. We spend our time discussing the structure and processes needed to turn any home into a Learning Hub. We also have plenty of time for questions. Click here to view a previous session.
Or schedule an individual Free 45-min conversation with me. We’ll discuss your specific issues and develop strategies together. No strings attached.
If you’ve read this far, then you get what I’m after.
Part Two Next Week
Next week I’ll continue describing the many lessons from Mr. Brooks, my life as an Asian mother, and Kumon. I’ll share the “6 Principles on Building Your Home Learning Hub,” and I’ll also describe why programs like Kumon are no longer relevant and how they may actually do more harm than good. Subscribe below for future blog updates and, as always, please share with one parent who could use this information.
Best to you as you fight for your child’s/grandchild’s/nephew’s/niece’s/neighbor’s future.