Are Asian Kids Really Better at Math?

Having lived both here and abroad, I’ve learned valuable lessons about how parents give their children an edge. 

Asian Boy in Glasses Doing Homework Shutterstock
When my kids were little, my son attended a wonderful play-based preschool in New York City. Each morning, his teachers would read exciting stories about snails riding on whales and families going on bear hunts. At home each evening, we’d cuddle up and read his favorite books over and over again.

As a teacher myself, I read voraciously about early-childhood education. Every book seemed to focus on pre-reading skills, urging parents to raise their children in a “print-rich environment” full of conversations, stories, books, and words. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the importance of reading aloud to children from a young age, and at my son’s first well visit, our doctor gave me a lovely board book to read with him. The message that I got from everyone—doctors, educators, and the media—was clear, and I thought I was doing everything that a good parent could possibly do.

But then in 2010, when my son was turning 5 and my daughter was nearly 2, we moved to Singapore. I’d been raised in India before moving to the U.S. as a teenager and was familiar with Asian cultures and their reverence for math. Even so, I was struck by how focused parents on this high-achieving Asian island were on giving their kids a strong math foundation. It quickly dawned on me that parents in Singapore seemed to be doing for math what American parents do for reading.

Priya, one of my first friends, was a software engineer who had stopped working full-time to raise her two sons. She and her husband integrated math into their daily life by talking to their kids about numbers, shapes, and patterns right from the get-go. They played math games in the car and at the dinner table. They taught their sons chess and they spent money and time on Lego sets, blocks, tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, origami, and board games.

As my social network expanded, it became clear that Priya wasn’t unique. One mother described how she used the elevator in her apartment building to teach math. “Riding an elevator is like riding up and down a number line,” she said. “It’s a great way to get kids thinking about math. You might say, ‘If we’re on the fifth floor, how many floors till we get to the eleventh floor?’ ” Another mom described how she engaged her preschool-age son in conversations about the math all around him. She introduced him to shapes on the playground: “There’s an isosceles triangle!”

This mathematical attitude was not restricted to moms who were engineers or accountants. When I’ve chatted with the administrative assistants at the school where I now teach in Singapore, they too have told me about how they nurtured a love of math. When kids enter elementary school, it’s typical for their parents to supplement the math curriculum with additional workbook exercises, math games, and enrichment classes. Kids here consider math-related activities to be a normal part of childhood.

As I researched my book, Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, I learned more about how this attention to math pays off. In the most recently published Programme for International Student Assessment math test results, Singapore ranked second in the world, and the top five countries were all Asian. The United States was 36th. And although American experts stress the importance of early literacy, research by Vanderbilt University and the University of Chicago has found that early math skills are the best predictor of how kids will perform through eighth grade—not only in math but in their other classes too.

So if you’ve ever wondered why Asian nations as well as Asian-American kids seem to do so well in math, I have an answer for you: Their families value it. Just as good readers are kids who read a lot, good mathematicians are kids who do a lot of math. Moving to Singapore was an eye-opener for me. I now insist that my kids do extra math worksheets and puzzles every weekend. They protest sometimes, but they’ve gotten used to it—and when they master a certain concept, doing those problems becomes fun for them. However, they also love books and I’ve continued to read to them. It’s possible to have the best of both worlds.