Effects of Favoritism

Today I was teaching a young kindergarten class (again) and there was one boy that learned the words quicker and pronounced them better than any of the other kids. He looked like he might have been a bit older than the rest. Wanting to encourage what also could have been a natural talent for acquiring foreign languages, I pulled him aside at the end of class and told him his English was really excellent and that he should keep it up. His response? “I’ve always been really smart!”

Of course I was amused by this response. My teaching partner’s response was, “he sure hasn’t learned any modesty yet!” It kind of made me wonder, though… was it more his own personality shining through, or was his response a result of conditioning by teachers and parents?

Then, as the next class was coming in, my teaching partner did something that really bothers me. In front of all the other kids, with all eyes on her, she singled out a little boy and told him he was the best-looking and that she liked him the best. This is something she does often, and, as with this little boy, she does the same thing with the same boy every time we teach that class.

My teaching partner doesn’t do this because she’s insensitive, and it’s something that I’ve seen a lot of teachers at a lot of kindergartens in Shanghai doing. Apparently they don’t see anything wrong with giving special attention to the kids they “like the best.” (There are instances in China of parents “bribing” teachers with money or gifts in exchange for giving their kids more attention, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and I know it’s not the case with my partner.)

I think to most Americans, this kind of teacher behavior is unacceptable. When you single out one kid as good-looking and tell him you like him because he’s good-looking, you’re sending out a powerful message to the other kids: (1) You’re not good-looking, and, more importantly, (2) I don’t like you as much because you’re not good-looking. I’ve mentioned my views to my teaching partner, but nothing stuck.

They say everything you need to know you learn in kindergarten. Apparently one of the clearest messages for a lot of Chinese kids is “good-looking people get ahead in life easier.” Call me an idealist, but I think that’s a pretty harsh reality to learn at such a young age.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. surely the harshest lessons are the ones best learned early. Don’t put hands in the fire. Kettles are hot. Don’t eat toadstools!

  2. chinese teachers are enjoying this teaching methods very much. no wonder many chinese, influenced by this trend, will more like to judge things by their own preference, other than other characters.

  3. Ditto, Adam,

    Everything I learned in life, I learned in Kindergarten. Take naps, lots of naps. Drink milk, lots of milk. Play, play hard.

    And any one who believes that good looks do not help… well, they just …. LOL. I think the time I learned the harsh reality you speak of was in 6th grade, when a colleague remarked about my looks. She said that I was “ugly, funny looking and had a flat nose,” pretty much out of nowhere. This is at an elementary school where I was of a minority consisting of one African American and I was one of two Asians, yes, this is including ALL Asian ethnicities.

  4. Maybe it wasn’t quite as blatant as what you’ve mentioned above, but there were always one or two people in my elementary school in the US who got picked by the teacher every time to wash the boards or clap erasers or do other special tasks. They got teased mercilessly by the rest of the class, a mixture of jealousy and resentment, since nobody likes a teacher’s pet.

    I wonder how the boy’s classmates treat him. The teacher may not be hurting their self-esteem too much–after all, the vast majority of kids didn’t get singled out, so they’re in it all together–but the teacher’s pet may be facing an extracurricular session at the school of hard-knocks.

  5. zhwj,

    I know what you’re saying, but these kids were about 4 years old. Hopefully they’re not beating each other up yet.

  6. I totally agree — that is unacceptable. In our international school we have had problems with the classroom assistants showing very obvious favoritism with some students. In my experience it’s not something they see anything wrong with.

  7. The local teachers do stuff like that all the time at my school as well. If one of the students wins some local speech contest or something, they’ll absolutely shower love and praise on that student. To be brutally truthful, it’d pretty easy for me to do that as well, if only because the cute kids who have really caring parents are really fun to chill with while the fat kids with abusive parents are either completely withdrawn or like pulling on my arm hair.

    But at least in the classroom, I try to ignore the precocious ones who want to answer every damn question because if not, they’d completely hog my time and half the class wouldn’t learn a thing.

  8. I like this kid best, cause he UGLY.

  9. Favoritism, if applied carefully, can promote longing for good characters among other kids. It is hard, though, to avoid put-downs. I think the key is to focus on behavior, not on gift. Still it is hard to distinguish behavior from gift when it comes to learning, such as talent with languages, or with math for that matter. It would serve everyone well if your teaching partner could modify her open praises on the one good looking boy into “this kid always dress so neatly and I like his style and manners the best.”

  10. Gin,

    Yeah, I totally agree. I have this one class where the kids are really wild, but there’s this one little girl that is always extremely well-behaved. I make a point of always choosing her for games and pointing out to the other kids that I’m doing it because she’s so well-behaved, and that’s the kind of kids I like to pick to play the games.

    The big question is: does it work? Well….

  11. One thing I struggled hardest with in China was the constant reference to my looks, or the looks of others. “Do you think she’s pretty?” “He’s really good looking.” “You have a really beautiful nose.” “Oh, you mean the fat one!” “Wow, you look really fat today.” “What do you think about that guy?” etc etc. Mostly it was totally random, first time I’ve met them, or just strangers who commented to me. To each other, people even told their friends they were fat and so on! Also, I seemd to have a totally different idea of what was pretty or good looking than a Chinese or Tibetan person. (One Tibetan friend that helped with translation is probably one of the most beautiful women I know and people constantly put her down! I couldn’t believe it, I told her she’d be a supermodel in NZ)

    Anyway, my friend asked me why it bothered me so much when people were just being nice. Basically, from my cultural viewpoint, only sleazy guys make comments like that. And the attention that I got in that manner frankly scared me! I also think its got to the stage in our culture when if you comment on a woman’s looks you’re basically assumed to be saying her personality isn’t important… that its more sexual than friendship-based. Although it’s certainly helpful having long blonde hair in China for research, since everyones happy to talk to me, I was still tempted many many times to walk into a hairdressers and cut it off and dye it black just so I could feel like a normal person!

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: January 5, 2005 at 10:01 am

    In this respect, I don’t find the Chinese so different from Americans; the only difference is the Chinese are less hypocrites. America is an INCREDIBLY looks-driven society, maybe even more than China. Of course, it’s not polite to comment on another person’s looks, but you get bombarded with images (movies, magazines, TV) every single second of the day of what beauty is and whether you stack up well against it or not. In this, I find the Chinese to be a lot more honest than Americans (and no doubt other Westerners). If the Chinese find you ugly, they’ll tell you, and vice versa. And it’s far better for a kid to know “good-looking people get ahead in life easier” than that great lie “it’s the inside that counts”!

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: January 5, 2005 at 10:03 am


    By the way, do you have a link to where I could see that “supermodel”-looking Tibetan? Yes, I’m SERIOUS!

  14. It is pretty brazen to speak so openly, especially about something as superficial as looks. Of course, teachers are human and will like some students better than others. I was a teachers pet when I was in elementary school, but no one ever beat me up. Perhaps it was because I did not take it so seriously, I just thought they liked me, not me above anyone else.

    My daughters were also the teacher’s pet, even in high school. There problems were with other kids, white kids in America tend to put their hands upto to their eyes and stretch them so the appear to be like Asians. They did that and such such things as Chinese or something like that to my daughters (and other Asians in the class). This was in Washington State, a rather liberal state. My daughters told me it was kind of hard on them, it was especially hard on a Filipina girl in their class. But in Junior High the world changed. All those nasty little boys stood in line just to be their friend, just to chat with them, just hoping they would be kind enough to let them be their friend.

    My daughters had a lot of white friends, many blonds; and they knew all the blond jokes at the time. Gossiping about other people appears to be a universal habit of most people I have known, whether they be North Americans, Europeans, or Asians (and Africans, to think of that).

    I have no thoughts on this, just hope everyone gets through life and does not let it bother them or corrupt themselves with it.

  15. DXC,

    I agree with you to a point. The deck may be stacked in favor of “beautiful” people in pretty much every society, but average-looking people (and even ugly people) CAN succeed. Do you think Bill Gates is good-looking?

    I don’t see the point in starting to crush these kids’ chances while they’re still in kindergarten.

    That said, I’m sure it happens in American kindergartens to some extent too, I’ve just never witnessed it. I haven’t really had the opportunity. I’ve seen it quite a few times here, though.

    I was surprised because with the one child policy in effect, Chinese parents are scrambling to always give their own child the very best. You’d think that schools would be more responsive to that and be much more careful about blatant favoritism.

  16. Being beautiful can be a handicap too! I know I struggle with it everyday.

  17. Huh. I didn’t know about this, and I thought it was some bizaare phenomenon that only happened to me.

    The other day I went shopping for underwear, the saleswoman told me I had small breasts, and that I NEEDED the bra with padding. I left in a huff.

    Another time I was getting my hair cut, and my hairstylist said I was pretty, but I’d be prettier if my nose was a little higher. The expression on my face: WTF?!

    I guess that’s what happens in Shanghai, eh?

  18. Da Xiangchang Says: January 13, 2005 at 3:35 am

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with small breasts!!! I love small breasts–and medium-sized breasts and big breasts, even deep-fried chicken breasts at KFC. The only breasts I don’t like are NO breasts.

  19. I can relate to that. My teacher always calls on the boys..and when one of us “dumb girls” has a comment, she just picks another boy and tells him to “help us out.”

  20. Yah, some of my friends call thier ‘chubby’ friend…umm chubby one. She seems unoffended. Maybe Chinese people can be more matter of fact about things.

  21. i think that everyone should be treated equally and no one should be treated better than the others. whoever is doing the “special treating” probably didn’t get treated like everyone else they got treated special.

  22. hey dxc,
    bull sh!t it is the inside counts, looks have no affect on me. if a guy is hot and i find out he’s a jerk, he is now ugly to my eyes. looks have an effect to a lot of people but it shouldn’t!!!

    hey May,
    i LOVE you!!!! that is the same way in the U.S. looks are all that matter. i too have been told i have small breasts , by my boyfriend actually, he asked me if i was ‘growing’, i smacked him and told him he better never ask me that again or else -guys who say that are *COUGH COUGH* donkeys. they need to grow up! Question- would you rather marry a hot person with NO personaltiy or an average/ugly person with a wonderful personality.
    P.S. you should never learn to be someone you’re not, you should be who you want to be not who everyone else wants you to be. they’re not you ,so they need to get over it!!!

  23. this is for #13 dxc
    why do u want to see her, does it really matter????

  24. Da Xiangchang Says: November 18, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Delta Rose,

    Sure, you don’t care about a man’s looks. Haha. I believe that as much as I believe in global warming.

    And I would marry an average person with a great personality over a hot one with no personality. BUT I would marry a hot one with no personality (no doesn’t mean bad) over an ugly one with a great personality. Call me shallow–or honest.

    And yes, I do want to see Kaili’s hot Tibetan friend cuz, well, I like looking at hot women. Ain’t rocket science.

  25. When I was in school a lot of kids made fun of me. I wasn’t as good looking as the other kids or as athletic, but now all those kids are kissing my corporate office ass.

  26. I am in a graduate program in Chinese medicine, and one of my teachers, also from Shanghai, does this to a classmate of mine, going so far as to tell him that he is her only joy in class. Not much changes beyond kindergarten apparently! It has definitely hurt mine and my other classmates feelings, but it helps to know that this is a Chinese cultural idiosyncrasy, and that being the pet has a good and a bad side to it.

  27. yeah favoritisim is a dangerious element whic destory the life of some one.

  28. Excuse me ?!! Anyone with some common sense please ??!!! This is no way “Chinese culture” in anyway okay ??!!
    Look-! For my understanding as a Chinese, local habits/peculiarities(or cultures if you will), vary widely across Chinese society and the Chinese worldview has had a long, ancient division between noble high/scholarly/refined culture and the people’s, folk’s customs and practice (culture if you will). It is an understatement to say that generalization of a particular UGLY aspect of the Shanghainese(or maybe even a smaller circle of people) behaviour as is in anyway reflective of the entire Chinese psyche is downright INSULTING—-~~! and disgusting!!! Alright ??!
    To the author– I mean no ill intention but—–the offence to my sensibilities are too strong and provoked me to leave this comment here. I wonder how does your wife, sir~ — think of this piece of article ? ~~??
    Have a nice day ~ _

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