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  • For Korean Parents, The Secret To Success Is Teaching Their Kids 'Nunchi'

    Some people are born with it, but parents can also teach it to their kids at a young age.
    by Kitty Elicay .
For Korean Parents, The Secret To Success Is Teaching Their Kids 'Nunchi'
PHOTO BY iStock
  • Whenever I watch Korean dramas, I always notice how hardworking children are when it comes to academics. Apart from their classes, they also engage in after-school sessions where they do more studying. It is not surprising that Korean kids grow up successful because they spend so much time on their academics, but it is not all about high grades. Korean parents apparently have a well-kept secret to raising smart and successful kids — nunchi, or the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and then responding appropriately.

    Nunchi, which roughly translates to “eye-measure,” is all about sizing up or reading a room quickly, with the emphasis on the collective, and not just specific individuals. When you have this trait, you’re able to understand the overall context and atmosphere of any situation and respond as needed.

    Euny Hong, a Korean-American journalist and author of The Power of Nunchi: the Korean Secret to Happiness and Success, explains that in Korea, having “quick” nunchi is almost like having a superpower. “A well-honed and quick nunchi can help you choose the right partner in life or business, shine at work, protect you against those who mean you harm, and even reduce social anxiety,” she writes in CNBC.

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    How to teach your kids nunchi

    Hong says that some people are born with nunchi, but it is also a trait that parents can teach their kids at a young age, starting as early as 3 years old. She adds, “The tradition follows a well-known expression that goes: ‘A habit formed at age three lasts until age 80.’”

    Nunchi is instilled in children by teaching them this crucial lesson: It’s not all about you.

    At 3 years old, children are impatient and have “selective foresight” where they can’t anticipate or see the results of their actions. They can’t think ahead yet. “If she wants something, she cannot imagine having it ‘after lunch’ or even ‘in a minute,’” explains Penelope Leach, a child development psychologist.

    So if you’re in a restaurant waiting for food to be served and your daughter screams, “I’m hungry,” your instinct might be to give her a snack while she waits for the food to arrive to calm her down.

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    “If you can observe with patience, then your questions — what to do, how to act, how to respond — will be answered without your having to say a word,”

    A Korean mother will not do that. Instead, she’ll ask her daughter to look around and observe all the other people who are waiting for their food, just like them. Then she’ll say, “Now, do you think you’re the only person in this queue who is hungry?”

    Hong says it’s a lesson that teaches the child that the world does not revolve around her. They don’t always get what they want — sometimes they have to wait or work hard for it.

    Another example Hong gives is the fact that Korean schools don’t employ janitors. Instead, students work together and take turns cleaning classrooms and even bathrooms. Students are divided into groups and responsibilities are rotated.

    One of the lessons this teaches is the tidier you are, the less time it will take to clean up. Another is seeing the class as a single hive — “students must respect their environment as a team, because they’re the ones responsible for preserving it,” Hong writes.

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    "You don’t need to be the smartest, richest, or most privileged person to find success and happiness in life; you only need to have quick nunchi."

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    How nunchi helps kids become successful

    We’ve already established that high IQ and good grades are not the only predictors of success. Nunchi is a lot like emotional intelligence — by being able to ‘read’ a person’s expression, gestures, and words, children are more likely to fit in in various social situations and make valuable connections they’ll need to get ahead in life.

    Nunchi is all about listening and observing: if your child, as an adult, is angling for a raise, she’ll be able to use her nunchi to check if it’s the right time to talk to her boss. Is the boss in a good mood or has he been shouting on his phone the whole day? Is he stress eating? If he is, your child will know to postpone a meeting with the boss and wait for a more opportune time to talk.

    Hong says she is living proof that kids with nunchi can be successful. When she was 12, her family moved back to South Korea. She didn’t know how to speak Korean, yet she was enrolled in a Korean public school. Worse, teachers didn’t allow students to ask questions — instead, Hong shares that she had to rely on her nunchi. “If you can observe with patience, then your questions — what to do, how to act, how to respond — will be answered without your having to say a word,” she writes.

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    After a year of living in Korea, Hong became the top student in her class and a prize-winning math and physics student. Hong says, “You don’t need to be the smartest, richest, or most privileged person to find success and happiness in life; you only need to have quick nunchi.”

    Is your child obsessed with all things Korean? Here's how you can connect with her and nurture her interests.

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