I gamble—big time. In case you’re wondering, I do not gamble with money. No, my stakes are far higher, with no room for mistakes. In a society where ‘kiasu’ parents send their children for multiple “enrichment” classes to give them a competitive edge, I am taking chances with my children’s future prospects by not hot-housing them, or pushing them to excel.


The Path to Success

Journalist Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, observed a prevailing belief that “success today depends primarily on cognitive skills—including the abilities to recognise letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns —- and the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.”

It comes as no surprise then, to find Singaporean parents sending their children for a plethora of “enrichment” classes and “toddler tuition” (see here) from the age of two in the hope of giving them a head-start in the educational rat-race.

School-going children are enrolled for tuition lessons to help them stay ahead, or to keep up academically. Some have additional training in sports or in the arts in order to build a portfolio for possible admission to a “good” school. This relentless pressure to excel does not let up even during school holidays, when children are sent for “boot camps” aimed at honing study skills or preparing them intensively for major examinations.

I too, want to give my children the best possible chance in life. However, looking at the paper chase around me, I question what really is “best” for them. Would going to top schools, bagging a scholarship, and landing a high-paying job ensure them success in life? More importantly, will these help them grow up to be happy, responsible and well-adjusted adults?

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The Fear of Losing Out

Looking at the $1.1 billion spent on tuition and enrichment classes in 2014 and the myriad programmes claiming to hone my children’s intellectual prowess, I have to suppress my nagging ‘kiasu’ (fear of losing out) insecurities because I have not enrolled my children in these classes.

However, research findings caution that despite the short-term benefits of such courses, my children have more to lose in the long run should I sign them up for too much, too soon.

a) Losing out on well-rounded brain development

Pre-schoolers have an amazing sponge-like ability to absorb and learn. However, sending them for intensive academic, music or sports training in an attempt to ‘develop their full potential’ may back-fire.

Experts are of the opinion that “there isn’t any evidence to suggest that getting children to do things sooner is better”. In fact, “overly ambitious agendas related to enrichment and teaching programs for children” may lead to “neurological crowding” in one part of the brain and “early decreases in the size and number of brain regions in children” which “may be necessary for creativity in adolescence and adulthood”.

b) Losing out on physical and mental health

In a recent study, Singaporean students ranked top in Mathematics and Science globally. We came in third in the time spent on homework last year.

It is no wonder, then, that our kids face intense pressure to perform academically and that more children under the age of 12 are seeking psychiatric help.

Add a host of ‘enrichment classes’ to our children’s load and we risk snapping them like over-wound springs. As Professor of psychology, Suniya Luthar, has noted (here), school-going children in affluent communities in America “are often over scheduled with organized extra-curricular activities to the point that they suffer stress-related symptoms like insomnia, stomach aches, headaches, anxiety, and depression”.

Ms Jeannie Koh, who has worked as a counsellor in schools from primary to tertiary levels in Singapore, the US, and Canada since 1991, observed that “there has been a growing concern of stress in Singapore schools”. Citing anecdotal observation and newspaper articles, Ms Koh also notes a worrying rise in the number of suicides among young people in recent years.

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I want to minimise my children’s exposure to prolonged periods of stress, which has “damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and health across the lifespan” and which puts them at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke later in life.

c) Losing out on executive function and self-regulation skills

Studies have shown that a more accurate predictor of success in life is not a person’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) but his executive function and self-regulation skills.

These mental processes enable us to “plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully”, manage our emotions, and develop strategies to cope effectively with difficult circumstances.

However, toxic stress “disrupts brain architecture and impairs the development of executive function”. Therefore, in our attempts to gear our children up for success, we must be mindful not to stretch them beyond their ability to cope, or we risk damaging their future prospects.

d) Loss of play time

In addition to the many benefits of play, play is a vehicle through which children can develop their executive functions and self-regulation skills. Too many “enrichment” classes actually rob our children of developmentally important playtime instead of enriching their lives!

e) Loss of healthy self-esteem

Professor Luthar observed (here) that “excessive achievement pressures” to excel academically and in multiple extracurricular activities can potentially cause psychological distress in students.

“When children come to believe that their parents value them more for what they can do than for who they are, they tend to rely on their accomplishments for their sense of self-worth. This, in turn, places them at high risk for maladjustment, because of intense preoccupation with real, imagined, or anticipated failures,” she warns.

f) Loss of zest for learning and life

Our children spend approximately 20 years schooling from pre-nursery to university. This educational journey is a marathon and not a sprint! We would do well to pace our children appropriately.

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Psychologist Joan Freeman, who works with gifted children, advises parents not to hothouse their kids as this does not make a difference to their future success. On the contrary, she warns that children can get “sick and tired of having [their] nose to the grindstone” and “when they find themselves free to make their own decisions… some cut loose.”

Concurring, Ms Koh notes that “there is a general anecdotal observation that quite a number of young people nearing graduation from tertiary institutions are burning out. They complain of lack of motivation, wanting to completely do something that is not related to their studies — something less mentally taxing or working at a job that is very much below their credentials.”

g) Loss of family bonding time

Professor Luthar noted that “children’s needs for emotional closeness with parents can suffer as the demands of professional parents’ careers erode relaxed family time, and youngsters are shuttled between various after-school activities”.

She warned that such “scheduled hyperactivity” deprives children of “stabilising, character-shaping experiences like suppertime conversations and family outings”.

Physical and emotional isolation from parents, “low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal after-school adult supervision” may also result in “maladjustments, psychological distress and delinquent behaviour” in children.

Securing my children’s Future

The work of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists over the past decade are showing that what contributes most to our children’s success is not “how much information we can stuff into [their brains] in the first few years”, but rather, whether we are able to help them develop character traits such as “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.” (Tough, 2012)

Given this wealth of research, the odds, to me are clear. I’m shielding my kids from unnecessary stress, letting them learn through play and enriching their lives with experiences, not classes. I will focus on building relationships with them and nurturing their characters in the process. How about you?

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