Seriously, who needs the Olympics when you have parenting? One might say that parenting is a competitive sport, and increasingly so. More and more, parents are investing time and money to give their children a competitive edge — not just in Singapore, but everywhere in the world. This has given rise to what is known as parentocracy, where a child’s success in education is enabled thanks to his parents’ financial means, rather than the child’s own efforts and ability.
The playing field appears to be skewed towards well-connected and well-heeled parents, those who can enrol their children in top-rated schools due to affiliations or their addresses, or send their kids to exclusive pre-schools and multiple enrichment and tuition classes.
But there’s hope for ordinary folk like us!
Research has shown that too much academic pressure and enrichment may backfire, leaving kids burnt out, psychologically damaged, and unable to perform well as adults. So instead of going with the flow, I have decided to beat parentocracy and secure my children’s future by taking the following simple (and free!) steps:
1. Stay Home with the Kids
British and American researchers have found that children are negatively affected when their mothers return to full time work within their pre-school years, and especially so within the child’s first nine months of life. These children had slower emotional development, performed 10 per cent worse in reading and Maths tests, had lower educational attainment, and a higher chance of unemployment later in life.
Conversely, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk Adaptation, an on-going study which has tracked children into adulthood over the past 36 years, found that children who do well would generally have had “at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult”.
These children could regulate their emotions better, had higher self-esteem, better relationships with others, fewer behavioural problems, were less vulnerable to stress, and were more able to take advantage of opportunities for growth.
Having been a stay-home mum for almost nine years, I concur with studies which have found that early parental care makes a positive difference in a child’s academic success, even more reliably than IQ (Intelligence Quotient) or other achievement tests.
Despite not having attended any enrichment classes, my children (aged three and eight years) demonstrated precocious language development by the age of two, the ability to add by age three, and multiply by age six. This has translated into consistently good academic results for my elder child who is now in Primary 3. My role was just to be present and interact with them in an age appropriate way as described in this article.
Since older children continue to benefit from the guidance of a stay-home parent, I am committed to staying home until my children reach their teens.
2. Be Involved in their Lives
Researchers studying the data from 10,000 eight-grade students in America have found that a child’s level of achievement is higher when there is parental effort involved. In fact, they estimated that “schools would need to increase per-pupil spending by more than $1,000 in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement”.
But there is no need for “helicopter parenting”. My husband and I simply helped my son to establish routines, reminded him to keep track of his homework, provided guidance and encouragement when he needed it, showed an interest in his daily life, and modelled appropriate social behaviour for him to emulate. All this has helped to develop his executive functions skills and set him on the path of responsible, independent learning.
3. Help them to Build Character
In a study of 304 eight-graders in America, Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth found that “self-discipline was a more accurate predictor of academic success than IQ scores”.
She also observed that successful students displayed qualities like passion and perseverance for very long-term goals, and worked “really hard” to make (their) future a reality. In short, they had “grit”, a quality which has been found to be a more significant predictor of success than social intelligence, IQ, or good looks. I am therefore teaching my children the value of perseverance because “winners never quit and quitters never win”.
Jeannie Koh, a counsellor who has worked in schools from primary to tertiary levels in Singapore, the US, and Canada since 1991, offers these three simple ways to help your child:
(i) Learn to identify what motivates your child
(ii) Teach your child delayed gratification (the ability to resist the temptation of short term gain in return for long term benefits)
(iii) Bring up your child to have good character and integrity in all situations because “it is the moral, character values that will help the child grow up, weather the immense pressures and changes to the world, and learn to accept and overcome mistakes and failures.”
Indeed, intelligence and achievements do not guarantee success in life. Bright scholars and prominent civil servants have fallen from grace because of their lack of moral fibre. Therefore, rather than place undue emphasis on developing my children’s IQ, I am focusing on moulding their character.
4. Manage your own Stress and Expectations
Watching my son run the educational rat-race can be a nail-biting experience especially in this competitive climate. I am mindful not to transfer my anxiety to him, as he already feels pressurised by the system.
American, British and Swedish researchers have found that parental anxiety can cause children to be anxious too. This stress transference could lead to them developing physical and mental health problems. In fact, an NUS study reported in The Straits Times recently revealed that children of pushy parents are at a higher risk of depression.
Prolonged academic pressure can take a toll on our children’s health and wellbeing. Therefore, Ms Koh encourages us to “establish realistic expectations” for our children. In addition, we can find other parents of children with similar interests, values, talents, and way of life to create a small community to encourage one another. This would help in setting a “healthy pressure but not an overwhelming one on the child”.
5. Explore Alternate Paths to Success
In the film Race To Nowhere, director Vicki Albeles documents “heart breaking stories about students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve”.
She notes that such damaging pressure to do well in standardised college entrance examinations may be unnecessary. A study was conducted on approximately 123,000 students at 33 colleges and universities which made standardised test scores optional. The researchers found “few significant differences” in the college grades and graduation rates of students who did and did not submit an SAT or ACT score with their application.
With the rise of information technology, Ms Koh also notes that “the educational fields and prospects for career development and advancement are changing rapidly.” Online courses are “giving access to new ways of learning and getting professional qualifications” and students completing such courses have found work without the need to obtain a degree.
I will bear this in mind when my children sit for national examinations. Instead of pushing them to score every last mark, I will help them to explore alternative routes to higher education.
As I reflect on the careers of our former national footballer, Fandi Ahmad, and the late singer and actress, Emma Yong, I am reminded once again that a successful career need not necessarily depend on academic qualifications. Fandi and Emma hailed from opposite ends of the education spectrum, yet both pursued their passions and excelled in their careers. I will encourage my children to identify their talents, chase their dreams and give their best in all their endeavours. Success will follow as a result.