SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

May 2014

Nurturing Your Child to Excel

Dorothy Tam is mum to two daughters who are both Princeton University students. The family literacy facilitator, who organised enrichment programmes in Singapore for 10 years, shares her thoughts on nurturing children to excel.

“The Singapore education system is so stressful!” was a common complaint I heard as I entered motherhood and wondered how, as a foreigner, I would cope and prepare my daughter for this success-driven society.

I had my own difficulties fitting into my new surroundings, a stranger caught between East and West, unable to speak Mandarin and yet expected to do so because I looked Chinese. Inevitably would come the question “Where are you from?” to which there was no simple answer.


I was born in the Fiji Islands to parents who had escaped communist China to forge a better life. Then my older sister (at 13) and I (at 11) lived in Canada, separated from the rest of the family for the next 12 years, seeing them only once every two years, in the name of a “better education”.

During those formative years, I struggled with low self-esteem and lack of nurturing from my uneducated parents who thought they were giving my sister and me their best. I envied my classmates who enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals, extracurricular activities, and enriching family experiences. I longed for a real home and family.

The potential to turn wayward without parental guidance was offset by the example of good friends who introduced me to Christianity. The Bible became the singular molding influence in my life.

After completing my degree, I joined my family in Fiji to immigrate to Australia. During my three years in Melbourne, I met and married my husband. We relocated to Canada for 18 months, and then settled down in Singapore for the next 15 years, having two children along the way.

It was from this background that I was thrust into the rigour of Singapore’s relentless pursuit of excellence in education. I was unwilling to join this rat race. I was determined to resist becoming a ‘kiasu’ parent.


My past upbringing or the lack of it would have a huge impact on how I brought up my children. I wanted to build a loving home where I was available to model and teach good values, provide encouragement and guidance, and expose them to the exciting world of knowledge and opportunities that I felt I had missed out on. My aim was to develop well adjusted individuals who would possess the skills to survive in the local school system.

So I read books and tried different advice given by experienced parents. But it was only when my husband and I were introduced to an intensive parenting course that emphasised character training, that we found our way.

Because of this, my children not only survived, they thrived.

I remember the day my Primary 3 daughter came home and told us that she had undergone a very difficult exam that was required to determine who got into the Gifted Education class.

We had heard of this extremely rigorous program and consoled Vivienne. When she announced that she had made it to the second round, we cautioned her against any expectations.

To our utter surprise, she succeeded and we thought, “Wow, our child has been assessed as gifted but we don’t want her to enter this program because we are against additional pressure. The regular curriculum exerts enough pressure.”

It was only after attending the Ministry of Education briefing, that we understood that the GEP would incorporate the elements of greater teacher attention, creativity, independent project work, and collaborative learning, a shift away from the rote learning of facts and figures.

We subsequently saw the benefits of this specialised approach as Vivienne blossomed in this environment, surrounded by bright like-minded peers and dedicated teachers who maximised their learning. Excellence was naturally encouraged at school and we supported this at home but we sought to supplement it with games like Boggle and outings such as bike rides and hikes that strengthened family life.

We engaged constantly with our children and built a close relationship with them so that they could come home and feel secure enough to share their fears and failures without the reprisal of scoldings and naggings. A favourite part of my day was sitting down with my daughters after school to snack together and hear about their highlights and low points.

Importantly, our girls were given the freedom to follow their interests though we did not agree with all of them. In this way their talents were affirmed and developed with our active involvement.

To me, nurturing your children to excel is best developed in the context of a stable, loving, home where character training is given serious attention and taught by parents who are available and committed to raising children who can deal with life’s problems and failures — not just scoring ‘A’s on exam papers.

Dorothy is offering a workshop on “A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Get into the Ivy League: The Journey of a Princeton Mom” on 28 June, 2-6pm. Her daughters Janelle and Vivienne will also be present to share their experiences. Go to for more details.

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Nurturing Your Child to Excel