(This article is written as my reflection on the challenges I faced as a parent whose kids are entering school and with it, experiencing the joys and struggles of the demanding education system. This article is not meant to judge anyone. In fact, it’s written to heighten the awareness of the tightrope every parent walks in balancing the desire to see their children achieve their potential while redefining the meaning of success in this stressful world we live in).
To myself in 2020…
“You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
‘Children’ (Excerpt) by Kahlil Gibran
“Daddy, I’m lousy…”
“Daddy, I’m lousy…in Math…” my daughter, Dana, all of 8 years old, remarked one evening, feeling somewhat downcast.
I had noticed that my chirpy daughter was reticent that evening at the dinner table. Usually, dinner time is when my wife, Angie and I stop, pause and take stock of the day’s happenings. The eldest would usually be rattling away about her day, what her friends did in class and yes, her sentiments towards the veggies on her plate. But today, she was unusually quiet.
After some prompting, with bowed head and lowered gaze, she remarked that she’s ‘lousy’ in Mathematics, sounding resigned. This, after one term of her 2nd year in primary school, barely experiencing the full rigour of the formal education.
My wife, Angie and I were caught off guard. Our daughter did not say, “I don’t’ know how to solve this Math problem”. Instead, she had passed a judgment on her intellectual abilities which may damage a young child’s developing self-esteem.
As parents, we have been mindful about using words that judge, label or condemn. We are also very aware of the negative impacts that unrealistic expectations and unhealthy comparisons can have, particularly when children feel exasperated enough to give up on themselves, and…on life. Hence, we’ve never set any targets for her in any of her class tests or assessments. All we said was ‘to do your best’ and ‘be careful not to be careless’. Perhaps we have neglected the fact that children, too, may set high (and unrealistic) expectations of themselves, in their bids to please their parents?
Stresses and failures are very much a part of life. Any adult would have had our fair share of such experiences. When taken into our stride, they stretch our potential and push us towards greater heights. Trying to shield our children from failures and setbacks is myopic. What is of greater importance here is our children perceive these failures and setbacks. The parents’ roles in helping our children frame and interpret these teaching moments are what makes parenting challenging.
“Why makes you say that, Dana? Who told you that you are lousy in Math? Mommy and Daddy have never told you that you are not good…” We probed further as our dinner came to a pause.
She began to recount that over the past few weeks, her Math teacher, who by the way, is a very caring and competent educator, someone whom we have come to trust and respect a lot, had used her own free time during recess to coach her in certain Math concepts (e.g. Fractions). It was a remedial lesson where the teacher’s intention was to bring her ‘weaker’ students up to speed before they progress to other topics. This was admirable not only because the teacher was using her own precious break time to coach the students but she had understood that cognitively, children do not attain the ability to fully understand abstract concepts until close to adolescence. Yet, our curriculum demands mastery in a short time, hence the need for teachers to step in for closer intervention.
So, the fact that for a few occasions, a larger group of her classmates did not need to stay back while she and a handful of selected ones did, have led her to conclude that she was lousy in Math. She also seemed to feeling disappointed with herself that she wasn’t able to grasp all the Math concepts as quick as her peers.
Signals and Cues
While we appreciated her trust and openness in sharing these feelings with us, this moment had come earlier than expected (Term 1 in Primary 2!). This episode has revealed to us a few things.
Those who know my family, knows that Dana is a confident and outgoing child. So it surprised us that she could interpret these situations negatively and with such deep conviction. Hence, whatever we say, do OR don’t say and don’t do, our kids are picking up these cues and signals every time regardless whether we are aware or not. It doesn’t just stop with us. Later on in life, they pick these up from other significant adults too. The worrying thing is that regardless of our intentions, children form their own perceptions and interpretations of the world and of themselves through these cues and signals.
Perception is Reality
According to Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), a renowned Swiss researcher whose theories on the Stages of Cognitive Development still stands today, children only begin to develop an ability for the understanding of abstract concepts when they approach adolescence. This means that until about 12-13 years old, children only see and understand their world in an absolute sense. In short, what they perceive becomes reality.
This means that our children may need that extra help and guidance in their Primary School Curriculum which weigh heavily on concepts – e.g. Math and Science. Their inability to understand and grasp these concepts fully at this age are merely reflective of the stages of cognitive development they are currently at.
We are thankful for this conversation which took place for it has opened our eyes (and ears and hearts) to the inner world of our daughter. As she grows, she will continue to get feelings of inadequacy and occasionally despair. As her parents, we hope to do more of the following in order to help her manage her perceptions of the world and strengthen her feelings of self-worth.
To me, there are two important factors to be aware of: First is about our children’s natural abilities and talents. Next is to be aware about our own values and expectations. Children go through various development stages both physically and cognitively. It is important that we recognize which stage they are at and encourage them accordingly.
Most parents strive to give their best to their children hoping that their future will be better than ours. Our values are dependent on our own backgrounds and experiences. We need to be honest and manage these expectations so that we do not exasperate our children unnecessarily.
This is easier said than done especially in a small country like Singapore’s that has one of the largest income gaps in the world. The difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are stark, yes even in affluent Singapore. Coupled with high stakes exams and academic streaming (starting from the age of 8, yes P2s will be streamed into different ability classes at the end of the year), parents sometimes subscribe to the belief that academic performances translate into the type of opportunities a child gets in their later years and that academic results don’t just determine which classroom a child goes to but which social class the child will end up in.
Children pick up our non-verbal cues and signals over and above what we actually tell them. While we cannot totally manage these silent cues and signals, we can manage what we explicitly say to them.
Let words of affirmation both in encouragement and correction be calibrated to our children’s growth and not centred around their achievement. In our home, we are learning to state our intentions clearly with words like ‘I love you’, ‘Thank you for being helpful’, ‘That was a really wise decision you made’, ‘I think you have the ability to do better, how can Daddy help you?’ etc.
Just because I’m physically with my children doesn’t mean I’m present at all. Yes, I’m guilty of being distracted by gadgets when I’m with the family. Digital devices and work demands all scream for our attention. The impulses to reach for the mobile phone to surf updates on social media is tempting. But I’ve learnt that for meaningful relationships to be nurtured, multi-tasking just doesn’t cut it. It takes a lot of discipline to stay focus but it’s even more needed to be present in our relationships these days.
When we are fully present, we learn not only to listen but we understand; we learn not only to see but to appreciate perspectives and together we align expectations and re-calibrate any incorrect judgement being formed by our kids.
We know we all need to teach our kids how to handle failures. For us, it is not enough to talk her through her disappointments, but we parents have to create a safe, non-judgmental environment for our children to come home and share with us whenever they experienced failures or feel ashamed or hurt for one reason or another.
This again, is easier said than done especially when our children fall short of our expectations, either in character or behavior, almost on a daily basis. But think about it, it is especially at these times that they need a safe and ready embrace to run to, even though it is us that they have wronged. Why? Because, we are their parents. If they can’t come home safely to us, then where?
Life is Precious
This post is written as a reflection to a recent tragic report of a P5 child who committed suicide, reportedly, from a sense of not living-up to his parents’ expectations. It is not meant to judge and in fact, for a couple who have experienced multiple child-losses, we grieve along with the parents. Life is too precious. Any life lost is one too many.
I’m writing not from the point of an expert. Far from it. I’m very much struggling in this aspect of child-raising hence the points above are certainly not exhaustive. I suspect there will be more as I continue to parent my primary school-going child. This is a path we have chosen to travel with the children, and it’s a path that’s meandering with twists and turns, highs and lows. I am learning as much from my children as they are learning about life from me. In this respect, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with us too as we journey together as parents in this community.
To my dearest Dana (and Buddy),
We love you and in case sometimes you feel we don’t, please holler for us to tell you.
For you deserve to hear these words from us anytime, anywhere and under any circumstances, as often as you like it.
We love you always, regardless.
P.S. If you noticed your child(ren) undergoing some major transitions or experiencing stress in school, here is a series of infographics developed by the Singapore Ministry of Education to help parents. You can also approach the school counsellors for help as a first measure.