Audio Version Available
“My husband is so mean to our son, making him do assessment books even though he’s only K1.”
My friend laughed as she recounted her husband watching over their kids during the school holidays.
I laughed too, but it made me think about my journey growing up in Singapore — where we send our children for tuition at four years of age; where we joke about our children needing a CV by 11 so they can apply for Direct School Admission to ‘elite’ schools.
And where many parents see a scholarship as the ultimate goal at the end of the education journey.
The O-level results come out tomorrow and there will be tears and cheers when all is said and done. In a month’s time, the A-level cohort will go through the same rollercoaster ride of emotions.
Every child is different. Every parent raises their child differently.
But in conversations with friends who are scholars, I realised there are certain similarities in their journeys that may serve as a lesson for parents.
Expectations and shame
For many parents, their child winning a scholarship is the ultimate prize. Depending on the award, this could mean anything from a hefty course subsidy to totally free tuition at a university of their choice.
On top of that, if it’s awarded by a government agency or a big company, that child is guaranteed a job after graduation (although that almost always comes with a bond).
That’s why many parents want their children to do well in their studies.
In September, I spoke with a parent who was struggling with her child’s addiction to mobile gaming.
“If you do 19 pages of this assessment book, you can play for 19 minutes,” she would tell the child, or “You cannot play phone games this week because you failed your Chinese.”
And she was serious too — she would time it and take away the phone after exactly 19 minutes. She wanted to build good habits in her child, she told me. What habits she was trying to cultivate, she was a bit less clear.
I think many parents feel that to help their child keep up in academic-driven Singapore, they have to use such reward systems to inculcate discipline in them at an early age.
Ironically, when I spoke with some of the scholars I knew, they seldom had stories of “tiger mums” (or dads, for that matter).
These top students were naturally motivated to excel, which led them to qualify for these scholarships in the first place. In fact, a common theme is how their parents did not force them to get a scholarship.
But some of their successes may be a result of shame-driven performance.
In her book Daring Greatly, US researcher Brené Brown talks about how shame is the master emotion.
Shame is the chill that runs down your back when you realise that you’re not enough. It’s not that you haven’t done enough. It’s the belief that you’re not good, smart, effective or strong enough.
Tying performance to self worth
At that early age, if parents start to focus on a child’s performance as a condition for love or reward, the child may begin to tie performance with self worth.
It may not be your intention. But it becomes your child’s tension. They would then grapple with issues such as: “Will mummy still love me if I don’t do well?” or “Will daddy give me what I want if I don’t do well?”
How do I know this? Because I struggled with it.
I received a scholarship, and I still felt like I never measured up.
It wasn’t enough to have a job — I had to make five figures a month.
It wasn’t enough to be employed — I had to have a side-hustle too.
It wasn’t enough to be at an entry level position — I had to be promoted within a year.
To be clear, my parents weren’t telling me that I wasn’t good enough. But I was living in a situation where I felt that I wasn’t living up to my own expectations.
Looking back, it’s easy to blame our parents. But it’s not only they who influence us: It is a confluence of factors, such as the environment we grow up in, the friends we have, or the culture that surrounds us.
Recognising alternative learning methods
Children are always learning. We may be wedded to the idea that ‘learning’ occurs in a classroom, with a teacher, with a book in front of you.
But that’s not always the case.
While volunteering in September, I saw how some parents in our group brought their 5- and 7-year-olds to help distribute masks at a nearby block. The 7-year-old would shyly hand over the masks, while his parents talked to the residents.
It was a sweet little scene. And it made me realise something — not every lesson needs a quantifiable outcome.
Mask distribution doesn’t contribute directly to a child’s academic performance. But it models character.
Why does character matter?
I’ve always been interested in how bosses choose the most successful people. One top executive I spoke to told me that he always looked for attitude in an applicant.
“Their job qualifications will more or less be the same. But their attitudes are always different.”
I was puzzled. What did you mean, I asked him.
“It’s about positivity. A can-do spirit. Grit. Perseverance. It’s everything,” he replied.
Studying as a social worker, I’ve learnt how a child’s welfare isn’t solely based on the parent’s capacity to care for them — family and environmental factors matter too.
That’s why a nurturing environment matters. A child doesn’t only learn by memorising. They also learn by modelling their parents, the people around them, and the environment they are in.
Therefore, rather than thinking about how we can build a safe path for a child to walk on, or how to make that child follow that road, think of creating a thriving garden — for the child to learn kindness, create character, and develop the right attitude.
Praising process, not performance
We’ve read about the tragic case of Master H, the 11-year-old boy who committed suicide in May 2016 after failing his exams. The Primary 5 boy did not dare to tell his parents that he did not perform up to expectations in his examinations.
No one wants this to happen to their children.
Yes, performance is important. But it’s not everything.
Celebrating progress rather than perfection is the first step towards building a more holistic sense of identity for a child.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should abandon academic grades. Having the discipline and diligence to study hard and persevere at learning a skill is an important character trait.
But it’s not the only important one.
That’s why parenting matters. Because a child may not have the maturity yet to recognise the value of their different abilities. That’s where parents come in, to gently mould them into better human beings.
It is the values that count, not the value of a child’s score.
Building character is about affirming the effort that your child has put in, and pushing them to the next step of their performance by affirming what’s good about the progress they have made.
It’s not dismissing what they have done, or saying: “You need to do better. You should have done this. You must work harder.”
Instead, offer your child a chance and a choice. Invite them to go on a learning journey with you. Give them ownership over their learning: “Let’s try this again. Shall we do this together?”
How do you define success?
In December, I met another parent. His daughter was in the room watching TV as we chatted. When we got onto the topic of academics, he suddenly paused, turned to his daughter and said: “This is your PSLE year, we have to keep all your games.”
It gave me flashbacks to my own PSLE year. I would study till 10pm every night then go to sleep before waking up at 4am to study before school.
Looking back when I got a university scholarship, it was the day I changed. I became more pensive, serious, and somber. I felt like I had to live up to the money the organisation had invested in my studies.
I lost that sense of joy and playfulness that characterised so much of my growing up years.
It’s only in the past four months that I’ve realised that I don’t need to put on a mask to impress anyone. Because I’ve come to realise that my self-worth isn’t determined by the normal trappings of success.
Self worth is determined by our character.
Strip away the labels: Your job title, your net worth, your achievements… Who are you?
Does your child know who he is beyond his role as a student and his academic achievements?
Other stories you might like
As a parent, you have a chance and a choice to build children who see themselves not as what the world sees them, but as they see themselves.
Society puts pressure on us, creates lenses through which our children value themselves — whether they’ve scored high enough, or got accepted into the right CCA, or received the right scholarship.
But parents, remember this word of advice, especially during a time when our children are getting their academic evaluations.
You have the chance to say to your children: “It matters more who you are to yourself, than who you are to the world.”