As a young kampung boy in the 60s, my father never topped his class in Math or become head prefect.
It was difficult to, since he much preferred spending his time after school playing in the outdoors – climbing trees, playing football and fighting spiders with his friends.
Having a boisterous childhood came with its troubles. Whenever his mischief got the better of him, he faced harsh punishment in ways that I suspect would have landed my grandparents in hot water today.
The family was not well-off, and with eight children, the older siblings (my father included) were often tasked with caring for their younger brothers and sisters.
In his words, life was hard at times, but it was simple, fulfilling and full of adventure.
I always came away from these stories feeling envious, in large part because there was so little about his childhood that I recognised in my own.
In the decades since my dad was a young boy, and as baby boomers like him had children of their own, we’ve arrived at a very different idea of what it means for children to have a fulfilling childhood.
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As Singaporeans became more educated, many in turn saw the need to push their children to be even smarter and more accomplished. These are hopes borne of good intentions. It’s understandable that they wanted their children to realise their full potential, and make the most of opportunities they themselves never had.
What this meant for me and many of my peers, however, was a significantly more regimented childhood than that of our parents.
It meant tuition classes in all the subjects where I failed to make the top band in school, and piano lessons that I dreaded but endured because it was good to (try to) be musically inclined.
Assessment books were a constant companion, along with the burdensome weight of expectations whenever exam season came around.
Sure, there were weekly visits to the playground and the occasional excursions to catch tadpoles by the stream. My brother and I were also privileged enough to go on family trips overseas every few years.
Without a doubt, we were blessed with a more comfortable childhood than my parents. And it would be a lie to say that being pushed to work hard and excel at school has not helped us to be where we are today.
But would I, along with many of my peers, have benefited from being given more freedom to learn and play at our own pace?
There are studies that suggest so.
Child-directed play has long been shown to be helpful for children to develop language, social interaction, and physical skills, in addition to nurturing their creativity. In fact, the decline in free play in recent decades, brought on by factors such as increased screen time and emphasis on academia, has been linked with higher incidence of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression among children.
In Singapore, the Institute of Mental Health has reported seeing more youths seeking help to cope with school-related stress, which encompasses both academic-based and relationship-linked pressures. Notably, there are now more teenagers from top schools who are seeking help.
The pressure is real, and the arms race that is the education landscape today does not help. And while much has been said about streaming in schools being a systemic trigger, the reality is that we, as individuals and parents, have embraced a culture of competition that rewards success above all, and stigmatises failure.
For our children, what that means is that it’s no longer good enough just to do well. They must outdo their peers and be the cream of the crop.
By any means necessary, we want them to enter the best schools and get into the most prestigious university courses.
But at what cost?
My parents were not the most draconian of tiger parents. They were not unreasonable or abusive. But they had expectations, and throughout my childhood, I was always pushed and encouraged to meet them. In our household, it was made very clear that smarts and studies came first. Play was a distant second.
All that drilling definitely helped my grades, but I can say now that there was very little joy to be found in that process. Learning was a chore, and also the source of quite a few childish breakdowns when I was much younger, and yet to develop the resilience to handle my stressors.
Would I be a more creative person today if I had channelled some of that energy towards reading more Roald Dahl or taking up art? Would I be a more sociable person if I had spent more time at the playground, or if the emphasis on my report card was less on my grades, but more on how well I got along with my classmates?
No one can say for sure, but I know one thing’s for certain – my childhood would have been happier and much less stressful.
As it comes to my generation’s turn to become parents, the worry is that we’ll only pile on even greater pressure on our kids to excel, and in more ways than ever before.
Having come from such a situation ourselves, it’s very easy to see the emphasis on academia and competition as normal or necessary. And while the education authorities have begun to introduce changes to the system to reduce the stress on young students, such as by abolishing streaming, it remains to be seen if attitudes among parents will shift likewise.
We would do well to realise that every child develops at his or her own pace, and it’s so important to help them see value in themselves beyond just the scores on their report cards.
Two years ago, when my nephew was 12 and had just received his PSLE results, I called his mother, my cousin, to check on him.
He had fallen short of his goal by three points, she told me, and had cried desperately in school because he would not be able to go to the same secondary school as the rest of his friends.
At that moment, though my schooling days were far behind me, I instinctively associated the idea of academic shortcomings with disappointment and despair. And so, I braced myself for an outpouring of anger and worry.
To my surprise, the only concern my cousin had was for my nephew’s well-being. She worried that he would entertain silly thoughts and asked me to help assure him that he had done us proud, and that his whole-hearted effort was just as important as the results, if not more.
And perhaps that is the first step to de-escalating tension these days, so we can let our kids be kids – understanding that in life, it’s not just the results that matter, but the process, too.