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Friday, 2 August 2013

Parenting with a sense of possibility

It's easy to become an anxious parent.

 Especially in test-frenzied, hyper-competitive Asia.

It's easy to become mildly obsessed with your child's performance in Math, and it's easy to become worried about whether or not your child is enrolled in enough extra-curricular activities. After all, when you look around at your child's friends, it's hard to overlook the fact that seven year old Ali has already mastered fractions and decimals, six year old Mei-Jia has already passed the grade 3 piano exam, and five year old Suraj is reading chapter books.

What I've been wondering about recently, however, is the opportunity cost of all this anxiety. When our parenting decisions are fuelled by anxiety, what do we give up?

 I think the biggest casualty is a sense of possibility.

It's easy to see why South-Asian and East-Asian parents are an anxious bunch. There are well over 2 billion Asians, and many Asian nations are still plagued by all kinds of problems: poverty, a lack of infra-structure, a lack of opportunities, over-crowded urban environments, corrupt governments. It's only in the last thirty years that Asia has started to make substantial economic progress.

 It's no wonder that we Asian parents worry. It's no surprise that Asia is full of  kiasu moms who want their kids to become doctors and engineers. We Asians tend to view financial and emotional security as the end goal: get married, become a doctor, save your money, buy an apartment, and look after your family. We see resources as scarce and finite, and we parent with a scarcity mind-set.

But what if we weren't plagued by anxiety? What would parenting look like then?

What if we were motivated by a sense of possibility instead of anxiety?

While I think that daily academic work, strong foundational skills, and a good shot of discipline are very important for young people, I also think that kids need lots of unstructured play time.

 If we're always telling kids what to do, how will they learn to think for themselves and come up with their own wonderful ideas?

 If we give kids instructions all the time, then how will they learn to take initiative, to experiment and invent?

And if we try too hard to make sure that our kids always get the right answer to a pre-set question, how will they learn to see a range of possibilities?

Or even more importantly, how will they learn to  ask their own questions?
 Sometimes, it's not getting the right answer that's important but being able to ask the right questions.

If we want our children to look at their lives and imagine a wide range of possibilities, then we need to parent with less anxiety. We need to get our kids out in nature more and let them explore and daydream. We need to encourage them to come up with their own games instead of telling them what to do. We need to nurture their sense that anything is possible.

Angela Lee Duckworth, the Chinese-American educator who has become famous for her research on "grit" and perseverance,  says that an educator's job is to provide children with the setting where they can have their own wonderful ideas. That's something worth thinking about. We've got to make sure that our kids have the space and time to have their own wonderful ideas.

So, while the Asian focus on discipline and foundational skills is very important, we need to balance this focus out by making sure that our kids are given the freedom they need to see the world as full of possibilities -- to question, invent, play, and dream.

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