Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Childhood: training ground or fleeting magic?

Adam and Eve were children in the Garden of Eden, their blissful paradise that required them to be completely innocent and ignorant. Once they tasted the "forbidden fruit" and gained knowledge, they had to leave behind their childhood and venture forth into the harsh desert of adult life. For centuries, Western writers and poets have used the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for childhood, for innocence and blissful ignorance.

What are our contemporary metaphors for childhood? As I look around me and talk to parents, I see two very different sets of metaphors dominating how parents and educators think of childhood and its purpose. These metaphors are important because they tend to dictate the decisions we make for our children. These metaphors dictate what we prioritize in our children's lives.

The overwhelming metaphor in Singapore seems to be that childhood is a sort of training ground for the fierce battle and hardship of adult life. In this vein, childhood is also a race: the fastest runners get admitted to top colleges, which then lead them to secure jobs, money, and prestige.

 Childhood is a rehearsal for the "play" of adult life, which begins when kids grow up. Everything about childhood is geared towards some future pay-off in the adult world.

In contemporary Western education rhetoric, the "training ground" metaphor prevails as well. We have to teach our kids 21st century skills to make them employable in an increasingly complex and competitive globalized world. The whole goal of childhood is to prepare children for the stress and competition of the adult world. The goal of education is to make children employable. In fact, I often read articles and blogs about what Google, Apple, and Microsoft are looking for in future employees, and the needs of these companies drive education policy around the world. Childhood becomes nothing more than preparation for a highly competitive, mercenary, individualistic and capitalist world.

In contrast, through history, many writers and poets have historically viewed childhood in a fundamentally different way. It is a fleeting, magical time of imagination and dreams, a time to be revered, romanticized, and cherished.

Childhood is freedom; as the child grows up, he becomes imprisoned by the chains and shackles of the adult world. But in childhood, only in childhood, he is uninhibited, un-self-conscious, and free. Childhood is the Baby Krishna stealing butter and hiding from his mother, childhood is children skipping and splashing in puddles, childhood is laughter and mischief, rainbows and phoenixes. These are the magic years.

As parents, we are acutely aware of how stressful our own lives are. We work all the time, our expenses are high, our world is changing rapidly -- often too fast for us to adapt and change along with it -- and we're always afraid of being left behind in an increasingly stressful race. It is no wonder then that the 21st century metaphors for childhood place such emphasis on the training of the child. It would be impractical, perhaps even cruel and negligent, to not prepare our kids for the world they will need to navigate as adults.

On the flip side, however, what do we lose and what do our children lose when we forget those alternative metaphors that capture the transient joy, magic, and wonder of childhood? These metaphors may indeed be romanticized, idealistic, and entirely impractical, but they are also beautiful.

We all need poetry and beauty in our lives. Perhaps childhood is the beauty and poetry of human existence.

Here are some competing metaphors for childhood: where do you stand? And how do your metaphors dictate the choices you make for your kids on a daily basis?

Childhood is an organized, regimented march towards adulthood VS childhood is a leisurely stroll through the woods?

Childhood is a running race VS childhood is a playground or a dream?

Childhood is a plant in a well-manicured garden: we sow the seeds, we carefully nurture the plant, and we do everything we can to make it yield the most beautiful flower, the tastiest fruit. OR Is childhood a wildflower that grows as it pleases?

Childhood is a sanctuary, a shelter from the wind and the rain. OR is childhood a form of boot camp, where kids are disciplined and toughened up so that they can actually survive the battlegrounds of adult life?

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.