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Insecurities Parents Push on Children

Parents push themselves to push their kids from the very beginning. Early childhood education has an impact on a child’s development, but what are the consequences?

Say something! Say hello to the teacher!” said Paul’s mom. He, of course, groaned something in Mandarin to express disapproval at the suggestion and pulled on her dress as he buried his face in it. That’s all pretty normal for a 4-year-old who has never interacted with a foreigner in English before. This month I’d like to talk about the reasons why mom does this and the consequences for Paul’s development.

Like millions of parents around the world, Paul’s mom believes parents are entirely responsible for the success or failure of their kids. The pressure is on like Donkey Kong from the moment the sperm meets the egg to the point where the womb becomes the first classroom as the unborn baby becomes a captive learner on account of classical music being blasted in utero. Not long after taking their first breath on this earth, the race for that advantage in life picks up pace as they are bombarded by flashcards before their eyes have fully developed, sign language classes before they can actually talk and swimming lessons before they can even walk.

I have witnessed a complete 180° on how society views the responsibility of parents. Prior to the ‘80s, if a child displayed any prowess in a field, it was considered a genetic gift; an innate quality. But throughout the last century, three events gradually changed the burden of education and parenting. First, Freud told us that parents are responsible for how children turn out. Then, the creation of grammar schools towards the end of WWII, where 25 percent of the most intellectually able children were selected to be educated. This effectively affected a child’s entire life and caused parents to start wondering what else they could do to offer their children a better chance at life.

Not long after taking their first breath on this earth, the race for that advantage in life picks up pace ….

But la pièce de résistance in this chain of events was the research and publication of Teach Your Baby to Read in 1963, by Glenn Doman M.D. Dr. Doman proposed that a child’s brain needed to be frequently and greatly stimulated before the age of 3, when its growth slows down. Particularly before the age of 1, when the brain grows more than at any other time in life. Few fellows gave weight to his theory, but the book went on to sell 5 million copies worldwide.

Commercial educational corporations appropriated these claims and ran with them, and while Dr. Doman never managed to create a cohort of early readers, he did, in fact, demonstrate that the insecurities of parents can be extremely profitable. Take Baby Einstein as an example. Founded in 1996 with a $18,000 initial budget, it was sold in 2001 to Disney for $25 million. By 2009, the jig was up, and Disney was forced to admit there was no educational value in its product.

The fact is, a singular laboratory result had been turned into an unfounded philosophy of education where small truths became the key to the mint.

But perhaps nowhere have parent insecurities been sucked dry more than in tutoring. Less than 15 years ago, private tutoring was almost non-existent in China. Today it is a multi-billion-dollar industry that puts millions of under-confident and under-performing children through a system that employs hundreds of thousands of tutors. Many of whom are not likely to know how to handle issues like low academic and psychological self-esteem.

Therefore, far from generating accomplished wunderkind, the tutoring industry is producing anxious and depressed kids that develop homework resistance, lack of enthusiasm for reading, low confidence, sleep problems and poor relationships with parents. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents are unaware that the behavioral issues they encounter at home with their children may stem from the pressure they feel to perform better than everyone else. Having said that, it is unfair to solely blame the parents, Chinese families live in a competitive society encouraged by meritocratic policies that limit access to top tertiary education by means of the Gao Kao, which determines life status much like the post-WWII grammar schools did. This system keeps parents constantly wondering if they are doing enough to help their kids survive the ferocious world of education and work.

To end this month’s column, here’s my unsolicited suggestion for parents: remember that happiness and confidence are the real measures of parental success. Mom pushing Paul to say hello isn’t accomplishing either of these. Nor is it stroking mom’s ego.