Dadzilla and Monster Mum

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


A two-year-old sits at the wheel of a BMW as his mum proudly films him driving along the streets of Hong Kong on his father's knee. Another dad threatens to jump from a Wan Chai footbridge after his son's application to an elite English-language school is rejected.

Heated debate about parenting and education erupts whenever such incidents involving obsessed, indulgent parents and their mollycoddled children hit the headlines. There is much hand-wringing among families.

And there is a growing list of epithets being bandied about to describe extreme parenting and its results: monster parents, helicopter parents (constantly hovering over their children), tiger mums and gong hai (colloquial Cantonese meaning Hong Kong kids).

Toy company manager Wyss Ng Yeuk-wan admits she was one of the so-called helicopter parents, guilty of excessive if not obsessive involvement in her children's lives. She used to plan almost everything for her 14-year-old daughter, Elyse Ngan Cheuk-shan.

'I always think my daughter belongs to me. Last year, when she told me she wanted to go out with friends for the first time, I was shocked,' she says. 'I spend every weekend and all my time after work with her. I don't have my own entertainment. I get myself involved in many aspects of her life.

'I don't want her to make friends with girls who are dating. She wants to learn guitar, but I think it's useless as there are more certificates to attain if you take up violin or cello. I want her to learn instruments that can help her school admission. I forbid her to visit karaoke parlours, which are shady places.'

Many parents adopt a similar approach. A recent survey by the Christian Family Service Centre showed 90 per cent of 186 parents interviewed shared some characteristics of helicopter parenting.

Seventy-five per cent said they arranged all their children's activities, with 83 per cent saying they cried or lost sleep over their offsprings' academic performance.

About 57 per cent said they would force their children to add them as friends on Facebook. They also said children should always carry their mobile phones so that they could check where they were.

But after years of making all the decisions for only daughter, Ng realises something has gone wrong.

'Elyse lacks independence,' her mother says. 'She wants us to accompany her to piano and painting classes. She is indecisive all the time and wants us to decide for her what summer activities to join.'

And Elyse is hardly alone. Hong Kong youngsters' lack of independence, inability to deal with problems and undue reliance on their parents have been the subject of a best-selling book, Kong Kids.

The author, Wong Ming-lok, liberal studies programme director for Living Word Education Centre, blames over-protective parents and their narrow, results-based approach to learning.

'Despite the recent reform that emphasises inquiry-based learning, the concept of self-exploration has yet to take root among students,' she says. 'The culture of spoon-fed education, which discourages critical thinking, is too ingrained to be erased overnight.'

Wong herself taught life education among other courses in about 40 schools, and that's why she's disillusioned about young people's prospects.

'Having never tasted hardship before, they do not value learning. They doze off in lessons and submit shoddy homework. Their lack of the ability to take care of themselves is shocking,' she says.

'A student put a packet of noodles into a microwave at a camp, with no idea that he had to tear it open and add water. With all their needs met by domestic helpers, they lack basic cooking skills.'

A survey commissioned by the Plaza Hollywood shopping mall showed 87 per cent of children aged three to 16 were looked after by domestic helpers.

If their children forgot to take their homework or lunch boxes to school, nearly half of the 629 parents questioned said they would leave work immediately to take care of the matter. More than 95 per cent admitted they acted like a personal assistant for their children - preparing breakfast, setting out their uniforms and doing research for their homework.

Margaret Nelson, sociology professor at Middlebury College in the United States, is the author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times which explores the phenomenon of helicopter parenting. She found a strong correlation between parental involvement and social class.

Based on interviews with 93 sets of parents, she found helicopter parenting prevalent among highly educated parents, with parents from working and middle classes exercising less control in their children's upbringing.

Andrew Tang Cheuck-wing, programme co-ordinator of the Professional Certificate in Family Education (parenting and youth development) at Baptist University's School of Continuing Education, says well-to-do parents can better afford the time and costs that come with helicopter parenting. 'To give their kids a head start over their peers, they pay for the best education and extra-curricular activities, he says.

'Parents from poorer families have to devote most of their time to fending for the families. Although they do not have as many resources at their disposal, some of them scrimp and save to enrol their children in tutorial classes and try their best to satisfy all their whims.'

Besides their tendencies towards overindulgence, a new breed of imperious and unreasonable parents has emerged who blame outsiders for everything that is not right with their children, says Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Family Education, a parents' concern group.

'Parents from Direct Subsidy Scheme schools who want quality for every buck they pay towards tuition are the most troublesome,' he says. 'They act like a consumer. They take teachers to task for any problematic behaviour of their kids.

'They are emboldened by the accountability culture in society. When they see their children lose interest in school after being slighted by teachers, they accuse the teachers of picking on their kids. When children suffer scratches on the arm after a playground scuffle with others, they blame the teachers for failing to take good care of students.

'Circumventing the teachers, parents often stomp angrily into the offices of vice-principals or principals to demand justice.'

As a result, more and more schools are seeking help from the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association of Hong Kong, which set up a School Crisis Management Support Scheme about 10 years ago to provide counselling for teachers and advise schools on dealing with parental complaints.

'Teachers don't know how to deal with them ,' says Cheng Wai-kwan, project officer for the scheme, which has served more than 450 schools. 'The parents ramble on and on about how their children are being slighted. The most innocuous issue can also rouse parents' resentment. When one student was appointed to a leadership post, his parents complained to the teacher that the new responsibilities would affect his study schedule and demanded his son be stripped of the post. Already under a lot of pressure from the education reform, teachers bear the brunt of such parental abuses.'

The monster-parent tendencies among local parents were highlighted in April's Plaza Hollywood survey, which found parents were swift to jump to their children's defence.

Asked about their first reaction to their child receiving a reprimand from a teacher, 56 per cent said they would complain about the teacher to make their children feel better. And 64.5 per cent said they would support their children if they were involved in an argument or a scuffle with classmates or friends. They said they would scold the classmates and complain about them to their parents or the school and demand an apology.

The negative impact that undesirable parenting can have on children's development is well documented by psychologists and sociologists. A study done by Keene State College in New Hampshire asked 300 freshmen their level of agreement with such statements as: 'My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me' and 'If two days go by without contact, my parents would contact me'.

Ten per cent of the respondents were found to have helicopter parents. These students were found to be more vulnerable, anxious, self-conscious, neurotic and less open than their peers.

Rising awareness of the importance of proper parenting has led to a host of parental education programmes. Baptist University's School of Continuing Education introduced the one-year parenting certificate programme in 2009. Tik says he founded the Hong Kong Institute of Family Education last year to cope with the demand for education on parenting.

Cathie Chung, a real estate researcher with a four-year-old daughter, signed up for a 12-lesson parenting course at the institute this year. 'I am always worried that I've done something wrong,' she says.

Chung enrolled her daughter Bernice in an English School Foundation's kindergarten because she felt the environment is more relaxed than in traditional schools.

'I want her to be a happy learner, but when I see the parents all around me continuing to push their children to learn vocabulary and maths, I wonder whether I am being too lax,' she says. 'I'm worried that she would be at a disadvantage academically in primary school.'

Chung says she has to remind herself constantly not to dote on her daughter too much.

'I tell my domestic helper not to do everything for her,' she says. 'Although it would be much quicker if you tie her shoelaces or help her dress up, I want her to handle things herself.'

After also completing the School of Continuing Education's parenting course this year, Ng understands that her intrusive approach is suffocating her daughter.

'I have learned the importance of letting go,' she says. 'My overprotectiveness had stifled her sense of self-identity. I have learned to trust my daughter's judgment.'

Chung is also seeing the point now when she says: 'Bernice is a big girl now and should be able to take care of her own life.'

What kind of person are you?

There are plenty of unflattering names to describe Hong Kong parents and children. Below are some of the most popular:

Helicopter parents

The term was coined by American scholars in the 1990s to refer to parents who constantly hover over their children. They arrange everything for their kids and indulge them with all sorts of luxuries. They are so concerned about their children's safety that they spy on their activities and want to know their whereabouts every minute of the day.

Gong hai (Hong Kong kids)

Refers to children and students who are unable to look after themselves and go to pieces when they face any difficulties. They lack introspection and tend to blame others for their problems.

Princess syndrome

The term refers to spoiled girls or young women who take everything for granted and are emotionally weak. To overcome their insecurities, they demand attention and pampering from their families and boyfriends.

Monster parents

Originating in Japan, the term denotes parents who make unreasonable and outrageous demands on their children's schools. After being repeatedly hounded, a number of front-line educators, including headmasters, have quit, with some even committing suicide.

Tiger mums

The term was coined by Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In the book, she makes an impassioned argument in favour of a heavily disciplined, demanding approach to parenting that characterises the typical Chinese mother. The term has come to identify aggressive mothers who push their children to excel academically and make them take part in a long list of extracurricular activities from a very young age.