The ogre within
When Chris Wat Wing-yin decided to publish a book chronicling her observations of controlling parents, the mother-of-three never imagined she would be seen as a tonic for local parenting problems. Nor did she imagine she would be hosting a radio programme on the subject.
We Are Not Monsters, which began airing this month on Sunday evenings at 10pm on RTHK Radio 1, follows a string of talks in schools on the subject of parenting since the release of her first book, Monster Parents, in November 2010.
The former Next Magazine journalist was appalled at the way overprotective behaviour by parents who constantly complain had become the norm in Hong Kong. There was the mother who asked a school to reprint a yearbook because it contained too few pictures of her child. Then there was the father whose son was given detention for throwing a rock through a window. He threatened to sue the school if his son's fingerprints were not found on the rock.
The term 'monster parents' originated in Japan but is now widely used in Hong Kong. 'Why do we have the so-called Hong Kong child [defined as having low emotional intelligence and an inability to cope by themselves]? It is because of the monster parents,' Wat, 45, says.
Her book was largely overlooked when it was published, except by a small number of educators. A month later, however, the parents of 400 local students stranded at London's Heathrow Airport demanded the Hong Kong government charter planes to fly their panicking children home.
The parents' reaction was an example of what Wat's book referred to. Before long all 3,000 copies had flown off the shelves. Monster Parents became a must-read, and when she released a sequel in July - Monster Parents 2: Revenge from Kids - that print run of 3,000 copies sold out within a week.
In her second book, Wat compares Hong Kong's education system to the cannibalism portrayed in A Madman's Diary, a short story written in 1918 by Lu Xun that describes how feudal values eat away at people.
'Hong Kong education is itself a banquet of human flesh. Everyone wants to avoid the banquet, but everyone has to attend it. No one wants to eat human flesh, but everyone has to eat it,' Wat writes. 'Lu Xun describes a woman who bites children. I suspect that the person is me, and the ones with bleeding wounds are my daughters.'
The attraction of Wat's books is the simplicity of her storytelling and her unique insights into educational issues. (As well as being a journalist and television scriptwriter, she has also worked as a secondary school teacher.) She uses irony and humour to tell her stories. In one, she writes about a new 'children self-care class', in which parents are paying for their children to learn how to button clothing, tie shoe laces, pack school bags, peel oranges and wash dishes. 'Whenever parents discover their children have any inadequacy, the solution is to find a related course,' she writes.
Her first book developed by chance out of a newspaper column Wat had been writing. She became a full-time mother when she quit her job as a consultant at Cup magazine in 2002. Four years later, she began writing a weekly column for the Chinese-language Ming Pao about local parents. The book followed a call from her former Chinese University professor, Yeung Chung-kei.
'My teacher told me that he had been reading my column for a long time, and felt that I had an ability to influence today's parents. He said that my simple writing and storytelling technique could make the stories stick in people's minds.
'He told me that my mission was to turn around this strange parenting phenomenon, and so I thought about how I could do it.'
Wat decided to publish a book which drew on her own experiences, her observations of other parents, and stories told by her teacher and principal friends.
A part-time lecturer at Baptist University, Wat says the behaviour of monster parents is rooted in 'spoiled love' for their children. Parents want their children to excel at everything, so they send them to a lot of tutorial lessons. 'These days parents are talking about learning the harp and cello. The piano is now outdated,' she says. 'A lot of parents say that the younger the children learn something, the better. They say it is good to learn a language at three, swimming at three, as well as painting and music. But if you do them all at once, you cannot become a concert pianist like Lang Lang - you become nothing.'
Parents are putting their children in kindergarten when they are as young as one. Many children go to two kindergartens each day.
'The helper has to feed the child and change their clothes in the car as the mum rushes to the next kindergarten. It is child abuse, but no one has ever been sued for sending their children to too many tutorials,' she says.
The phenomenon of monster parents, she says, is a result of increased affluence and better educated parents who are always ready to challenge the system. Fierce job competition and low social mobility have also prompted parents to push their children.
The idea is spreading across the mainland. Wat's first book is on sale in simplified Chinese in Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai. She will visit the mainland soon to give talks.
The main reason monster parenting is taking root, in Hong Kong at least, is the education system, she says. There is too much emphasis on exams. The closure of schools by the Education Bureau as enrolments have fallen has also pushed schools to raise academic standards. Wat gives the example of one elite school that repeatedly gave Primary Four students past Primary Six exam papers to sit, until almost all got 100 marks. 'Children are being moulded to be geniuses, yet no one has suggested that this is sick.'
For Wat, who herself had a controlling mother, a happy childhood is more important than academic results. 'I want my daughters to have a happy childhood. If a university place is gained with their tears, I would prefer not to have it and let my children be ordinary people.'
But it's not easy for Wat to treat her children differently as they are part and parcel of the system. She says: 'They have to do their homework as soon as they get home from school. Halfway through, they have to take a bath and eat their dinner. After dinner, they go back to homework until 9pm or 10pm. There's no play time.'
Wat, who is married to RTHK television presenter Lam Chiu-wing, says that although international schools may be a good alternative, she cannot afford the fees. Besides, she wants her children - Lam Hei-fei, nine, Lam Hei-ching, 10, and Lam Hei-ying, 12 - to grow up experiencing local culture.
The huge success of Monster Parents is partly because Wat faces the same problems as other local parents. But she found a way of dealing with them. 'I'm experiencing what everyone else is. I share my experiences and explain how I deal with things.'
She does not send her children to extracurricular tutorials, so they have time to play. Every weekend, while masses of children march off to lesson after lesson, Wat takes her daughters out for a hike. Sometimes they simply enjoy spending time together at their Tsuen Wan home.
Wat is not afraid to let her children make mistakes. 'Once, my daughter studied the wrong chapter for the following day's dictation. I didn't tell her. She only got 17 points, and probably learned not to repeat that mistake.'
Wat says many parents know what their problems are, but cannot find a solution. 'I suggest that parents 'let go' of their children.'
Despite her good intentions, Wat has been criticised by some parents for 'making an enemy of herself among Hong Kong parents'.
'One parent e-mailed me saying, 'You are the monster parent, not us. You have wasted your children as you have not helped them develop their talents.''
Others, meanwhile, have thanked her for putting them on the right parenting track.
'Many parents have young toddlers and have said that my book serves as a reminder to them,' she says. 'I may not be able to change the majority, but I hope that I can at least help a small group of people.'