Hong Kong parents need to take a long, hard look at themselves – and stop piling pressure on their kids

Peter Kammerer says children who fall short of unrealistic expectations do not have a learning disability. In fact, they’re not the ones with a problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 2:12pm

As much as I frown upon the political trolling of some younger Hongkongers, I sympathise with the circumstances they find themselves in. Quite apart from our city’s politics, they have to deal with the pressures of parents who want them to be at the top of the heap in everything they do. The more money put into their education, the higher the expectations. That’s obviously unrealistic: we can encourage learning, but forcing people into doing what they don’t like is quite another matter.

A ruckus between a mother and her son outside a child development centre in North Point brought this home to me. It’s one of those places that has sprung up to help parents find answers to why all the money they’ve already parted with for after-school tuition has failed to bring home top-grade school results. There has been a big increase in the number of students being seen by paediatricians and psychologists and this appears to be the next stage of the learning odyssey. “Son, you’re not meeting my expectations so there must be something mentally wrong with you,” was the message the protesting boy was being given by his chiding mother.

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I can’t say for sure whether the boy of about 10 had such an affliction, although his response was exactly the same as mine would have been at his age had someone told me such a thing. I was above middling at school and, like the majority of students, had strengths and weaknesses. They roughly equated with my interests; I enjoyed reading fiction and books about history, so that is what I excelled at. No amount of extra lessons in chemistry or physics would have dramatically improved my mediocre marks.

Fortunately, I had parents who wanted only that their children did as well in life as themselves. Such reasonable people once abounded in Hong Kong, but high-pressure living has created monster mothers and fathers who expect nothing less than a financial big-wheel from their offspring. Never mind the impracticability of expecting every child to have the temperament and ability to attain the necessary results. But parents who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, in school and tuition fees want nothing less; to them, education is an investment.

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It’s most likely why there’s been a rise of 16 per cent over the past five years in the number of children being taken to government facilities for developmental assessment tests. Department of Health figures show that, last year, 9,872 were referred by doctors and paediatricians, up from 8,476 in 2011. Experts say the children are taken after underperforming in exams, but the results usually show that nothing is wrong.

I can imagine the frustration of parents after such assessments. A friend’s sister, who teaches music and singing, is only too aware. Most of her child students take lessons not out of love or interest, but to get into elite schools. Our education system is so stilted that the right learning institution can be a golden path to a stunning career. Go to a school with a bad or middling reputation and a child can expect a mediocre job.

One six-year-old girl was struggling to learn the scales on the flute. She wasn’t interested in the instrument her mother had chosen for her and wasn’t taking the necessary time to practise. When told the girl was unlikely to pass an upcoming test, the mother lost her cool with the teacher. When told the girl didn’t seem interested in the instrument, the anger was turned on the child.

The pressures on children from parents and the explosive moods, to my mind, point to one thing: it’s the parents, not their children, who should be taking those psychological, perhaps even psychiatric, tests.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post