How to toughen children up

Children whose parents attend to their every whim will not grow up tough enough for adult life, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 1:00pm

Six-year-old Markus Tsui knows the consequences when he throws a tantrum, or is rude to others: he will have to sit in a corner, opposite a wall pinned with a list of all his recent infractions.

His mother, financial planner Kay Fung Yin-ha, started the penitent's corner in their Yuen Long home to help Markus understand the importance of taking responsibility for his actions. It's part of a regimen she has adopted since Markus was born, to help him deal with the setbacks he will face later in life.

"I don't want Markus to buckle easily under pressure when he grows up. Although I can't control what he faces in future, I can toughen him up by giving him an upbringing that will boost his resilience," Fung says.

That's not to say Fung is a dictatorial parent. While many cram their children's schedules with tutorials and extra-curricular activities, she gives Markus full rein to pursue his own interests.

"If Markus wants to enrol in classes, he tells me. He now has lessons in singing, drawing, and swimming. I fulfil his wishes; I don't sign him up for any tuition. He should pay attention in class. Because if you can't take charge of your own studies now, what will you be able to do in the future?

"I don't see his homework or check his school handbook," she adds. "If he submits homework late three times, he will get a demerit, and he was penalised for failing to bring certain materials to class. After being dressed down by teachers several times, he now knows that he must check his handbook and put everything in his schoolbag at night."

Fung says overprotective parenting makes children vulnerable when they face mounting pressure from school, work and social life. "Whenever tragedies like student suicides occur, society tends to blame schools for being too demanding. The pressure cooker environment that prizes achievement and success over everything else is blamed.

"But parents who wrap their children in cotton wool and insulate them from every setback and hardship, are mostly to blame."

Last month, Lingnan University's release of the first ever happiness index for Hong Kong children focused attention on the mounting pressure youngsters face.

Commissioned by the Early Childhood Development Research Foundation, the study surveyed 1,025 children between ages of eight and 17. On a happiness scale of one to 10, children were found to become more unhappy as they grow older. Their happiness score fell from 8.28 at Primary Four to 6.29 at Secondary Three. Overall, the average score was six - lower than that for adults.

Adult happiness scores have averaged at seven in similar surveys that Lingnan has conducted since 2005 for grown-ups.

"An average happiness score close to six is quite worrying. It suggests a significant number of children have a happiness score of below six, the level at which a person is deemed happy," says Professor Ho Lok-sang, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at Lingnan.

"The fact that children are even more unhappy than adults should set alarm bells ringing."

Schoolwork, family disharmony, sibling rivalry, and extra-curricular activities are among the factors cited for unhappiness. Some results from the study have been surprising, including that better educated and more affluent parents don't necessarily raise happier children, Ho says.

Children of parents with better qualifications and higher incomes were found to be more unhappy than those with less-educated parents with a lower income. Ho suggests this could be related to the higher expectations of the better-educated families."

"Although some parents are undemanding, children pressure themselves by striving to live up to their parents' standards.

"Another surprise is that extra-curricular activities, which are supposed to lessen study stress, have become a source of unhappiness for students," Ho says.

The results reinforce findings in an earlier report by the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service. Out of about 2,600 students aged from 12 to 18, 40 per cent were found to have signs of depression.

So perhaps it is no surprise that family therapists report that more parents are bringing in their children for therapy.

Clinical psychologist Stephen Mann Ka-fai, who heads Tung Wah College's department of social sciences, says Primary Four pupils have come to him complaining of insomnia, concentration problems and even depression. "They may behave strangely and deliberately disrupt the class. I have to devise cognitive behavioural therapy to help them deal with stress," he says.

Youngsters' inability to pick themselves up after setbacks often lies with their parents, says Dr Iris Chau Yuen-fan, a family therapist with the Centre for Enhancement, Assessment and Counselling.

"They solve every problem for them. When they see children making a mess of their homework, they do it for them. When they see others snatch their children's toys, they intervene on their behalf, instead of letting the kids handle it themselves.

"Gradually, children will develop an idea that problems can be solved without them having to lift a finger. They will rely on others for everything. When they grow up, they will crumble in the face of adversity."

Former primary school principal Kwan Hin-bun understands doting parents' mindset.

Parents nowadays raise fewer children than previous generations and so strive to give them the best they can, often leaving youngsters to be waited on hand and foot by domestic helpers. Kwan and his wife, with two children, are no different.

"I had a maid who did everything for my kids. She carried their bags for them and tied their shoelaces, even when they were in Primary Three.

"When they came home from school, they dropped their uniforms on the ground, thinking that the maid would pick them up for them. My son, who is now in university, couldn't even bathe himself as a Secondary One student."

Kwan and his wife regret their indulgence, which he blames for his daughter's poor response to pressure.

"My daughter Jasmine, who is now in Secondary Four, does not handle stress very well. When she was in Secondary Three, I started to observe signs of distress in her. Studying in a top English school in Ho Man Tin, she does homework until 3am," he says.

"She lost her appetite, stopped eating all her favourite snacks and burst out crying for no apparent reason. I can only say soothing words to cheer her up."

It was very different from when he was growing up as on one of six siblings.

"My mother mostly left the six of us to our own devices as she was too busy to pay attention to us," he says.

Kwan quit teaching after 25 years to open Master Kwan Classroom, a service providing parenting courses, in 2008. And he now shares a lot of his experiences at school talks and seminars, as well as in a series of Chinese-language parenting books. The latest title, Children Immune to Pain, was published in July.

"There's not enough life education at school, where teachers are too busy preparing students for exams. What's more, emotional resilience is not a skill that can be taught," Kwan says.

"Once the kids grow up, it's hard to do anything to boost their emotional quotient. What we need to do is to change the mindset of the parents. My courses are mostly aimed at parents who want to raise tougher children. What character your children will develop in the future has a lot to do with the kind of upbringing you give them. Parents commit many mistakes on a daily basis without knowing it."

Dr Chau says many parents cannot bear to see their children upset or frustrated, and take action to fulfil their needs immediately.

"For example, children might pout or scowl when they can't open the lid of a bottle. Parents often jump to their rescue, and open it for them immediately. They don't let them figure it out themselves. Although such incidents might seem trivial, parents are inadvertently fostering a sense of dependence."

She also takes parents to task over their overreaction when their children suffer physical discomfort.

A minor scrape on the knee during harmless playground scuffle can cause some to lose composure. Seeing their parents' excessive reaction, children will think the scrape is more serious than it is, Dr Chau says.

Fung is often astounded by some parents' reactions when children hurt themselves in the playground.

"Once, when we were playing in a Yuen Long park, Markus gashed the area behind his ear on a broken plastic toy.

"Other parents rushed over and wanted to call the police. But I knew the importance of staying calm, as nervousness on my part would only make Markus more nervous.

"We eventually went to the hospital for treatment without making a big fuss," she says.

"Markus has experienced many situations that involve minor physical injury. So he doesn't think it's such a big deal.

"Once, he was hit by a swing on the head when he walked across the school playground. His teacher went into a panic and Markus was the one who comforted her.

"I was impressed by his hardiness," says Fung.

Fung also advocates delaying little pleasures as a way to teach children self-discipline.

"We have a rule that junk food can only be eaten once a week. He can only play video games twice a week, for half an hour at a time. He needs to know that he cannot always get his way.

"Equipped with this attitude, he will find it easier to take any obstacles in his stride in the future."