In Hong Kong, the kids aren’t alright
Alice Wu says says a recent survey that finds our children’s happiness level dropping to a new low only confirms what we should already know – we aren’t giving them the care they truly need
How often do we hear the axiom that children are our future? But as much as people and governments say that children are to be protected, they remain vulnerable. Society says we should value them, yet not enough has been committed to showing that we do care. Children don’t have votes nor do they have a voice.
As we struggle, still, to understand and allot blame for the recent student suicides in Hong Kong, how much do we view things from the perspectives of our young and incorporate these views into our policies?
The truth is, what we are willing to commit to children’s emotional well-being is disproportionate to the value we claim they have. We invest vast amounts of resources in making our children high achievers, and our government talks endlessly about raising Hong Kong’s competitiveness. At the end of the day, our kids are apparently only as good as their Diploma of Secondary Education test scores.
To be sure, Hong Kong children are more fortunate than those in many other places, where access to a basic right such as education is not a given. Well, that is, if we conveniently ignore the built-in hurdles in our education system for ethnic minority students and other special-needs students. They have been crying out for help for years. So how much have we devoted ourselves to addressing their needs?
Like many Asian societies, we value education. We believe in hard work. We believe education is a way out of poverty, opening the doors to opportunities. We believe all of that, but yet, we often fail to see how we have closed doors, made opportunities more scarce, and made the lives of our schoolchildren positively Hobbesian – solitary, poor, nasty and brutish. Look no further than what we make our toddlers go through to trump the next toddler to get into the best kindergarden, then primary school and onward. Our systems ensures that the underprivileged or those with special needs, in fact, are given a ticket to remain in poverty.
Perhaps the results of the latest Children’s Happiness Index by Lingnan University’s Centre for Public Policy Studies, released last week, have little shock value. The happiness of Hong Kong schoolchildren dropping to a new low is expected – too easily accepted, in fact – and that in itself may very well be the problem. Our schoolchildren are drowning in their homework. They have less exercise than those we put behind bars. We have institutionalised unhappiness into their lives.
A global study done by Unicef in 2001 had already shown depressing news for Hong Kong’s children and adolescents. Hong Kong scored the lowest out of the entire East Asia and Pacific region in self-satisfaction. Our children had the least respect for elder people and authoritarian figures, compared with their counterparts in the rest of the region. The “lack of happiness” is not a recent phenomenon.
For all the importance we have attached to our children, they have not felt “valued” for years. And yet some of us wonder why our young people are so angry. Have we become desensitised to the challenges we put our children through?
Many often argue that “back in the day”, life was challenging for us, too. But we forget that each generation faces challenges of its own. Invalidating other people’s challenges because we see that “they have it much better today than when we were young” is crude, and a cover for our unwillingness to truly understand how they are feeling.
Swept under this grand big carpet are also children who are the most vulnerable – distressed children who have no voice and no way of seeking help. Children who are victims of abuse, violence, witnesses to constant family feuds and violence often aren’t “found” until it is too late. We lack mechanisms in the policymaking process that consider children’s best interests.
As we celebrate the Ching Ming festival and Children’s Day on April 4, this is a perfect opportunity to think about how generations past have worked so hard to give us what we have today, and to reflect on the kind of world we are creating for our children.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA