For the love of their children, parents must cure themselves of the compulsion to compete at all costs

Alice Wu says yet another survey result of unhappy Hong Kong children begs the question why parents who are dismayed by the news nevertheless continue to pile on the pressure for their kids to excel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 8:13pm

A friend posted a humblebrag (complete with the not-so-subtle “public” privacy setting) on her Facebook page a couple of months ago, featuring her four-year-old son, who was then in the second year of kindergarten, conquering double-digit multiplication. She included a video clip of him doing the maths, just so the world could be sure.

Treating children like show ponies is dangerous, although it is easy to fall into the trap. I genuinely enjoy seeing my friends’ social media posts and learning about what they and their family have been up to. After all, social media are sharing platforms; but where does “sharing is caring” end and “sharenting” begin? When does the harm of overexposure outweigh the benefits? And how much does this seemingly harmless social media behaviour feed the narcissistic-parenting monster within?

Such reflection points to the more fundamental question that confronts us, online and offline: how much do we truly care about our children’s happiness and well-being?

Results from the Hong Kong Children Happiness Index for the 2017/18 academic year, released just last week, showed a significant drop in the happiness of nine-year-olds in Hong Kong. Our children are introduced to the happiness deficit at an increasingly young age.

It’s hard to imagine what a “normal” childhood is today. Surely, there is plenty more for kindergarteners to do rather than mastering double-digit multiplication. But we already know that children are missing out on play because of the pressures of our test-score-obsessed world.

Watch: How stressed out are Hong Kong’s students?

Ever since parents became infected with the “poison” of believing that, for children to get ahead, they must “win at the starting line”, our children have been put under even more pressure to outperform those around them.

Professor Ho Lok-sang, director of the Polling and Public Opinion Centre at Chu Hai College of Higher Education, attributed the drop in happiness to parents becoming more demanding. All the “talk about winning at the starting line” has pushed parents to become more competitive, he said.

Tip for Hong Kong parents: ‘winning at the starting line’ is so yesterday

We’re killing our children’s childhood, and introducing them to their own version of the Hobbesian world, albeit coloured in pastels. Our kids, dressed in baby blues and dusky pink, are taught to kill off the “competition” – their first friends – in playgroups and Sunday schools.

Yet each time we hear news of a student suicide, we gasp in disbelief and shake our heads. We are shocked that one in seven Primary Three to Primary Six pupils showed signs of depression.

David Runciman, from the University of Cambridge, recently wrote about the powerful impact of images of suffering children. He cited the example of how the 2015 photo of a three-year-old who drowned trying to reach Greece inspired changes to immigration policies in Europe.

More recently, a photo of a crying girl near the US-Mexico border was credited with partly forcing the Trump administration to end its policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Runciman’s point. His point? The goodwill, unfortunately, doesn’t last.

Hong Kong children are stressed – and their parents make it worse

So for us in Hong Kong, surveys, studies and news of young lives lost because of academic pressures continue to make us pause and, at times, outrage us enough to demand change. We expect the government to make changes, and blame society for impeding the process. But in no time, we go right back to submitting to our fear of missing out. And, soon enough, someone will be posting videos of their three-year-old tackling square roots. The fear of losing at the starting line will reign.

Interestingly, last week’s study found that children living in Home Ownership Scheme homes and public housing flats that have been bought are most happy, followed by those living in private homes. Those living in rented public housing or private flats score the lowest.

Undoubtedly, this will add to the continuous calls for the government to tackle Hong Kong’s unaffordable-housing crisis. But it should speak to parents directly, too — on the role they play, in providing a sense of security in the home, and in their children’s happiness.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA