'Twisted, inhuman school system fails our children': why Hong Kong parents homeschool their kids

These families don't mince their words about Hong Kong's traditional mainstream education. They and more like them are opting to teach their children themselves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 5:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 6:30pm

Eric Chan Kwun-tat and his wife often visit the local park with their daughters, four-year-old Maeve and two-year-old Mysha.  It’s a fun time for the girls, who play on a swings and slides without constant reminders from their parents to be careful.

“Children can do a lot of things on their own, despite what many parents think,” Chan says.

This laid-back attitude is a radical change from two years ago, when he would attend all kinds of parenting workshops to learn how to groom Maeve to be a “genius”, feeding his little girl with flashcards and activities.

“You can say I was a bit like a tiger parent back then; I just wanted my kids to be smart and successful,” says the forty-something Chan.

But it all changed when he became interested in a holistic lifestyle, quit his job as a commercial buyer and began to to learn about the Waldorf education philosophy championed by Austrian Rudolf Steiner.  

A very close friend burst out to me: ‘When will you stop [preventing] your son from going to school?’ I was shocked.
Tse Lai-man, homeschooling parent

Chan and his wife, Kitty Lam Lok-ting, were so taken by the Waldorf model, which emphasises raising children in an unhurried, no-pressure environment, they decided to homeschool their daughters according to its tenets.

Lam is delighted by the positive growth she has seen in her children.

“Maeve has developed a lot of self confidence. She is not afraid to try out new things. She has a strong will to go after what interests her, like climbing up a waterfall.  She is also very creative,” she says.

“Our daughters are more creative when there are no rules,” Chan says. “Children should be free to fully develop their interests and talents. This is precisely the kind of flexibility not allowed in a traditional school,” he says.

Frustrated with the stressful, exam-oriented system in many Hong Kong schools, more parents are opting to homeschool their children. Several support groups have sprung up linking these families, including Hong Kong Homeschooling/Unschooling and the Hong Kong Homeschool Co-operative.

“We set it up because we felt parents, whether you’re homeschoolers or not, could all benefit by having more resources in how to teach their kids,” says Karen Chow, a co-founder of Homeschool Resources HK, a Facebook group set up in 2014.

Many parents use the platform to share teaching materials, books, activities and workshops suitable for their children, Chow says. They also recently published a book, We Are Homeschoolers, featuring the stories of 14  families in the city.

“I am not saying  that our ways of educating our children are necessarily better than mainstream methods. We’re just a group of parents who want our children to truly enjoy learning,” Chow says. “How can they be interested in learning anything when they’re so tired and overloaded  all the time?”

Though she is not part of the group, former social worker Tse Lai-man shares that view. “There are too many depressed children and problems in mainstream schools. I don’t have confidence putting my son in that kind of environment,” she says.

Tse has seen how it can affect children – she worked with students for 15 years before quitting her social work job last year to educate her four-year-old son Kong Ching-tin herself.

“Even in Primary One, children are burdened with negative feelings and suffer mood swings. Some are so stressed about examinations and report cards they feel ill. Others get very upset when teachers don’t call on them when they raise their hands; some are bullied for a year long before anyone notices,” Tse says of her experience.

“But teachers are also suffering. They have a tremendous workload and little time to sleep. The good ones wind up sacrificing their health and the bad ones take it out on their students.

“Our education system today is inhuman and twisted, and it’s failing our children.”

However, being a homeschool parent has its challenges, she says. “Financially it is hard,” she says.

 Although her husband fully supports her decision to homeschool, she still has to work part time to supplement their income.  

And then there’s criticism from relatives and friends who disapprove of her choice.

Before, I just wanted my girls to be do well academically. Now my wish is for them to grow holistically as people
Eric Chan

“From time to time I hear negative comments from my relatives through my mother,” Tse says. “At a dinner with some old friends, I was confronted with hostile attitudes. A very close friend burst out to me: ‘When will you stop [preventing] your son from going to school?’ I was shocked.  I can understand their concern because they don’t know what homeschooling is about and why I’m doing this, but still it hurts.”

Her mother was sceptical, too, but came round to the idea after seeing how well her grandson was developing.

“My biggest concern is not whether he will graduate from university. I only want him to live happily and realise his potential. I want him to feel free to pursue his own path and it doesn’t have to be academic.”

However, Tse says most Chinese are reluctant to accept homeschooling as an alternative to mainstream education.

“Chinese parents are very traditional. We don’t tend to let our children choose what they like to do. We often stop them from doing the activities that interest them and force  them to fit our own schedules,” she says. “There’s a lack of freedom and space for  children to grow.”

 Meanwhile, to better understand the Waldorf system, Kitty Lam has enrolled in a three-year early childhood education programme, which includes a 10-day teaching  stint at  a Waldorf kindergarten in New Zealand.

“I have gained a lot of useful knowledge on how to help my daughters develop physically, psychologically and spiritually. The programme also helps me to grow as a parent by being a role model for our children. We should teach them by doing rather than talking,” Lam says.

Chan and Lam believe they have made the right choice and do not plan to enrol their daughters in a mainstream school when they are older.

“Before, I just wanted my girls to be do well academically. Now my wish is for them to grow holistically as people,  to be wise instead of smart, and be able to turn pressure into motivation, to solve problems creatively,” he says.