Hong Kong kids need to learn self-care skills

It's time Hong Kong children learned to think for themselves and pull their weight around the home, writes Hazel Parry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 11:32am

It's Friday afternoon and the hall at Renaissance College in Ma On Shan is packed with about 250 domestic helpers. They are not waiting to collect students, but chatting and whooping with delight as children serve them drinks and food, while others entertain with dancing and singing.

"It's fantastic," says Laura, who has worked in Hong Kong for 10 years. "It's a lovely way to spend two hours ... it makes us feel appreciated."

That's just what Kathryn Bignold and Carol Paterson, the teachers who helped organise the event, aim to achieve through the college's annual helper appreciation day - or Jie Jie ("big sister") Day.

Many helpers send most of their pay home to their families and don't get to spoil themselves, Bignold says, so they thought it would be nice to give them a treat. "We hope it encourages children to respect the people who do things for them every day, whether they are a helper, bus driver or the lady in the cafeteria."

It's a lesson that children in Hong Kong would do well to learn if two recent surveys hold true. The surveys painted a city of spoiled brats who were often unable and even unwilling to look after themselves because of overindulgent parents and helpers.

A survey of 500 parents, conducted in March by Tai Po Mega Mall, found that 76 per cent of the parents interviewed said their children needed help getting dressed and 61 per cent said their children did not know how to bathe themselves. More than half of the parents said their children did not clean up, while 42 per cent said their children needed help finishing a meal.

"There has been a lot of talk recently about whether Hong Kong children are spoiled. We wanted to do an investigation to see if it is true," says Bonald Chan Shuk-hang, the senior promotions manager of Sun Hung Kai Properties, which owns the mall.

To test the point further, the mall also ran a household chores contest which pitted youngsters against each other as they performed simple tasks such as folding clothes, sweeping and washing dishes.

A separate survey published last month by City University's department of applied social studies found that about 62 per cent of parents of children aged between four and 12 said their children did not help with household chores, with many attaching greater importance to homework.

The researchers warned of the consequences of spoiling children, saying overprotective parents were in danger of raising children who were more likely to bully and have personality disorders.

Gemini Cheung Ming-lai, a child and education psychologist, is not surprised by the findings. She says she regularly comes across children who cannot perform basic self-care tasks and says several factors are to blame.

"In Hong Kong, parents are more focused on academics and encourage children to spend more time doing things like reading, maths and extra activities," she says.

"The other factor is that, often, both parents work and so they have a domestic helper who will do everything because they want to do a good job and not get into trouble.

"Even in families who do not have domestic helpers, the parents are often very protective of the children. They don't let them do anything for themselves."

However well-meaning, Cheung believes this overprotectiveness will leave children without the skills they need to take care of themselves and others when they grow up.

"The danger is their development will not be balanced. They may have high academic results but they cannot take care of themselves.

"Parents need to change their attitude. They need to understand that basic self-care is an important part of a child's education and development."

Terry Au Kit-fong, chair professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong, says studies of preschool children in Hong Kong already hint at the impact this overprotective behaviour can have on child development.

Although the research found richer children scored better on language skills, reasoning and cognitive thinking compared to children of poorer families, this was not true of motor control - the kind of skill developed by buttoning shirts, tying shoe laces and feeding themselves.

"If parents don't think it is important for their children to have fine motor control, as long as they can hold a pen and play the piano, then that is their choice. It is not for us to judge whether that is right or wrong," says Au.

"That said, I think it is important that children learn self-care skills. The tricky thing in Hong Kong is so many families have a maid. During the week the parents don't do anything and, on Sunday, when the maid has the day off, they do as little as possible and eat out so they don't have to cook.

"It's not surprising to hear stories of kids who go off to college overseas and they can't do basic things."

However, Au says parents should be wary of offering cash incentives so their children help with chores. Instead, she suggests explaining why these skills will be important as they grow older. Parents can also help by being good role models and getting involved in chores themselves, she says.

This was shown in research by Pennsylvania State University, which also highlighted an interesting gender difference: girls who did household chores viewed themselves as more competent while the opposite was true of boys - unless dad helped out.

"In the traditional type of family where the fathers do virtually nothing and the mothers do a lot and try to get their sons to help, the boys are worse off," she says.

"Their self-perception of their competence is lower and they are more stressed out. They also have a worse mother-child relationship because the mother always seems to be nagging the son to do what dad doesn't do.

"The larger picture is that children are willing to do things which make sense to them. If you emotionally blackmail your son, or tell the kids they have to do the chores just because you tell them, children see that as arbitrary and their parents as authoritarian."

Gemini Cheung agrees, saying parents should get children into the habit of helping when they are young, and encourage them with praise and by explaining why it is important. Au adds that rather than outsourcing self-care chores to maids, parents could make fun, bonding activities out of these tasks.

There is another alternative, although Au admits it may be too extreme for many working parents: living without a maid. This is what Au did when her family returned to Hong Kong after living in Los Angeles.

"At first it was helpful to have a maid but I started to see things about my [son and daughter] which I was uncomfortable with, such as walking away from the dinner table without thinking to help put things away," she says.

About three years ago, when her daughter left for college, the family moved to a smaller flat and went without a maid.

"I wanted a more naturalistic environment for my son so he would do more self-care and likewise for my daughter when she came home for holidays."

Au believes this decision has made her children, now aged 15 and 20, more confident. She is less worried about how they will cope when not living at home.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say my son is independent now, but in school recently a teacher asked his class what they had done from a list of household chores. He was the only one who kept raising his hand.

"He doesn't spend many hours a week doing these things but he has the ability … to try to do them. If children have these basic skills, it gives them more options in life."

[email protected]