Hong Kong parents say pushing children too hard doesn't work

In the last of a three-part series on competition in Hong Kong's education system, some parents say that pushing children too hard doesn't work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 5:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 12:10pm

The phenomenon of overbearing parents pushing their children to the limit of their capabilities seems to be stamped in Hong Kong's DNA. While not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon, the parental imperative to make a child excel does seem more prevalent here - the city has almost 7,000 private tutoring centres, for example. In the final part of a South China Morning Post series exploring the various forms this drive by often well-meaning parents takes, we tell the story of Josephine Ling Yip Lai-sim, whose desire for academic and extracurricular excellence left her daughter centimetres away from taking her own life.

The 15-year-old girl sat on the windowsill 16 floors up, her legs dangling outside. She told her panicked parents she was going to throw herself to the ground.

At that moment, Josephine Ling Yip Lai-sim, the girl's mother, realised that all the steps she took to get the girl into an elite school - all the piano, cello and ballet classes the girl took - had been wrong.

Ling had kept tight control, and the daughter had rebelled. She skipped school, smoked cannabis, ran away from home and fought with everyone. She had slashed her arms many times.

"I used to scold her a lot," says Ling. "I used to feel the need to project my daughter into the child I wanted. But it suddenly dawned on me at that moment that I did it wrong. She was blaming me for pushing her into this situation, and she was right."

Soon after birth, Hong Kong children enter a breakneck race. Their parents push to find the best playgroups, which prepare them for the competition to get into pre-nursery schools, giving them an advantage in the quest for elite kindergartens, which means better admission chances at prestigious primary schools, secondary schools, and then top local or overseas universities.

For many parents, ballet and piano are a must, or else the children aren't qualified for the fight. Typically a child picks up three or four instruments and some sports, while attending various tutoring classes.

The Ling family's case might be an extreme. But early childhood education specialist Rosa Chow Wai-chun says that while a few children excel under the suffocating heat of competition, more are pushed into near-desperation. She cites a growing trend of children aged five to 12 seeking psychiatric help.

Some parents, though, have started to rethink the ferocious parenting technique described by American author Amy Chua's controversial 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Some Hong Kong school principals, realising that high pressure can harm children, are changing admissions requirements that prodded parents to pile on activities and seek achievement.

"There is a culture of fear in our society," says Sarah Ip Miu-yin, a clinical psychologist who wrote a book on parenting in Hong Kong. "Parents fear their children will lose at the starting line. It's not normal, and it'll get worse, as children will be influenced by parents' beliefs."

Ip says local parents draw comparisons with one another, and when they see many families doing something, they follow, fearing they'll lose out.

Fretting feeds a tutoring industry. The city has nearly 7,000 private tutoring centres, according to the Education Bureau's school list. A 2012 survey by the University of Hong Kong found that more than half of Form Three pupils attended tutoring classes, while more than 70 per cent of Form Six pupils were tutored.

Ip says the changing economic environment, where upward mobility is becoming harder, has deepened fears. Hong Kong parents are doing everything to make sure their children become accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers or doctors.

Competition for places

In Tin Shui Wai, where, according to the 2011 census, the median monthly family income was more than 20 per cent lower than that of Hong Kong as a whole, a fifth of parents sent their children to two kindergartens a day, according to the Tin Shui Wai Family Wellness Centre.

Ying Wa Primary School in Sham Shui Po received almost 4,000 applications - a 12 per cent bump from last year - for its 150 first-year places this year. In Pok Fu Lam's St Paul's College Primary School, more than 2,000 children - up 10 per cent from last year - competed for 96 places. Diocesan Boys' School Primary Division in Mong Kok received more than 3,000 applications, 15 per cent up on last year. The school planned to admit just 150 children.

More than 80,000 students sat the Diploma of Secondary Education exams last year, yet there were just 15,000 subsidised university places; five students were competing for each place.

Ling and her husband moved from Tuen Mun to Hong Kong Island to enter their daughter into a primary school known for requiring heavy homework. Her daughter did not like it.

One day, during a fight between the parents and angry daughter, the girl stormed into her room and climbed onto the 16th floor windowsill.

"Living is such a pain," the girl told the parents. She did not jump, but the incident made Ling rethink how she had been treating her daughter.

Under pressure

Is the pressure to perform really necessary? Maria Lam Woon-sum, principal of Ying Wa, says the answer is clear: no.

"Hong Kong parents have herd behaviour," says Lam. "They think they're not doing enough because others are doing more. In the end, everybody is scaring everybody else."

She considers it a waste of time to demand that children take up various skills and attend competitions to enrich admissions portfolios to make them more competitive. It exhausts children, and parents sacrifice time that could have been spent together with the family.

Lam says the school stopped accepting children's portfolios - sometimes of 30 to 40 pages - for application in 2010. Instead, it accepts a maximum of 10 A4 sheets in an application and will lower that to five sheets next year, she says.

"They're just kids," she says. "If they know everything before entering the school, what are we supposed to teach them?"

Arnett Edwards, principal of boarding school Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong, says it's not as important for children to acquire many skills, but to be able to reflect on and learn from past experiences and use the knowledge for something else. He says the school has admitted pupils from "humble backgrounds" who had taken part in a limited number of after-school activities. Those children were able to offer insights on their experiences during interviews.

"We don't simply look at certificates or big portfolios, but dig into them," says Edwards.

Forcing children to learn and pushing them too far can ruin their appetite for learning and cause "passive resistance", says Christopher Yu Wing-fai, director of the non-profit Hong Kong Institute of Family Education. He says he has seen many cases where children performed outstandingly in Primary One because they had learned all the concepts in kindergarten, but then deteriorated quickly in the following years because they had lost interest in studying.

"Many people don't want to lose at the starting line, but the most important thing is not who wins at the starting line, but who lasts until the finish line," says Yu.

He also observes that the mounting pressure has pushed young people to think about killing themselves. Last year more than 50 people aged 19 or younger committed or attempted suicide in Hong Kong, according to police, equal to more than four cases a month. About 25 per cent of secondary and tertiary students had thought about committing suicide, according to research conducted last year by Kinetic Life Training and Counselling Centre. Among those, 60 per cent said the pressure from study was the major trigger.

New beginning

The suicide attempt by Ling's daughter awakened her. She realised that instead of piano and ballet, her daughter was an outdoors enthusiast, preferring rock climbing and swimming. Ling says she started praising and encouraging the girl, and letting her arrange her own schedule.

The parents transferred the teen to another school after Form Two, and when she was given freedom and received positive messages from her parents, she pursued her studies with more vigour. It took a year for her to catch up and she became the top pupil in her class from Form Four to Form Seven, her mother says.

Now aged 26, the daughter is a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant, having graduated from Baptist University in communications with first-class honours. Although cooking was not a career originally appreciated by Ling, the mother now considers that to be a success.

"Asian parents have absolute control over their children. We believe if our children are not successful enough, we'll lose face," says Ling, who founded the non-profit group Hong Kong Character City Movement in 2006 to promote positive parenting. "I don't see any way out. As the speed of life is getting faster, the working hours getting longer, and the inflation and property prices getting higher, the competition will only become more acute."

Yu is more optimistic. He says as long as all principals tell parents clearly that they do not want children who know everything before entering school, parents will start to relax.

"Many principals have told me that they're tired of seeing extremely brilliant profiles of children" he says. "They said they just want to educate normal children into responsible people. What they need to do is speak is out."