Tiger parents forgetting that kids are people, not projects

Hongkongers should reflect on Nobel laureate's call for children to be 'free to play and dream'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 2:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 2:27am

Kailash Satyarthi, who shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for their struggle against the suppression of children and for young people's rights, said in his acceptance speech that the single aim of his life was that "every child is free to be a child, free to grow and develop, free to eat, sleep, see daylight, free to laugh and cry, free to play, free to learn, free to go to school and above all, free to dream".

These words, at once heartfelt and heartbreaking, serve as a much-needed reminder to adults all over the world that we, as parents, teachers and decision-makers, owe our children their freedom and their right to be themselves. They should also put a lot of Hong Kong parents to shame.

In this city, raising children has become a fiercely competitive sport. And once you are in the race, you find yourself under tremendous peer pressure and seem to have no choice but to play to win.

For a mother or a father, there is no greater fear than the fear that a child will under-perform in any area - academic, social, artistic or athletic - and grow up to be anything less than an unqualified success and an overachiever. This fear, which can be all-consuming, coupled with the god-like powers parents have over their children, turns parents into control freaks striving to micromanage every detail of their kids' lives.

But as Andrew Solomon says in his excellent book Far from the Tree, child-rearing is not a perfectionist's game. Hong Kong parents should stop listening to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which treats bringing up children as a vanity game and ego trip, and start caring more about The Over-Scheduled Child. In it, child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld and journalist Nicole Wise urge society to take action against parents' pursuit of perfection for their children.

Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis is many parents' idea of an unqualified success, a high-flier. If my son could only grow up to be someone like him, you can almost hear these parents muttering.

But Daniel Day-Lewis' father, Britain's poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, was no parenting guru. In fact, he was famous for his infidelities. He met Daniel's mother Jill Balcon when he already had not only a wife but also a mistress. He divorced his wife and married Jill.

Yet there is probably more wisdom in the final two lines of his most famous poem than in the endless number of books published in recent years on hyperparenting. This is how Cecil Day-Lewis ends Walking Away, his now canonical poem on parent-child relationships:

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic