Blowing Water

Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are stressed out – and their parents are making matters worse

Luisa Tam says local schools push children hard enough, so parents need to be a source of support – not an additional source of stress

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 7:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 11:14pm

Hong Kong children are stressed, not only because of long hours of studying, frequent testing, and too much homework, but also because of pushy and demanding parents.

I was shocked by a recent news report on the reaction of a parent after he found out his 12-year-old daughter did not secure a place at the secondary school of her choice.

“I told my daughter she has to bear the consequences … the allocation results are based on the effort she put into her studies,” the disgruntled dad said.

Understandably, the poor girl burst into tears. How can a parent put so much blame on a girl of such a delicate age? It is dangerous to put too much pressure on young children.

Although exam stress levels were said to be at an all-time low for local secondary six pupils this year, more felt under pressure from their parents than ever before, according to a survey by Hok Yau Club, an NGO that provides support and guidance to local students. The figures revealed that more than 40 per cent of pupils interviewed felt parental pressure in relation to their academic performance.

Although this study focused solely on secondary pupils, parental pressure is prevalent and affects students of all ages in Hong Kong.

And we all know that school is not the only area of life where parents put pressure on their children. They want to see them do well in everything – such as music, sports and other pursuits – to grow up to be outstanding adults.

Many of them want their children to achieve what they had failed to achieve when they were young. And, to be fair, there is nothing wrong with parents wanting their offspring to do well in all aspects of life. But life should not be all about competition. Kids should be allowed to be kids, and not be forced to practise and compete constantly.

A Hong Kong construction worker who punished his eight-year-old son for doing badly in school by making him cross a busy road on his knees last year was placed on 12 months’ probation.

Punishing children for bad grades is a common approach of parents the world over. Harsh verbal discipline is no less harmful than physical punishment. Sometimes it can cause more harm if the child feels humiliated or intimidated. More worrying is that verbal abuse could cause invisible but permanent damage.

Another problem is that by pushing their little ones so hard, parents are condoning and promoting a competitive academic environment. They should be doing the reverse and fighting for a more amicable education system.

Parental emotional support is far more effective than verbal discipline in a child’s development. Some parents believe since they have brought their children into this world, they therefore have the right to discipline them in whichever way they want. This belief can sometimes escalate into parental violence.

Having developed a degree of love and affection for their children does not lessen the impact of the occasional use of harsh verbal or physical discipline.

Inflicting harm on a child cannot be excused by saying it is done “out of love”, or “for their own good”. Righting a wrong with another wrong is inexcusable.

It may be convenient to brush this off as “a cultural thing” or “not our business to interfere in other parents’ business”, but the fact of the matter is that these children are being abused, because they are living under the threat of punishment most days. It is that fear that stays with children for the rest of their lives.

A simple Google search reveals a raft of academic literature that prattles on about the physical and mental dangers of being under constant stress. Everything from high blood pressure, heart problems, clinical depression, and asthma are blamed on stress.

So if stress is considered a workplace hazard, why are we allowing this to happen to our children, and in our own homes?

The solution is an obvious one: be kinder to our children.

Children do need discipline, but it needs to be balanced with praise, approbation and affection. When it comes to matters such as school work and exams, it is important to encourage children to work hard and study hard, but using fear of punishment to incentivise them simply is not the way. Local schools push children enough as it is, so parents need to be there as a source of support, not as an additional source of stress.

We all want our children to be happy, so let’s take stock of what is important and how we can achieve that through happier and healthier means.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post