- Education & Catastrophe
- President Tharman's Message To Parents
President Tharman's Message To Parents
Education & Catastrophe 69
Image credit: Petir
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
In this issue, we unpack Singapore’s President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam past speeches about education. Covered in this issue:
Don’t stress the kids
Giving kids free time
Playing the long game
Let’s dive in!
With 1.7m Singaporeans voting for President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam, I thought it’s a good opportunity to remind Singaporeans (and non-Singaporeans) how the incoming President thinks about education.
Tharman advice to all you kiasu parents 🤭 #singapore #pe2023 #sgtiktok
Don’t be so stressed when the kids are young. Don’t stress the kids out. Give them time to play. Give them free time. Don’t spend so much time on preparing for examinations.
In 10 seconds, Mr Tharman gave five pieces of advice, starting with
Don’t be so stressed when the kids are young.
A quick look at the comment section of the TikTok video suggests that many parents are stressed about cost of living. While it is true that Singapore is an extraordinarily expensive city, I believe Mr Tharman was specifically referring to parents’ anxiety about their child’s academic performance. Anecdotally, I have heard of many mothers who take the year off because their child is taking the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination). Doing so causes financial stress (going from dual-income to single-income household), and more worryingly, strains the relationships between husband-and-wife, mother-and-child. Which brings us to Mr Tharman’s second point.
Don’t stress the kids out.
Spend a couple of hours in a cafe on a weekend and you’ll probably see a child hunched over an assessment paper, with one or both parents hovering over them. A couple of months ago, I was reading the papers in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon when I saw a mother slam an assessment book on the table in front of her child. I cannot remember the exact conversation between mother and child, but the mother was clearly frustrated with the child and taking it out on her. I saw something similar a few weeks ago on a Saturday morning when I overheard a dad yelling at his son ‘why don’t you get it?’, something to do with a science concept. The poor boy, who must have been eight or nine, was visibly stressed. As was the girl whose mother slammed the assessment book.
Give them time to play.
I’m a big proponent of learning through play. To paraphrase MIT Media Lab’s Mitch Resnick, a child’s work is to play. It’s how kids learn. It’s a misconception that learning through play is only for preschoolers. A ten-year-old needs play as much as a three-year-old. I’ll go so far as to say that denying a child’s right to play is cruelty. Play can take many forms. Running around in the playground is play. So are sports, board games, online gaming etc. I generally prefer my kids to play amongst themselves or with other kids than to play alone.
Give them free time.
This sounds like a repetition of the previous point about giving kids time to play, but I think it’s different. While it’s important for kids to play, they also need the time and space to be bored, to figure out how to deal with that boredom, and to explore their interests and passions. Overscheduling kids is a big problem in Singapore.
Don’t spend so much time on preparing for examinations.
Two weeks ago I wrote about Singapore’s tuition epidemic. Many kids spend countless hours after school and on weekends in tuition centres. They have absolutely no time to be themselves, to discover what they are interested in, what they are good at. Tuition is a time suck. A few days ago a friend sent me an ad from a tuition centre offering unlimited tuition. Will it help a child get better grades? Probably. Will it help a child develop skills that last a lifetime? Skills that prepare them for jobs of the future? Absolutely not.
Parents and kids have to realise that life is a long game. You may not be number one or even number five in school, but life is a long game. You can keep learning and keep improving.
So when we are young, we’ve got to broaden ourselves, have a range of enjoyable experiences, make friends, and don’t let stress build up in our system.
Enjoy ourselves when we are young. Life is meant to be carefree when we are young.
Life is a long game. Unfortunately, many kids in Singapore have been led by their parents (and teachers, peers, relatives etc.) to believe their entire self-worth is dependent on how well they do in school. It is a widely known fact that many children and young people in Singapore resort to self-harm because of anxiety. In extreme cases, they don’t make it to adulthood. The overemphasis on academic achievements makes it extremely difficult for a child to zoom out and realise that grades do not make or break their lives.
For many kids (and adults) who make it through the system, they become so scarred they develop an aversion to learning. As Mr Tharman puts it, we can keep learning and keep improving, especially in the age of exponential change. In fact, the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn is probably the only way one can adapt and flourish. Consider the implications of making our kids hate learning.
As Singaporeans look forward to a new presidency premised on building a future of optimism and solidarity, let’s take a long hard look at how we think about education and how that affects our relationship with our kids.
Education has been and is the most fundamental social and economic strategy and shapes the character of Singapore.
Education is too important for us to be obsessing over exams.