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【SCMP Education Post:Parenting Tips】Micro-managing kids and “checklisted” childhoods



Children should be able to lead varied and fulfilling lives with the freedom to make decisions for themselves. The modern world has meant that many parents have begun to micro-manage kids into leading predictable, pre-programmed lives, where making mistakes is frowned upon rather than seen as a sign of self-development …


I have spent the last four years consulting with thousands of wonderful Hong Kong families and I, myself, realise the financial and psychological commitment required to send a child to boarding school in the UK. I also realise what may spur Hong Kong parents into what may be construed as “over-parenting”. Who would not worry if their son or daughter was 6000 miles away?


That said, I am still positively reeling from a Ted Talk given by Julie Lythcott-Haims which focuses on how to raise successful kids – without over-parenting. According to Lythcott-Haims, there is a tendency for parents to “hover over every happening” and that they should be “micro-managing at every moment”.


The notion that children lead a “checklisted childhood” is hard to overlook. They have to be fed and watered, they have to go to dance class, get the right scores, top awards, partake in sports activities, start a club and even do community service. Lythcott-Haims mentions that kids have to perform at a level of perfection never seen before and that parents have assumed the role of “personal secretaries” rather than providers of love and affection.


Strong words, clearly, but should they be consigned to oblivion? Such structure may all be in the name of a child getting into an esteemed university and going on to have a career in the professions. Who would not like to attend Oxbridge or Harvard? Let us not forget, however, that this tiny handful of colleges denies almost every applicant and many successful people came from less prestigious institutions too. However, cramming for every test and parental pressure is perhaps less helpful for a child than leading a healthy life, following a balanced curriculum, discovery and freedom of choice.


Lythcott-Haims makes the point that kids often ask counsellors “what grades do I need to get into college?” and not “What might I be interested in?” Certainly, we do not want our children to burn themselves out and spiral into depression through putting material goals before spiritual goals and self-satisfaction.


Fortunately, British boarding schools have picked up on the “A* grades at all costs” frenzy and attempted to switch to a whole child approach to education where the Great Outdoors and a striving for happiness are vital elements of a child’s education. Importantly, children do not just hone their academic and character-building skills but also learn from their mistakes. I, for one, had to collect leaves from the playing fields after breaking boarding house rules and became a better and more grateful person for it.


We need to appreciate what boarding schools do for children and not get so bogged down with mark schemes and future careers. We also need to stray away from conversation based on academic successes. How far would the question “What was nice about lunch today” go in comparison with “What mark did you get in that Geography test”? Children will pick up on this and feel more loved for it. Indeed, the Harvard Grant Study actually found that happiness comes from love and human interaction as opposed to a love of work.


Another important point from the study, which Lythcott-Haims refers to, is that children need to contribute and do chores around the house early in life in order to foster a “pitch-in” mindset. This will bear fruit later on in life in terms of professional success and getting ahead in the workplace.


When it concerns Hong Kong children away at boarding school, parents may mean well by hiring online tutors, checking up on academic progress and general well-being via whatsapp and flying to the UK to be with children at half-term. However, where do we draw the line between being controlling and doing the right thing?


I have been to boarding school but I have not got children. As an empathetic person, I am on everybody’s side. However, we need to steer children towards self-efficacy, making mistakes and then learning from them and not getting too bogged down with structure and details.


When I consult with children and parents, I try to be as humanistic as possible. I ask children ‘do you have any friends in England?’ because compassion and interest in a person means so much more than academic talent and grades.


Hong Kong children are noted for being hardworking and studious and we do not want to lose that. We do, however, want to set them on “humanistic” path to self-discovery and self-efficacy.


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