By Florence Lau

“Look, teacher, the dog’s in front! It’s a winner. But, that boy? He’s behind. Such a loser,” my tutee noted as we read children’s book We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in front. They’re a team; they’re working together. See? There’s no winner or loser.”

My tutee nodded dismissively, shrugging off my efforts to convince him that there really wasn’t a winner or a loser in this story. He continued to make similar remarks as we went on, saying things like “look, the dog’s still the winner,” or “the baby’s at the end again – he lost.”

Hong Kong schoolchildren
File photo: Chspf via Wikimedia Commons.

With every comment, my heart sank deeper. Here I was, with a Primary One student, and the only thing that he noticed about the characters was whether they were winning or losing.

I kept thinking: “Why is a six-year-old so concerned about who’s a winner or a loser even though the story isn’t about a competition?” When I was six, I would have probably been thinking about how much I’d want to be on a bear hunt with my friends and the many adventures we could be on. So, why was he thinking this way?

Well, the answer’s simple. The notorious parenting methods of Hong Kong parents, which are “helpful” in aiding our children to succeed in the Hong Kong educational system, have trained us to become numb to anything but success.

When you ask Hong Kong children what they are most proud of, they will often tell you that it’s being among the top three in the class, or winning the championship in a Mathalon.

When you ask them what they do during their free time, most of them say that they have no free time, and comment on how busy they are, citing their jam-packed schedules of Chinese, Math, and English tutorials, along with some sports, dance, or music classes.

When asked whether they are enjoying those classes, they fall silent, or shake their head and whisper: “my parents are making me do it.” Now, let’s step back and ask ourselves – is this normal?

student suicide

The average adult in Hong Kong works for 50.1 hours a week. Given that, let’s figure out the average amount of time children spend working.

School starts at 8am and ends at 3pm, making that about seven hours of school time. These kids would also need to go to after-school tutorials to brush up on their mathematics or linguistic skills, each around 1.5 hours. Of course, we can’t exclude the five to seven homework assignments that they get each day, which, on good days, would hopefully take up three hours to complete.

Adding it all up, a child would spend 11.5 hours per day working on weekdays.

Now, we also have to account for their weekend classes because, naturally, children shouldn’t rest on weekends. Weekends are for levelling up: taking extracurricular classes and squeezing in additional English or Chinese tutorials.

I mean, you shouldn’t waste any chance to boost their value in the Hong Kong educational market, right? Enrol them in a dancing, swimming, or piano class. Though one should probably add in lessons for a more exotic musical instrument, since piano classes are the norm now.

Assuming that a child takes two classes on the weekends, each two hours in length, he/she would be working for 61.5 hours per week – which is effectively 11.4 hours more than the average adult.

Why are our children working even more hours than us? Just because their work doesn’t pay and there’s no “boss” looming over them, does that make it any less stressful and overwhelming?

You might think: “I’m only helping my children succeed – the more qualifications they have, the higher they score, the greater the chance they will have at getting into a good university, and the greater the chance they will end up with a successful career.”

But I’m afraid that is a misbelief. Constantly encouraging them to score better than the kid next door and reinforcing concepts about how important it is to beat the other guy is not going to help them go far in life. It will only push them to become socially awkward and more secluded from other people.

Punishing them when they don’t reach your expectations isn’t going to help them improve next time; rather, it will harm your relationship with them and make them products of a system that trains them to work only under external motivation.

I am a product of these cruel methods. I had alternating Chinese and English tutorials every day after school, dance classes on Fridays, art classes on Saturdays, and additional Chinese or English lessons over the weekends.

Students exam learning education learn children

Then after Primary Three, my parents changed their parenting methods. Though my academic scores weren’t as high as they were back in elementary school, I was happier, had better relationships with people, and kind of turned out okay in the end (I guess).

I’m not trying to tell you that it is fine for a kid to get an “F” on a test. But there are many methods to encourage them to improve – more than just locking them up in the kitchen until they promise to score better. And to do well in school, a child doesn’t have to attend tutorials constantly, especially when he or she is not even struggling in the subject.

See also: Hong Kong school kids’ happiness hits record low – survey

Nothing is more important than letting your children know that you are there to support them no matter what, regardless of whether they win or lose in a competition.

While there is still time, teach them love and kindness, rather than rivalry and competitiveness; let them know that there is more to life than “winning” before they are whisked into its harsh reality.

Florence Lau is a Year 2 student studying dentistry at the University of Hong Kong.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.