25 July 2014, by Petrina Kow
So it finally happened. After 6 months into Primary 1, my son has come home with the dreaded ‘my teacher told me I’m stupid’ virus. Now, this has never happened before in our household because my firstborn was mostly an exemplary student. These tales of ‘abusive’ teachers were just that! Fairy Tales! How could anyone say that to my son? Usually when I hear these stories from my friends I always wondered how I would react if it was me. Of course, before I could even consider it, my ego would take over and I would brush it aside, fully convinced that these things WON’T happen to MY kids. I mean. How could it? Even though I was considering a strongly worded email or worse a straight to the principal approach, this happened instead.
Son: Mama, I had a very bad day today.
Me: Why son?
Son: Well, my teacher made me stand in a corner today, because I didn’t bring my book.
Me: Ok, is that all?
Son: No, and when he asked if anyone had any questions, I put up my hand to say I didn’t know how to do the math activity, and he started to say, “how come you don’t know? We are already counting 3 digits, how come you cannot even do 2 digits. Do you know you are the slowest in class and one of the worst in math?”
Me: Ok, well, how did that make you feel when he said all that?
Son: Well, it made me feel like I wanted to punch his face.
Me: Oh wow…and did you?
Son: No. But I really wanted to.
Me: What do you think will happen if you did?
Son: I think I will be sent to the principal’s office.
Me: Yeah…but it would be really funny if you did eh? Imagine, little old you, fighting your teacher!
And the rest of the conversation was all about how to take down this teacher. We discussed the pros and cons of a Brazilian Jujitsu smackdown versus a Bruce Lee style fist fight and we laughed.
Now, don’t let this lacksadaisical display of tomfoolery deceive you. It broke my heart. I curl my lip at this spirit crushing style of instruction. I turn my nose up at the fact that he feels helpless looking at a string of numbers. I flip my finger at the universe for this regrettable education system we have! My only consolation was the ‘teachable moment’ that I knew I had to address. I tried to explain to him that we don’t always have to believe what people say about us. But then reality set in. I had to be very honest with myself and think about why this happened. Is there any truth to what the teacher is saying and I know even if it’s true, it doesn’t absolve the teacher of his hostile attitude.
However, this really got me thinking. Have I, in my quest to give my kids freedom and space to create and explore, ignored their need for structure and discipline? Have I taken his easy-going and compliant nature for granted and failed to see his genuine need for guidance?
Maybe it’s all those articles I’ve been reading about allowing children time to play, and how it’s so important for their social and emotional development. But according to Paul Tough in his best-selling book ‘How Children Succeed’, the primary indicator of success today doesn’t depend primarily on cognitive skills – meaning your IQ and how well you score for tests, which is something we in Singapore take very seriously. He puts forth this idea that non-cognitive skills such as persistence, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence are more crucial than sheer brain power to achieving success. Which means to say, learning to overcome failure is not only character building, it is one of the most important factors in determining a person’s success in the future. I think about how I was raised and all I remember hearing from my parents were ‘work hard’, ‘persevere’, ‘have some discipline’. Whilst I fully recognise and embrace these 21st century skills like creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, I now realise that innovation is nothing without structure, talent is nothing without discipline and creativity is nothing without perseverance.
So are we raising a bunch of softies? Ones that don’t know how to take criticism and a little bit of tough talk? Why are we so afraid of letting our children fail? Is it guilt? Are we plagued by our own insecurity as parents? Have we given up on our fundamental responsibility to raise our kids to be kind, happy and competent? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps all of the above and some. All I know is I had to do something.
So we hatched a plan. We decided on a daily routine of 30 minutes work everyday. We talked and negotiated on what types of ‘work’ and what ‘rewards’ he would get. So far we have 5 points. Only 95 points away from opening up his Xbox 360 Arcade he got for his birthday. Easy. Delay gratification, check! Working towards a goal, check! Gross simplification of complex and never-ending problem, CHECK!
With great struggle comes great enlightenment. And in a flash of brilliance, I came up with a handy acronym to remind myself of what is needed in these times of struggle. When my kids come to me with their spirits broken, bullied by friends, put down by teachers, what they need most is my H.E.L.P. Humour, Empathy, Love and Patience. Heck, I think I am in dire need of some H.E.L.P myself! Coffee and cake anyone?