Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Kyoiku-mama’ is a Japanese word. It’s assigned to the relentless mother, who pushes her children towards academic achievement no matter the cost. The fact that a word exists for this behaviour is striking. They also go by the name ‘Helicopter Mum’ or ‘Tiger Mum'. You can see them everywhere in Hong Kong.
The first sign is the sullen oppressed child in tow, with the Amah carrying the school bags. The Tiger has her mobile phone plugged to her head. She’ll be barking orders to the second Amah or trying to get a lesson because the kids got a 30-minute gap in his schedule. Downtime is not allowed. Organised play is the norm; marshalled with tight control. Spontaneity is not a word that has entered the Tiger Mums lexicon.
No wonder kids in Hong Kong are not happy. Even the schools are getting in on the act by demanding kids take extra lessons. It’s all a scam that generates money. The outcome, at best, is somewhat disturbed, unproductive, rote-learning automatons. Why Hong Kong kids need this brutal regime of education escapes me. Children in Europe do well with much less drilling.
And then the consequences can sometimes be terrible. My first week as a young inspector had me perched on a rooftop trying to talk down an adolescent girl. She'd failed her exams. Under tremendous parental pressure to succeed, emotional and drained, she sought a quick way out. She took that option and left me shaken. That was 1981. Things got exponentially worse since then. I’ve lost count of the number of child suicides that I attended in 36 years service on the Force. The one common factor was timing - it happens around exams or when the results come out. That points to the cause.
Suicides by children and adolescents account for a quarter of all deaths from unnatural causes in Hong Kong. Further, a survey this year found that 31 percent of primary school children had contemplated suicide. That’s a huge finding. It pulls back the curtain, to reveal the dark underbelly of Hong Kong’s education system.
Hong Kong parents think nothing of their kid spending 15 hours a day studying. Much of this is rote stuff for some test. It’s all soon forgotten and worthless. Kids are put off by this regimented relentless rote-learning rot. Some turn against education, some just surrender and others kill themselves. That’s Hong Kong’s dirty secret.
It all starts early. Kids as young as two-years old go through exams, including admission tests for kindergarten. It's something unheard of in Western countries. With testing a constant theme in Hong Kong, the effects are counterproductive.
I’ve had direct experience of these matters. My daughter entered a prominent Chinese primary school to be immediately given two-hours homework a night. She was five years old. Testing was a daily event. When she failed, humiliating punishments came her way. With her stress-levels rising, disrupted sleep and an unsympathetic school, my wife and I put a stop to this nonsense. We withdrew her. I tried to speak to the headmaster. What I found is arrogance, matched only by stupidity. He didn’t like my challenge or questions on his methods. That told me everything.
Stunned friends and relatives expressed surprise. We'd won a place at such an esteemed school, then pulled the plug. To me, it was a rational decision. A name amounts to nothing when a school is failing to display basic humanity. My daughter went on to excell in a sensible school environment. Thankfully, we rescued her before lasting damage.
What strikes me is she has a career in a job that didn’t exist when she entered schooling. The world of work is changing. Grades and results are losing their currency. In the future workplace what matters is ideas, creativeness and experimentation. Traits like emotional intelligence, self-confidence plus a willingness to experience failure are needed. Boredom and downtime have merits because it allows free-wheeling thought processes. These produce innovation. Rote drills for testing has the opposite impact. It turns kids off education, while giving false hope to those capable of recalling facts. That something a computer can do.
‘Failure is the best teacher’ to quote Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately, Hong Kong kids aren’t allowed to fail until it’s too late. A lack of unstructured play with other kids, the constant supervision and hovering parents, leaves them lost in the real world. Having not experienced much interaction with others, their problem solving skills are immature. Unusual environments disorientate them. In 2016, a survey found Hong Kong children get less outdoor time than prisoners in our jails.
Government officials are part of the problem. Locked in an old-world mentality of testing and grades; their policies fail the kids. Can any of them point to a study that validates all this testing? I’d like to see that review. To me, it's lazy to assume testing works. What is certain is that testing is easy for teachers. Instead of exciting lessons to foster student interest, you download a load of facts to them. Next, you test their retention. Bingo. That’s Hong Kong teaching.
As I write this, I can hear a neighbour scolding her 6-year old daughter over homework. It’s 9 p.m. What’s baffling is that parents have a genuine love their children, believing they are doing the right thing. Sad to say, Hong Kong parents are in denial about the damage they are doing to their kids. Regrettably, nothing will change until they wake from their illusions.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.