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What is Success?

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 18, 2013)

I was recently having dinner with some friends who have an adorable 2 year-old son. At dinner, this couple started to tell me all about the parenting classes they had just attended and how they are finding it a challenge to choose a school for their son. The parenting classes they had attended were 3 hours long each and had the aim of enlightening first time parents to the different tiers of kindergartens, the interview processes at each and all the ‘tricks’ into passing the interviews with flying colours.

My friend started telling me about how there is a ‘correct way’ for a 2 year old to play with blocks that are given to him and there’s a ‘correct answer’ for every question that is asked (even if the question could have multiple answers). It saddened me to hear how parents are feeling the pressure of moulding their child into the perfect interview child and subsequently translating the pressure to their children.

I’ve heard stories of how parents walk out of the 3-hour seminars and are so wrought with fear that their child will not get into the best kindergarten, that they frantically buy all the expensive ‘preparation materials’ that they can use to help their child prepare for the interview. I’ve heard of stories where parents enroll their toddler in an array of classes so they can collect certificates to add to their 4-inch thick portfolios to show to the schools. I can’t imagine how pressured a 2 year old would feel when told that there is a ‘correct’ way to play with blocks (you’d think blocks are to have fun with!) and that their future success depends on their performance at a 20-minute kindergarten interview.

In reflecting on these parents, I have come to appreciate that they love their children and want what is best for them. They want their children to go to good kindergartens which will lead to good primary schools, which will lead to good high schools and universities and subsequently a good job and life. These parents want to give their child a bright future, perhaps one that is better than theirs. Bottom line is, they want their child to succeed.

However, my question is: what is success?

Is success measured by grades? The prestigious reputation of the school they attend? The number of instruments he can play? The number of awards won? The university she goes to? The salary he has when he graduates?

I personally have nothing against success of the aforementioned and I think all children should work hard and be the best they can be. But I don’t think those ‘successes’ should ever come at the cost of other more important things – physical health, emotional stability, spiritual well-being, family relationships and contribution to the greater good of the society.

Depression and emotional issues are becoming more and more prevalent in young children and a pediatric doctor was telling me that in recent years, more and more young children are suffering from anorexia and bulimia, conditions that were in the past associated more with teenagers and young adults. And in recent years, more and more children and teenagers either contemplate or actually commit suicide, many of whom seem ‘successful’ on the outside.

I’ve personally seen 9-year-old children lose sleep and start to have their hair fall out because of the stress of school. I’ve seen 11-year-old children fall into anorexia and depression because of pressures placed on them. I don’t think any number of grade As or awards are worth physical and emotional illnesses.

And what I fear most for parents is that whilst they think they are doing what’s best for the children, it is coming at a cost of their relationship with the very children they are trying to help. I was recently having a heart-to-heart talk with an extremely bright and accomplished 8-year-old where I was asking her about her mum. She was telling me how her mum is very strict, tells her off if she slips in her marks and makes her learn a lot of things. When I asked whether she loves her mother, she replied with a ‘not really’. When I heard that, it was like a knife in my heart even though she’s not my daughter. This 8-year-old is still at the age where she relies on her mother and has to comply but I fear that when she is 18, she will choose to become distant. I don’t think accomplishments are worth a broken relationship.

So, what is your definition of success?















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