COMMENT: Parents need to manage expectations of their children’s studies

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When I was 15 years old, I failed my secondary three school examinations and feared the worst.

I could partly blame the many hours of daily basketball sessions for my academic failure. Then again, I am now 1.8-metre tall, thanks to my dedication to the sport.

With red marks dotting my report book, I was called into the school office because of my poor results. A very important person was also there during the review: my mother.

Instead of getting a verbal lashing from my mother, she was calm and relatively tight-lipped. All she did after the review was done was to urge me to try harder next time. So long as I tried my best, she said that she would support me.

Her soft approach to “pushing” me in my studies worked. I was able to pick myself up to pass my Secondary 3 exams in my second attempt. Eventually, I moved up the academic ladder, and went on to graduate with a degree and a post-graduate diploma.

I revisited this part of my life recently when I read about the tragic news of an 11-year-old schoolboy who fell 17 floors from his bedroom window. Ruling the boy’s death as suicide, State Coroner Marvin Bay said that the boy may have succumbed to parental pressure to perform in school.

The boy failed two of his subjects and barely passed three other subjects in his mid-year exams. His mother had admitted that she would cane him “lightly” if he scored below 70 marks in exams.

High expectations versus emotional problems

The boy's death was not an isolated case in Singapore. There have been past reports of children who had killed themselves, or tried to do so, partly due to the pressure to perform in school. I wish we have the “right” answers and empirical data that we can equip ourselves with to place a safety net and prevent such a tragic outcome.

Parents have to be aware that pushing their children too hard to perform in studies could cause them to develop deep anxiety, which may lead to depression or worse, suicide.

In a study by the National University of Singapore, researchers found that the unrealistically high expectations placed on schoolchildren could cause them to suffer from serious emotional problems.

“In a society that emphasizes academic excellence, which is the situation in Singapore, parents may set unrealistically high expectations on their children. Thus, a sizable segment of children may become fearful of making mistakes,” said lead researcher Ryan Hong from NUS’ psychology department.

“Also, because they are supposed to be ‘perfect’, they can become disinclined to admit failures and inadequacies, and seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk of emotional problems,” Hong added.

Learning to improve my parenting methods

A few days ago, I again recalled my mother’s approach to parenting.

This was triggered when I became angry with my seven-year-old son for several reasons. He did poorly in a taekwondo test, was easily distracted while doing his homework and kept tripping his younger brother when they went skate-scooting.

My feelings of frustration boiled over and I lashed out at my son. As soon as that happened, I examined myself. Is my “sergeant”-style of child discipline effective? Or would a soft approach – like that of my mother’s – work better?

Most parents like myself have never attended a course on parenting. We learn to be better parents through trial and error, and from our parents or peers.

But our own children are also integral to our learning experience. Are we only listening to our voices all the time whenever we discipline our children? The lack of communication is perhaps the biggest hindrance to achieving a balance between managing our expectations and fostering our children’s personal development.

While it is important that we lay down some rules and expectations for our children, we should also learn more about what they are going through - their aspirations and failures. With reference to the NUS study, we need to ensure that our children are not “fearful of making mistakes”.

Sometimes our children would fall short of our expectations. But we are not perfect parents anyway. We need to acknowledge that failure can be a springboard for future success.

Adrian Tan is a human resource entrepreneur and father of two boys and two girls. He is also a blogger who writes about entrepreneurship and human resource issues.