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The professional kid: too big to fail? Sassy Mama Jennifer tackles Hong Kong’s education culture head on

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Q: How many Hong Kong kids does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Is that with or without a tutor?

There’s a sad/funny story going round about the parents at an international school here in Hong Kong. The school is one of the most expensive and academically rigorous in town, with bilingual English/Mandarin learning, loads of homework, low student-teacher ratio, a tough admission policy including an exam (sorry, assessment), and a rigorous interview.

My kids don’t go there, mainly because it’s super expensive and a long bus ride from where we live. I have no doubt that the teachers are very dedicated and prepare children well for ‘the challenges of the 21st century’ but, having learned a little more about its academic demands, I jokingly call it The Kryptonite School. It seems to leech away any free time a child may have for sports, hobbies or, well, free time. Next year this school opens a sister campus in Mainland China and begins a policy of sending its Year 10 students there for a year of boarding and instruction.

It seems the parents are split as to whether they think it’s a good idea for their kids to spend a year in China. Some are very supportive, recognising an exchange year as a wonderful life experience. Some are not so keen. When I heard from a friend about objections, I asked if parents were concerned they would miss their children too much or that the kids would be homesick? I was told that 50% of the parents are worried about their children being away from… their tutors.

I am not kidding.

You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex? Well, here in Hong Kong, we have one of the world’s most sophisticated education-industrial complexes. And I use ‘complex’ as both the adjective, intricate and multifaceted, as well as the noun, a personal hang-up.

But set aside for a minute questions about the cost of these after-school educational centres, private tutors and prep courses; not to mention the money we’re already paying in teachers’ salaries, school facilities and that laptop that every kid needs. Let’s not think about what this says about the curriculum itself, i.e. are we forcing our kids to punch above their educational weight? Whether they’ll be able to succeed once those tutors are no longer around, or whether they’ll be resorting to paying a guy to come in and help them with their spreadsheets once they’ve started work?

Let’s focus on the bigger picture and narrow it down to one fundamental question: why is failure not an option?

I think it’s because in our post-boomer, middle and upper class demographic – our children are ourselves. We’re the meta-parents, the type-A over-schedulers, the anxious Mummy and Daddy bloggers (yes, I cop to it). We’re on this hamster wheel and we can’t seem to get off.

I don’t have the answer. I know I want my kids to do well and give their best effort in whatever they choose to do. I want them to be happy, but then I also brag about their achievements and fret about what they’re doing online. They’re way more focused and goal-oriented than I ever was at their ages. Should I be comforted by this? The other day I asked my daughter and her friend a question: would they use a private tutor if it meant the difference between an A or a B? They both said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. And when I asked why, they stated, “It’ll lead to better opportunities in the future, right?

At first, when I thought about the bigger picture and what my fundamental question to you readers should be, I thought I should ask; will our children remember a happy childhood? But then I thought, ‘oh, that’s just me spouting hyperbole, thinking everyone should have a Tom Sawyer kind of childhood’. Of course our children, who don’t have to scrounge for food or worry about drone attacks, will be reasonably happy, at least. But it will be their kind of happy, and unless we make some fundamental changes, it will include Kumon, SAT prep, hours of homework and a whole lot of expensive, instructional ‘expertise’ because we think that’s the path to a good future. And they won’t know any different.

I’ll leave you with another brief anecdote; a conversation I had with a neighbour who has a son and a daughter, both in prestigious local schools. We were chatting about summer holidays and she was excited because they’d made plans for a big trip to Italy. She said that it would be their ‘last hurrah’ before her son started at his fancy, all-boys school. So how old was her son, as he enjoyed this one last carefree summer?

He was seven.

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