The Professional Kid – too big to fail?

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

A: Is that with or without a tutor?

Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.
Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.

There’s a sad/funny story going round about the parents at an international school here in Hong Kong. The school in question is considered one of the most well-regarded, expensive and academically rigorous of the international schools in town. Dual-language learning (English & Mandarin), loads of homework, low student-teacher ratio and a tough admission policy including an exam (sorry, they call it an assessment) and an interview for the child and parents. My kids don’t go there and we never considered it for them, mainly because it’s super expensive and a long bus ride from where we live. I have no doubt the school and its 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 time a child may have had for sports, hobbies or, well, free time.

Next year the school will open a sister campus in mainland China and will begin a policy of sending its Year 10 students (age 14-15) there for a year of boarding and instruction. Five a.m. Calisthenics, The Little Red Book’s Lasting Legacy, Crafting Algorithms for Fun and Suppression! and Theories of Insurrection Management will be offered as electives.

Kidding, totally kidding about that last part.

It seems the parents are split, about 50-50, as to whether they think it’s a good idea for their kids to spend a year in China. Some are very supportive, recognizing an exchange year as a wonderful life experience. Some are not so keen. When I heard from a friend about the parents’ objections, I asked if they were concerned their kids would get homesick, or maybe the parents would miss their children too much. My friend said half the parents (50 percent!) are worried about their children being away from… their tutors.

I am not kidding now.

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 this huge, sprawling mass of after-school educational centers, 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. Hey, let’s not think about what this says about the curriculum itself i.e. are we forcing our kids to punch above their weight class? Or whether they’ll be able to succeed once those tutors are no longer around. “Excuse me, boss, but I’ll be paying a guy to come in and help me with my spreadsheets.”

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

I think it’s because in this age – 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 Mommy and Daddy bloggers (Yes, I cop to it). We’ve gotten ourselves on to this hamster wheel and we can’t seem to get off.

We obsess because we can. Because society rewards it. Because technology encourages it. Or just maybe because our parents, who were divorcing and finding themselves in the ‘70s and ‘80s, didn’t.

I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I know I want my kids to do well, give their best effort, in whatever they choose to do. I want them to be happy but I also brag about their achievements and I fret about what they’re doing online. And I’m not sure if I’m comforted by the fact that they’re way more focused and goal-oriented than I ever was at their ages. Should I be comforted? The other day I asked EO 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 asked me, “Won’t it help you in the future? It’ll lead to better opportunities, 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 perfectly happy. Reasonably happy, at least. But it will be their kind of happy, and unless we make some fundamental changes, it will include Kumon and SAT prep and hours of homework and a whole lot of expensive, instructional bullshit because we think that’s the path to a good future. And they won’t know any different.

I’ll leave you with another anecdote, a brief conversation I had with a neighbor a few years ago. She has a son and a daughter, who both go to prestigious local schools, really the cream of the crop in Hong Kong education. We were chatting about summer holidays and she was excited because they’d made plans for a big trip to Italy. She said, and I quote her verbatim, it would be their ‘last hurrah’ before her son started at this fancy, all-boys school. So how old was her son, you ask, as he enjoyed one last carefree summer?

He was seven.

8 thoughts on “The Professional Kid – too big to fail?

Add yours

  1. This is a wonderful piece! I shared it on my page and wrote this: A provocatively humorous piece by a filmmaker-writer friend who lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two daughters. The “tutor culture” is alive and well here in Los Angeles, although Natalie has never had a tutor. When we’ve talked about the widespread use of tutors, we always end up chalking it up to a “cultural phenomenon.” Is it as simple as Competitiveness & Hyper Grade Anxiety (the parents’ as much as the child’s)? Or is it something else? When Natalie needs help, she makes an appointment with one of her teachers or she asks us. My friend Darlene and I used to do our math homework together, spreading sheets of equations out on the kitchen table. It’s one of my best high school memories. We were friends and tutors!

    1. I definitely think it’s Hyper Grade Anxiety – just a total lack of perspective. A teacher friend of mine says she rarely assigns homework because too often it comes back and it’s not the student’s own work! How helpful is that? Hong Kong’s top tier school environment can be a real hothouse – full of beautiful, brilliant flowers that can’t cope in the real world. YO has ‘homework club’ with a friend once a week, and EO and her friends aren’t afraid to ask their teachers for help. I’m not sure what to expect as the classes get more demanding but we’ll see.

      In the meantime, have you heard of this book: The Blessings of a B Minus? It came out a couple years ago but I’ve only just read about it:

      Thanks so much for reading!

      1. Yes, I’ve read “The Blessings of a B Minus.” I read a lot of the literature before we decided to home school during the middle school years (being the academic family we are, we sometimes called it our sabbatical). Other books I found incredibly illuminating were “Doing School” by Denise Clark Pope and “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn (where the reader learns that homework in more than minimal amounts is not beneficial until high-school). I think because we stepped away from the cacophony of stress and pressure for two years, it allowed Natalie to re-discover a “love of learning” (visit our website In high-school now, she even enjoys homework! One of our favorite people (a learned Scotsman who loves learning) wrote this in a recent email: “I suspect that much of what Natalie is doing with her reading, research, revison, writing, re-writing, she doesn’t see as ‘work’ because she’s enjoying it so much and it’s great that she still makes time for her other interests and her friends. I’m sure she’s too smart and well-adjusted to get caught up in that treadmill sort of attitude to school- and home-work that makes a misery of so many children’s and students’ lives, when the joy of learning is dulled by the drudgery of fact- cramming and rote-learning for tests and exams.”
        I’ll add one more quote from Robert Henri, the artist: “Some people study hard for a time, then they “graduate” and sink back into the little they have learned. There are many kinds of study. Those whose study is of the real and rare kind get the habit. They can’t throw it off. It’s too good. They go on studying all their lives, and they have wonderful lives.”

      2. Well put. I need to keep all of that in mind as we accompany our girls through the next ten years of school. It’s very easy to lose perspective in HK. What’s average here is likely to be above average in most other countries. Yet so often I see reasonable, open-minded, loving parents who can’t help but push and strive and, basically, just accept the crazed academic climate here. I’m sure I’m guilty of that at times too. Note to self – relax!

  2. Really interesting article. Having worked as a teacher in Hong Kong for three years now, I’ve had a little insight into this ‘world of pressure’ the kids seem to belong to. I think it’s very sad. It’s better than sticking them in front of the TV all day (as is done in certain other countries), but surely there’s a happy medium out there somewhere.

    Great meeting you on Wednesday evening! 🙂

    1. Great to meet you too, and thanks so much for reading. Now, how am I going to find out what happens to Rachel?!?

    1. Let me know what you all think! I wonder if the grade pressure, that sort of eagerness to please, lessens as they get older.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: