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 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.