Singapore sees one of the highest-scoring students in mathematics and science. It also boasts an education system that has been consistently ranked top globally by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). While all these statistics are impressive, does it come at the expense of the well-being of those going through this rigorous education system?
Having gone through my studies entirely in Singapore and now nearing the end of my formal education, I’ve witnessed that the stresses students face do not solely stem from the education system itself. Students often feel extremely pressured due to educational upmanship between parents or a deep-rooted sense of competitive parenting, ubiquitous in the Singaporean context. On the other hand, my parents have never pressured me to pursue a specific path or have pitted me against other students. With this, I realised that parents play a crucial role in encouraging their children to follow their own trajectory and define success on their terms and not be pressured to adopt narrow markers of success defined by society.
Where does competitive parenting stem from?
The local ‘kiasu’ culture could be a significant contributor to competitive parenting in Singapore. Kiasuism, simply defined as a fear of losing out, is a prominent cultural trait of Singapore that encompasses greed, selfishness and may result in overly-competitive behaviour.
“The national narrative is that we are a small country in a very large world. We have very limited resources. If we don’t fight for our future, no one else will,"
Kiasuism has been somewhat ingrained as an essential fight or flight reaction of many Singaporeans that has been reinforced over generations when it comes to education and the idea of success in Singapore.
Beyond just the kiasu culture, the importance of narrow and materialistic status symbols such as the Five C’s in Singapore - Cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership also contributes to the normalisation of such bragging rights and competitive parenting in Singapore.
The importance of spearheading healthy parenting
While parents may engage in competitive parenting in the best interest of their child, it ironically may end up denoting the exact opposite. Comparing your children’s academic capabilities to others creates pressure-inducing competition that suppresses their creativity and learning capability.
Such unriddled pressure also affects the mental well-being of their little ones. Competitive parenting puts an undeniable percentage of stress on both children and their parents. Low self-esteem, developing depression and anxiety manifestations despite being well prepared are results of this wide-scale Singapore problem.
Unfortunately, the issue transcends to a life and death matter for some with kiasu parents. In 2016, an 11-year boy committed suicide as he did not score well in his exams and was afraid of rejecting his parents. Parents must hence establish realistic and healthy expectations that should not come at the expense of their children’s lives and well-being.
How do we then move towards healthy parenting?
Bringing about a mindset shift from within
The first step towards genuine, healthy parenting is for parents and caregivers to change their mindsets regarding their definition of success and effective parenting. Even though parents may not be the sole agents perpetuating this kiasu or competitive culture, they are still the primary social institution that children grow up with, thus, shaping their notions of education and success. If parents and caregivers recognise that their children have inculcated an unhealthy obsession outside of their homes, they should be proactive in explaining its negative consequences.
Additionally, the natural rhetoric of meritocracy is allegedly accused of contributing to educational upmanship. However, even with changes made to scoring systems in the education system, some parents still view educational milestones like the PSLE mostly as a platform to determine their children’s scholastic capabilities comparatively to others. There has to be a change in parental perspective of the educational arms race to a more holistic way of learning where both parents and students can enjoy talking about school.
With this, I advise parents not to focus on what other parents are doing or not doing. The focus should instead be on your children and celebrating their talents. Setting realistic expectations with unrestrained communication between both parties will help foster a healthy household where children will feel comfortable talking about their academic goals. Acknowledging that you are helping to shift from a kiasu mindset can also help improve communication and understanding between both parties.
Drawing the line between healthy competition and pressure
While being overly competitive helps no one, healthy competition can push children to do better without negatively impacting their well-being or skewing their perception. Healthy competition can be beneficial for the development of their little ones. It teaches children to manage unpleasant feelings and self-doubt and fosters greater confidence. For instance, kiasuism may encourage students to put in the extra effort than what is required of them. Instead of perceiving your child’s academics as an avenue for unnecessary competition, such an attitude coined “kiasu-positive” gets students to be proactive and develop greater receptiveness to feedback. Instead of carrying out a parenting style that perpetuates the academic rat-race, encouraging your child to move out of their comfort zone while putting their interest, bandwidth and well-being are thus the ideal balance and middle ground that is found in the core of a healthy parenting style and competition.
Valuing soft skills and alternative pursuits
Even from a more practical perspective which is often valued in Singapore, soft skills such as good communication, empathy, agility and critical thinking are especially prized in today’s volatile job market more than mere academic and technical qualifications. We should focus on what one enjoys doing and their character alongside acknowledging the value of unconventional and alternative academic pursuits such as the arts.
While parents may have good intentions in wanting to help their children, it is important to take a step back and understand where your child is coming from as well as their strengths and capabilities. Open and honest communication, greater empathy and an understanding that success and its meaning in today’s contemporary world is multi-faceted and different for everyone will help break the vicious cycle of parents placing importance on narrow and singular markers of success.