What we lose when we compare

A boy was sitting at the back of the car and telling his mother that he scored a 98 for his math paper.

His mother asked two questions. Where did you lose the 2 marks?

Then, how many marks did so-and-so get?

It was initially a celebratory moment, for the boy at least. But the parent, rather unfortunately chose to focus on the lost marks.

The world is moving at a break-neck speed, and parents all around the world are rushing their children to the next level of academic or social excellence.

As I read reports about how children are requiring mental health beds and how teen suicide rates are rising globally, I worry. I worry about my own kids, and how stress from their school, their peers, and even sometimes from us parents ourselves, will affect them later in life.

Performance stress comes from all fronts, but the worst of them all exudes from within.

The feeling that I’ll never be good enough…

As parents, we often wonder if we’re doing enough for our children, if they have enough to occupy their time and curious hands, if we’ve purchased the latest gadgets and technology for them to be able to keep up.

But our children’s grades are not a measure of our performance as parents.

And life isn’t one big race.

Since when did the human generation move forward by simply pitting ourselves head on with another one of our kind?

What happened to those good old values such as collaboration, helping the weaker ones among us, and leveling the field so that even those from less privileged backgrounds can rise to the occasion?

What really happens when we’re busy comparing ourselves (and our kids’ achievements) with others?

  • We miss out on the opportunity to be grateful for what we have.
  • We miss out on the opportunity to celebrate how much we’ve grown (relative to a year or two ago).
  • We also miss out on the opportunity to truly connect with, and make new friends.

If we the supposedly wiser ones, are unable to clearly differentiate between the things that matter and the things that don’t, how do we expect the young ones to do the same in their later years?

Here are some tips on how not to get caught up in the comparison game.

  1. Know what’s essential, stop focusing on what’s not. Character is more essential than grades; attitude is more important than ability. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we allow our children to slack in their work, or not give two hoots about tests and assignments. Of course we still encourage them to give their best in every endeavour.
  2. Look at your child as an individual, appreciate her strengths and be honest about her weaknesses. Focus your energies on growing her in her strengths, build confidence from there, and then help her along in the areas of weakness.
  3. Recognise that academics are just one part of her personhood. Academic excellence doesn’t automatically make one successful. (Many of the most successful people I know did not ace their studies in school / did not even attend university.) Focus on building her character, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and help her cultivate a passion about something – these are important factors to achieving success in life as well. This will help you raise well-rounded and secure children.
  4. Don’t parent from a position of fear. Don’t focus on your fears or your own failures. Rather learn to be secure with yourself and where your child is at. Focus on growth and learning; these will serve you and the generations after you, for life.
  5. Communicate that your love is not dependent on her achievements. Your love is unconditional. Knowing this will help remove the fear of failure from your child’s life.
  6. Build the soft skills too – like building friendships, teaching empathy and encouraging creativity in daily life. In this article on creativity, the author wrote that “Engaging in the creative process is a great confidence builder, because you discover that failure is part of the process.” That says it all, doesn’t it? Creativity is truly a gift that never stops giving.

When we compare, we lose the moments that are worth celebrating.We lose the opportunity to affirm our child for who he is and a chance to grow a grateful heart.

When we compare, we hinder our ability to rejoice with a friend’s success and to build stronger relationships; we forget to be teachable and humble.

When we compare, we create an atmosphere of insecurity, a culture of comparison. Our children grow up thinking, I’m not lovable, or I’ll never be good enough…

I don’t think that’s what we truly want for our kids.

What do you do to remind yourself not to compare?

Of tuition, dreams and other fluffy things

The words “readiness” and “developmentally appropriate” should be important words to parents of young children. Yet nowadays, words like “early start,” “competitive edge,” and “academic advantage” have usurped them. When it comes to academics, impatience is the order of the day.”   – Homepreschool & Beyond

A familiar feeling of disgruntledness is in the air. The topic of tuition is once again all the rage in Singapore. Ask me about it and on some days I will appear apathetic. Not because I really don’t care but because I am disturbed enough by it, disturbed enough to keep quiet and mull over it.

My kids are aged four and two. I work part-time and on my non-work days I like to bring them out for picnics, sandy playgrounds or beaches, walks in the park, and the occasional playdate. I also try not to think about that fateful day when they will enter primary school.

Primary education has transformed from running around, being cheeky, forgetting to bring textbooks and notebooks IN MY DAYS, to an experience akin to navigating a field of explosive potatoes today. Forget something – KABOOM. No tuition – KABOOM.

My hubby will be quick to chide me and remind me that today is very different from THOSE DAYS of relative kiddy peace and freedom.

These days, schoolers face so much stress and anxiety. So much rushing around to the next thing on their schedule, so little time to dream…

As a young, idealistic Singaporean parent brought up in those GOOD OL’ DAYS, I dream…

I dream of a day when “tuition” and “enrichment” will no longer have a compulsory place in the everyday experience of a school-going kid.

I dream of a day when children will desire to learn not for the sake of scoring, but for the sake of achieving personal goals, and acquiring critical thinking and analytical skills.

I dream of a day when parents and educators will work hand-in-hand, to teach and train our children about life and skills that go beyond pure academics. That they will remember that the building blocks of character are not ABCs, but values, virtues, healthy self-esteem, a love for others, and wisdom.

I dream of a day when teachers will be able to focus on teaching, and teach in a way so that children will love learning.

I dream of a day when children will enjoy helping one another, not climbing over the other on the academic ladder.

I dream of a day when my children will enjoy going to school, work hard and learn to be considerate to others, and after the bell rings, race home or to the playground and let their imagination take them to places never before envisioned by an adult mind.

I dream of a day when the family will be reinstated as the core where foundation learning begins.

I dream of a day when children will not be encumbered by their parents’ own personal ambitions, but will be given their own space to dream their own dreams, and define their own  ambitions.

I dream of a day when “success” and “achievement” will have a broader definition than grades on a paper or the number of zeros in your salary.

I dream…

Call me idealistic, but I don’t think any parent deep down wants to deprive their children of the freedom that we ourselves enjoyed as children.

I’m not calling tuition inherently evil either. It still has a rightful place in society, to cater to real learning needs of different children with different struggles. But a blind subscription to the entire “if-I-don’t-do-this-my-child-will-lose-out” mentality may cause your child to be bound in a mindset of dependency for much of his growing years or even adult life.

We all know that when you figure out something on your own, you are less likely to forget it than if someone else just told you the answer. Just like solving math problems, we learn more and understand more by figuring it out on our own. If someone gives us the answer, we become dependent on them to solve future problems for us. But if we are required to figure out the problem on our own, we are beter equipped to figure out other problems, drawing from the personal knowledge gained to apply what we have learned to other problems as well. – Don’t Make Me Count To Three

(Read also: what my friends have to say about The Tuition Crutch and the Tuition Dilemma)

I dream. I dream… But tell me, what are your dreams for children or education in Singapore?

Cultivating a growth mindset in our children

“Sometimes the problem with a child isn’t too little effort. It’s too much. And for the wrong cause. We’ve all heard about schoolchildren who stay up past midnight every night studying. Or children who are sent to tutors so they can outstrip their classmates. These children are working hard, they’re typically not in a growth mindset. They’re not focused on love of learning. They’re usually trying to prove themselves to their parents.”

I’ve been reading and enjoying Mindset by Carol Dweck (affiliate link). In her years of research as a world-renowned psychologist, Carol has found that there exists two different mindsets in people. They either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

The growth mindset says: Go for it. Make it happen. Develop your skills. Learn from your mistakes.

The fixed mindset says: Don’t do it. Don’t take the risk. Others may see that you’re not as talented as you ought to be.

People with fixed mindsets are constantly judging (themselves and well as others). The underlying assumption is that character traits are fixed and unchangeable.

People with growth mindsets are observing but not judging. They’re always asking: What can I learn from this? How can I improve? How can I help my partner do better?

Moving from a fixed to a growth mindset entails “changing the internal monologue from a judging one to a growth-oriented one.”

Some tips from her book:

  • Encourage to enjoy – help remind your children to enjoy the things they are learning, be it piano, dance or speech and drama.
  • Study to understand – encourage them to study for understanding, not for cramming and regurgitating it on exam papers, and not merely for grades
  • Focus on process – talk to them about the learning process rather than the outcome
  • Praise them for effort and for trying something new or challenging. Try not to focus on results alone.

We can also help our kids along by asking the right questions:

  • What did you learn today?
  • What mistake did you make that taught you something?
  • What did you try hard at today?

Perhaps the most difficult thing for us as parents is actually living the growth mindset out. Modelling how it should be is always a lot harder, especially since most of us have some degree of fixedness in certain areas.

It’s about believing that you can grow, and that you still have much to learn. (The same goes for our kids.)

It’s about giving voice to courage, being willing to try new things and facing up to the risk of  failure, or at least not letting fear make you run in the other direction.

I used to run the other direction. When I was in school, I didn’t like failing, so I made sure I didn’t try so hard. (It just ain’t cool to be trying hard and then failing, you know?)

When stuff like A Maths got too difficult in Secondary Four, I remember going through a mental debate. My fixed-oriented self said “Drop it, you’re not good at maths, just forget it, it’s not worth the effort to struggle without knowing what you’re going to get.” My growth-oriented self said “Give it a shot. You never know…You might surprise yourself.”

I went for it in the end, despite my teacher pushing me in the other direction. I can’t take much credit for going ahead, because I probably wouldn’t have done so if not for a friend who was in the same boat and who encouraged me to go through with it.

I didn’t top the class, but I was happy with the result, and boy did I mug for it.

Now, as a working adult, it’s a constant drive to achieve good results for my clients. From my recent work experiences, I’ve learnt that you can really grow and stretch beyond your means by stepping out of your comfort zone, and not by sticking to what you’re comfortable with.

As I continue to grow in various aspects and in different roles, I hope to be able to model this growth mindset to my children, that they may catch it and run their own race.

May this be a little reminder to us:

“You may have needed a daughter who was number one in everything, but your daughter needed something else: Acceptance from her parents and freedom to grow.”

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