Friday, April 8, 2011

Under Pressure

The subtitle of this book is Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, so of course I had to read it. Growing up as the firstborn child in an Asian family meant getting straight As and being a virtuoso on the piano. So I was curious to read about this kind of stress on achievement in other cultures as well.

The author, Carl Honore, explores how different aspects of children’s lives – schoolwork, play and sports – can be intensified by parents who become too involved. Very often, this does lead to surprising achievement early on in life, such as the case of the world’s youngest marathon runner (Budhia Singh, aged 4*) and a girl who began playing the violin at three.

Honore shows the flip side of this, though, the prices that are paid only later on in life. Children pushed too hard to participate in an activity may end up hating it. And if all the stress is placed on achievement rather than on enjoying the sport or skill, children don’t develop creativity. Rather than painting a picture that expresses their vision, they’ll paint by numbers, trying to produce something that ticks all the right boxes so that they’ll get an A. It creates a lot of fear of failure in the children.

It can create something even worse in obsessive parents, too. One of the stories that made me search the web for more was the case of Christophe Fauviau, whose two children participated in tennis competitions.

Unbeknownst to his children, Fauviau began spiking their opponents’ water bottles with Temesta, an anti-anxiety drug that causes drowsiness… Eventually the scam came to light after one victim crashed his car and died on the way home from a match against Fauviau’s son.

A website mentioned that, “the alleged poisoning had taken place during a minor friendly tournament in which the first prize was a ham.”

I also like the story of the couple who, trying to give their first child the best possible start, bought him electronic educational toys that beeped and made animal noises and spoke Spanish. But the overstimulation left the child bored and edgy, and they soon realized that “by giving him toys that did everything, [they] left him with nothing to do.” It’s true. My favorite toys as a kid were the simpler ones that let me use my imagination.

The only thing I didn’t agree with was the idealization of preschool systems where teachers have a hands-off approach that allow the children to explore and develop what catches their fancy. I don’t think many three-year-olds would be that focused or serious about learning. Other than that, I enjoyed this book – and felt grateful that I escaped the worst such excesses.

“On 8 May 2006, a government statement had ordered that Budhia stop running until the age of 11.” --> Link


Kaz Augustin said...

As a fellow Eurasian (I'm assuming you're Eurasian too, Marian) you forgot about your parents' educational level. Due to WWII, my parents' educations were cut short. That meant that they had No Idea what it was like to be a university student. Any time I spent away from the textbooks was interpreted as time that I was being "lazy", without any kind of recognition of what it takes to absorb and assimilate knowledge, much less the role of other interests in keeping my brain engaged. Much angst and agony ensued, usually on my part! LOL

I have three university degrees, but it sure as hell wasn't because of my parents, that's for sure! Two of degrees were gained while I was estranged from them and pursuing other interesting life paths.

Marian Perera said...

Just plain Asian, actually, but Canadian now. :) Though my high school followed the British system - O'Levels and A'Levels.

Thankfully Sri Lanka was spared a lot of the Second World War, and both my parents were born after it ended. But I'm the first person in the family to get a university degree and the first to go to the States to do so, ergo the pressure.

And my parents were a lot like yours - if I wasn't studying almost 24/7, that was a problem which needed correction. We had a shouting match over that once.

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

I was like you as a child, Marian - I loved playing with wooden blocks, play-dough (homemade by my thrifty mother!), our costume dress-up box, etc. I think that stimulated my imagination a lot more than many of the modern toys, which seem to pretty much run themselves, would.

Marian Perera said...

Charlotte - Even Lego is less "free play", for lack of a better term. When I was a kid I had a Lego set that could be built into three different kinds of houses. I made it into a caravan instead.

Now, though, sets seems to be specifically geared towards one particular type of construction, with less opportunity to color outside the lines.