GUANGZHOU, China: In class, shy four-year-old Lee Zixi is learning how to shed her social awkwardness by shaking hands with a stranger and introducing herself confidently – CEO-worthy skills deemed necessary to succeed in life.
Meanwhile on the golf green, three-year-old Guo Zi Ling struggles to tee off with a driver almost as tall as her. Her instructor Ding You Xiong stopped teaching adults this year to coach kids exclusively, so great is demand.
"We'll be collaborating with neighbouring preschools, so we’d be working with even more three-year-olds soon," he said.
These are just some of the many toddlers in Guangzhou, one of China’s richest cities, who are being trained in the finer arts of good manners, collaboration, leadership and how to influence others – from as young as the age of two.
In a country where citizens’ poor social habits have drawn the government's admonishment, more parents now believe that emotional quotient, or EQ, is more important than IQ to succeed in life.
That is why a number are spending a small fortune each month to ensure their toddlers have the best headstart socially, as the episode How To Raise A Super (Prepared) Baby finds out. (Watch it here.)
Every week, Zixi attends a course at LeederEDU that promises to shape her into a charming chief executive of the future. Her father Lee Shao Hao signed her up to improve her poor social skills.
“I felt that we needed some kind of specialist backed by science to impart these skills to her,” said Mr Lee. “Previously she wouldn’t greet her relatives. Now she initiates interactions with us – even if it’s just asking if we’ve eaten or about our work.”
These lessons do not come cheap: They cost as much as US$8,000 (S$10,500) a year.
Golf, too, is seen as part of EQ training. At the club where Zi Ling is learning the sport – and where her mother Li Wen Qing is the president – parents pay US$150 a month to send their toddlers there. That's on top of the yearly club member's fee of RMB78,800 (S$16,400).
Golfers under the age of 10 are one of the fastest-growing groups in China. Golf has even become compulsory in many state primary schools.
Indeed, the Foison Golf Club plans to invite all the best preschools in the district to join its programme.
“Only golf as a sport requires impeccable manners and the mind to strategise, while encouraging self-discipline and even the charisma to shine in social situations,” said Mdm Li.
NOT JUST ABOUT BOOK SMARTS
According to a 2014 report, 78.2 per cent of Chinese parents believe that EQ is more important than IQ for their child’s future career. And the best time to develop a child’s EQ is as early as possible.
Thus parents willingly spend on a gamut of courses that have sprung up in recent years. At LeederEDU, the children start at the recommended age of three, but some parents bring them in as young as two.
These CEO-wannabes, who graduate at six years old, start off by learning the basics of social etiquette – fundamental to developing good EQ.
The enrichment centre’s CEO, Mr Wei Yong An, said it started offering these classes in 1999, when it saw the need to expand early education.
“In the past, we always believed it’s enough to succeed in life by doing well academically," he said.
But in reality, we need to have a lot more soft skills on top of being book-smart.
For future CEOs and even children, the best skills to have are the abilities to self-learn, self-manage, cooperate, compete and influence others towards one’s cause, he added.
AN EARLY TASTE OF MANY CAREERS
In Shenzhen, as part of one experiential class that Channel NewsAsia observed, children were given full rein to explore an Audi showroom, jumping all over the leather seats and crawling into car boots.
This session was one of a series of enrichment activities for the children to experience different careers and workplaces, among other things. These were organised by early education group Gymboree, known in China for being one of the few global brands that look at life skills instead of classroom skills.
Three-year-old Hu Zhan Hua’s parents paid US$60 for him to get up-close and personal with the luxury vehicles. It's a way for them to tell if he would be interested to work with cars in future.
By exposing him to different occupations - from fire-fighting to banking to merchandising - his mother Chen Yi Xi hopes he can discover what he likes.
We let him experience everything... And it opens up his world view.
The family spends more than US$11,000 – about a fifth of their annual income – on Zhan Hua’s enrichment activities, choosing to focus on a holistic approach to his education.
“If you miss out on this golden period, you can spend 10 or 20 times the money in future and still not get the same results,” reasoned Mdm Chen.
LEARNING TO MANAGE FRUSTRATION
But should parents worry about how a three-year-old manages his emotions, or should they let him sort it out as he grows up?
At the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences' Neurodevelopment Research Centre, research fellow Stella Tsotsi studies how development in childhood is linked to later successes in life.
She believes that the way children manage frustration, fearful situations and even how they express joy, for example, can offer insight into their school performance and socio-emotional development in future.
In a social experiment she conducted, toddlers were given keys to a transparent box containing a smartphone or Play-Doh, which they could play with if they unlock the box. Unknown to them, the keys do not open the lock.
The purpose of this experiment was to test their ability to manage frustration when they failed.
WATCH: Different reactions and what they suggest (4:13)
One became anxious and started scratching her forehead and neck. Another gave up quickly and called for her mother; while one toddler inspected all the keys and persisted in trying to open the box.
Dr Tsotsi’s team of researchers believe that toddlers who can manage their frustration constructively will do better in life.
“Some of the things you learn very early in life – it’s quite possible that your reaction style … will be following you throughout adulthood,” she said.
Early childhood expert Gao Shou Yan, from the Beijing Normal University, said children between the ages of three and six value their positions and friendships in a small group.
And because of that, they understand that they must do things right to make good friends. “This is a very good stage in life to learn socio-emotional intelligence,” she added.
I’ve seen many children, around the age of two, who already have a flawed upbringing, whether it’s in emotional awareness or social skills.
She believes that carers such as parents and grandparents are partly to blame for a child’s poor EQ. Children pick up most of their social understanding from those around them, but many Chinese parents lack social skills, she opined.
“We can’t even manage our own emotions properly, which is a big problem.”
IS IT GENETIC?
Since not all aptitudes are immediately apparent, might a saliva swab be the key to revealing a child’s personality, and the career he or she should start working towards?
Swiss start-up Karmagenes claims that it is all in the DNA. In fact, one of the firm’s brochures claims that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs already knew, when his daughter was 14 months old, what her personality would be like.
Scientists have found certain genes to be linked to certain traits, and by reading those genes, Karmagenes promises that it can tell its clients a lot about themselves, including the career that would work best for their personality type.
National University of Singapore psychology professor Richard Ebstein, who has studied various genes linked to social behaviour, agrees that one’s traits, such as charisma, are partly caused by one’s genes.
“There’s almost nothing you can tell me about a person that isn’t probably due to some contribution of genes,” he said.
“Whether you like to go on roller coasters or not is half due to your genes … That probably means you have a gene for novelty seeking, adventure seeking or thrill seeking.”
The oxytocin receptor gene is another example; it is associated with things like social skills and bonding behaviour.
But at the same time, Prof Ebstein said that testing a person for that gene would show almost nothing because each gene explains "less than one per cent" of any particular trait.
And researchers worldwide have not identified enough genes to make a fair prediction about one’s character. “Keenly observant parents and the first teachers in school are going to be as good as the science can ever be,” said Prof Ebstein.
He cited the Stanford marshmallow experiment, in which the children were each given a marshmallow on a plate and told that if they were to not eat it and wait 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with a second treat.
“What it told us was that children who have patience and can delay enjoyment now and study hard for later success, would actually do well in life,” he said.
“That’s already at four to five years old and, to some extent, predictable. You don’t need (a test of) genes.”
Watch this episode of How to Raise a Super (Prepared) Baby here.