SINGAPORE: Banu Partiban’s daughter was in her first month at primary school when she and her husband received a WhatsApp message from another parent.
“It was a picture message. This parent circled my child. The parent wrote, ‘Can I know who’s the parent of this child?’” she recounted.
It was sent to a parents’ group chat, which was “not a very nice thing to (do)”. An upset Banu had parents approaching her, seemingly thinking something was wrong, to ask what happened and why her girl was singled out.
She reached out to the parent privately — the better approach in the first place, she thought. It turned out that their children had a minor dispute, which they eventually resolved.
The incident came as a “shock”, occurring within days of her joining the WhatsApp group. But she remained in the group because, as a working parent, she did not want to miss anything important for her child’s schooling.
Chances are parents today are in a parents’ group chat or even a few groups. But not all see the need for this.
Some parents — and children — describe these WhatsApp groups as “competitive”, and as the question of whether to stay or leave arises, the programme Talking Point investigates whether parents’ group chats are even becoming toxic or inadvertently hurting children. (Watch the episode here.)
THE 90-9-1 TYPES OF PARENTS
Winston Tay, for one, was in a group chat when his child was in Primary One to Primary Three, but he left because the parents had “a lot of idiosyncrasies”.
“On Sunday nights especially, there’d be a flurry of messages,” he recalled, citing queries about homework for the weekend.
“And we realised that we had certain parents who’d … ask, ‘How have your kids’ results been? My kids’ results are this.’ So after a while, it started getting a little bit annoying.”
On the other hand, these WhatsApp groups have been “very useful” for mother of two, Serene Seah, who admitted to being “forgetful” and needing reminders.
The two parents belong to two of the three types of people generally in online communities, which are what parents’ WhatsApp groups are.
Research by the Nielsen Norman Group found that 90 per cent of users are quiet observers who only read the messages, 9 per cent are active in the conversations, and 1 per cent are very active users who provide a lot of information.
While that is a general view of online communities, Talking Point found specific descriptors associated with people in parents’ WhatsApp groups: The blur sotong; the know-it-all; the chat-a-lot; the show-off; the life coach; and the lurker, who does not contribute.
With such parents in these WhatsApp groups, chat administrators such as William Choo must play the role of “policeman” to ensure that the chats stay civil.
“(Some parents) try to dig out information like … your kid’s score,” said the father of three. “I’d try to tell them, ‘Please don’t compare.’
“We need to have someone (as) the neutral party, to let every member of the group chat have peace of mind, for example (through) simple rules like ‘No messaging after, say, 11pm’ … no sensitive issues (and) no bad-mouthing each other.”
IMPACT ON TEACHERS
The use of WhatsApp could also expose teachers to disparaging remarks, insults and contempt shown by parents.
For example, one of the reasons Lenny Syafawatie Abdul Rahman gave up teaching at primary school after 14 years was she had to manage difficult parents, offline and online, even when she was not part of these group chats.
“You’d think twice about what you say in class because you’re afraid that whatever you say would be misinterpreted by the kids,” said the full-time tutor. “Parents would spread it among themselves (and) change the whole story.
Parents are quicker to share the negatives rather than the positives.
In one incident when she had a class of 40 pupils, a parent took a snapshot of her marking and put it in the group chat.
“She said, ‘You all better check your kid’s work. This teacher just anyhow marks.’ It was actually one (mathematics answer) marked wrongly,” Lenny related.
“Nowadays (parents) are a bit kiasu, they get a bit kancheong (anxious), so they all panicked, and they started checking each and every one of their kid’s work … I was a bit upset because it was a small matter.”
The 35-year-old agreed with Talking Point host Diana Ser that, from a parent’s perspective, WhatsApp group chats “allow for some kind of checks and balances” in that parents should know what happens within a school and the issues at stake.
But she suggested checking with the teacher involved rather than making “a mountain out of a molehill” by, for example, “going straight to school leaders”.
In these situations, Seah tries to “send positive vibes" in her group chats. “When you feel that the tension is building up, like resentment against the teachers, someone’s got to be there to put out the fire,” she said.
CREATING A CRUTCH?
As a tool to improve parental involvement and keep up with what goes on at school, WhatsApp group chats work a treat, especially for parents worried about their children not paying attention in class or forgetting to take notes.
But if parents rely on others for information to fill in gaps like test dates, does this not make their children less self-reliant?
Xavier Chua is one who “often” forgets to do his homework, but parents in his mother’s group chat would keep her informed, and then he gets scolded.
To him, however, that is not the trouble with these groups. “The bad part comes when the parents share other people’s results,” said the 11-year-old, whose parents may sometimes point out those with higher marks to him.
Manassvi Arora, who is also 11 years old, agreed. “Sometimes when you compare results in the chat, like when everybody (scores) better than you … you can take it positively if it (happens) the first or second time,” she said.
“But when it always happens, you feel kind of bad that you can’t be better than the rest of your classmates.”
Despite the competition encountered, the five pupils Talking Point had gathered did not want their parents to leave these group chats — as that would mean, said 10-year-old Belinda Low, that “we have to pay more attention at school”.
Digital literacy trainer Carol Loi, who runs workshops on parenting in the digital age, said parents may not be supporting their children’s learning if they “provide them with a crutch all the time”.
She recommends helping children to see the consequences of “some of the things that they’ve forgotten” and what they can “learn from the whole experience”.
“That’s more important than going straight to … get the information for them and just give it to them,” said the 49-year-old.
For parents evaluating whether to leave their group chats, Choo has this piece of advice: “If you can 100 per cent depend on your kids — that means you don’t rely on this ‘information centre’ — (then) you can do it.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.