SINGAPORE: It is examination season in Singapore, even if it seems like my 10-year-old has been having an endless wave of “weighted assessments”.
Two weeks after school re-opened, the first of the weighted assessments were upon us. Not a test, mind you, just a small “weighted assessment” to see where students are. But, yes, the scores counts towards his overall school grade.
And now as all 12-year-olds are caught in the death grip of the dreaded PSLE, most other students, too, find themselves deep in revision mode ahead of End-of-Year Examinations.
The stakes are high: Most schools have this final round of examinations accounting for 50 to 70 per cent of the year’s overall grade.
The entire eco-system around exam fever is on high alert. Enrichment centres and private tutors are all on call, furiously packing in extra revision slots.
Bookshops hold exam-guide sales, a leading media house even has even branched out to offering essay writing workshops. Parents, needless to say, are right there in the ring too.
POLARISED WORLD OF PARENTING
While the bulk of the Western world decried Amy Chua’s seminal book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother with many corresponding definitions of tiger parenting tinged with negativity, it finally gave a term to a parenting style that was quite commonplace, if, even celebrated, on this side of the pond.
When Chua, herself, came by our sunny little island, parents clamoured to meet her, if only to hear in person what they already read in her book and recognise themselves in her “ends justifies the means” parenting.
Yet, there were howls of protest from the other side of the fence. These were parents who believed in the process and less interested in outcome.
Popular blogger Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar used the term “Elephant Parent” who is the exact opposite of a Tiger Parent, the ultra-strict disciplinarian.
Sindhar advocates strongly for a parenting style that nurtures, protects and encourages children, especially when they are young. Maybe, the kind that does not go into a tirade or sighs too much when a child brings home a fail grade.
A local response to the tiger parenting drumbeat is perhaps best encapsulated by a social media driven movement a few years back that aimed to highlight that there was #lifebeyondgrades.
It is an initiative aimed at driving a mindset shift to alleviate the increasing pressures of school on the children of Singapore.
At their launch, local influencers and celebrities held cards with their PSLE scores with a message about how grades were not always a marker to success.
This is echoed by Dr Sanveen Kang, Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Psych Connect: “Over the years, many studies have looked at the correlation between grades and success in life. Generally speaking there is no correlation between grades and success in life."
“The only correlation found was between grades and academic success. In other words, for those who aspire to academic studies, scores predict success. However, it has nothing to do with success in life.”
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Indeed, Stanford researchers Alyssa Fu and Hazel Markus found that both culture-centric approaches can be effective.
Their research seem to suggest that while motivation comes from within an individual in Western families while Asian children find their drive in parental expectations. Both, say the researchers, lead to fairly equitable outcomes.
CONFRONTING THE SYSTEM AND OUR CHILDREN
The research might be interesting intellectually but it cannot change how we parent in real life – if only simply because we still have to confront a system in which every child is assessed by how well he or she does.
However we cut it, life likes winners. It always has and still does.
It celebrates the Kobe Bryants, Serena Williams and the Tiger Woods. In fact, we laud the phenoms that don’t just win, but dominate.
So, while we try our darndest to find balance or focus on the process, there is also a part of us that feels compelled to care deeply about the outcome. Which, unfortunately, often can only come through drilling, practice, training, powering through.
That is the mantra of the modern—if slightly cautious and closeted Tiger Parent in Singapore.
We are driven by this fundamental question: Are grades important? And our answer is, yes.
Why? Better grades means being in a better position to choose. Better grades give our children options.
GOOD GRADES STILL THE CURRENCY
In the current system, secondary and tertiary school place allocation is largely based on grades. Everyone is ranked by performance, so, the person with the higher grade gets to exercise his or her choice of school first.
It is true that over the years, students who don’t meet grade requirements can get into courses or schools of their choice through other non-academic assessments.
But for the vast majority of students, the better the grades, the stronger your position in choosing what and where you want to study.
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Even the government scholar system (something highly prized and valued by many) is largely predicated on first having good grades.
Rare if ever do you hear of the president scholar who made it because he or she had mediocre grades (and I don’t mean an A-) but a stellar everything else.
Sure, there are other side roads one could take, vis-à-vis sporting abilities for a start. But that, some argue, favours the better-heeled families.
Ballet lessons themselves are pricey, and you add to that all the extras that come with it – like tutus and competitions – it is a hefty price tag. Even soccer these days come with community club memberships and competition fees.
So if we laid things bare, movements like #Lifebeyondgrades, while well-meaning and important for the conversations that it allows us to have, are the luxuries of the better heeled.
“It is easy to say that grades don’t matter when your family has means,” says Jonathan Muk, the co-founder of ReadAble, a stand-in-the-gap provider of literacy and numeracy programs for the underserved.
“A low-income family typically does not have the time and money to send their child to coding, dancing or swimming class. So, what do you have left, in terms of a formal system that will recognise your effort and reward you for achievement? And what kind of achievement is recognised in the formal system?”
Mr Muk’s assessment is in line with American writer Kearie Daniel. Writing for Flare Magazine, she titles her essay: Being a Tiger Mum is an Act of Love—and Necessity.
Her essay posits that for black parents, pushing your child to excel isn’t a choice, it’s a way to make sure they survive.
In Singapore, most of us may not have to excel just to survive as Ms Daniel argues. But I would say the drive to do well is deeply rooted in our psyche.
The sweet spot of parenting – between pushing our children and allowing them to enjoy their childhood – is still elusive, especially in a hyper-competitive environment such as ours.
If I am a Tiger Parent, especially as exam fever takes root, then I am guilty as charged.
In my defence, while I do my best to ensure my kids still get the time to play, I also have to ensure that the rigor is put in place if I want them to achieve their fullest potential, to lead healthy, successful, productive lives as students in Singapore.
Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.