Commentary: This mid-year exam season, let children take charge of their learning

Commentary: This mid-year exam season, let children take charge of their learning

Anxious parents must learn to step back so that our young can step forward and take greater responsibility over their studies, says a mother of three.

SINGAPORE: Parents and children all over Singapore are stressing out over the mid-year examinations.

The mid- and final-year assessments never fail to work parents into a flurry, often more so than the children taking the papers themselves.

As parents, it’s easy to take over the steering wheel, especially if we get the sense that our kids are not coping well.

We gear up into manic planning mode, from getting tuition teachers to extend lessons during the pre-exam period, to daily nagging.

But what happens to the child in this scenario is not only are they on the receiving end of stress or parental wrath, they also learn a certain passivity. They know that they can afford to sit back because mum or dad will dive in and take charge of things.  

This generation is perhaps one of the most assisted, most convenienced generations yet. With tuition centres that promise to deliver aces in every subject, to parents who structure their kids’ daily activities down to a tee, and even Google who answers all of our questions.

But anxious parents must surely take a step back so that our young can take a step forward, and take greater responsibility over their studies. 


When I was young, both of my parents were busy working. I was often left to my own devices.

After school, I would tackle my work alone, and spend the rest of the time watching TV or playing with my neighbours. If I had questions, I had to ask my parents, friends or teachers for help.

Today, households are more affluent, and a large proportion of our children’s studies are outsourced to the “professionals”. Tuition is often seen as a necessary evil; without it, parents worry that their kids will fall behind.

primary school students
File photo of students at a primary school.

Tuition is not inherently bad. But if done excessively, a child may start developing a reliance on tutors, and harbour doubts over how much they can handle on their own.

At some point, they may stop trying to solve their problems altogether, choosing to wait passively for an adult to provide all the answers.

What does this mean for a child’s budding identity, individuality and confidence?


Authors of the book The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, advocate giving children more control over their lives. This not only teaches them independence, but also helps to buffer against stress, they argued.

They wrote: “When you are given room to make your own decisions, it allows you to feel in charge in other contexts. The brain is learning to make hard choices and protecting itself from the stress of feeling helpless. It is also benefitting from the internal motivation that comes from autonomy.”

As a parent, I've learnt the hard way that there are some things that we cannot force them to do. One example is doing their work. We may scold, nag, or threaten to strip away their screen privileges, but such fear-driven tactics only work to a certain extent, and their efficacy reduces with age dramatically.

(I may be able to scare them into doing their chores at the age of seven, but good luck if you’re thinking of pulling that on your 14-year-old.)

Nor can I compel my children to be motivated. Two years ago, I tried to entice my son to learn the piano. While he did persevere for a couple of months, we both gave up eventually. Getting him to practise was too painful a task.

You cannot force a child to want something he does not want.

Nor can you force a child to not want something he really does want.

primary school students first day of school 2018 (1)
A primary school student reading in the school hall. (File photo: MOE)

My eldest loves art. When we found that our neighbour was conducting art lessons in her home, we pounced on it.

Because the format was free-and-easy, I gave her full control; I told her that if she had too much homework on the day, she was free to choose not to go. Until today, she has not missed a session, and it’s something she looks forward to every week.


Parents need to accept that we don’t always know what is best. In spite of our best intentions and undying love for our young, we cannot control every single learning outcome.

Does that mean we should stop trying to help? Maybe not, but there is a fine line between helping and taking over.

As any psychologist or counsellor would say, they can only provide sound advice and counsel, but the final decision lies in the client’s hands.

If our children come to us with a problem, we should suppress the urge to solve it on their behalf, unless it is too big for them to handle. Doing so would rob them of the practice they need to hone problem-solving and decision-making skills.

As the adage goes: 

Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.

Childhood and the early teenage years are actually the safest years for children to learn through mistakes and bad choices.

file singapore school students laptops phones
File picture of secondary school students in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY)

When I was 12, my parents gave me leeway to decide which secondary school to choose. I chose a reputable school that one of my cousins went to, but I quickly realised afterwards that I did not collate sufficient information to help me make the best decision. (It was a Chinese school and quite a culture shock for me during the initial period.)

Because I had made the decision myself, I had no one to blame and I forced myself to roll with it. 

Although my first brush with freedom didn’t pan out the way I expected, I appreciated the level of trust and autonomy my parents gave me. Instead of dictating to me which school to go for or course to take, they simply blew wind in my sails and supported me as I figured out my own direction.   


For the upcoming exams, there are a few things that parents can do to let children practise responsibility.

Kathy Seal, co-author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, advises parents not to hover over children as they work, but to just be nearby to offer help when needed. This conveys a sense of confidence in their ability to work independently.

Work out a realistic revision schedule with your child. Set some guidelines, for example, how many hours to set aside for each subject, but allow the child to fill in the details and decide what to cover.

They should learn to discern what they need most.

Set goals together, ensuring that they are measurable and attainable. Refrain from focusing solely on grades, as research shows students who focus more on the learning process tend to be more motivated and committed to their goals.

picture boy
A boy playing with his toys. (Photo: Pixabay/ribalouria)

For example, one science-related goal may be to accurately list the characteristics of 20 animals and 10 insects by the mid-year mark.

Give them room to learn from their mistakes.

Mother of three, Pauline Foo, believes self-learning is a key skill to cultivate in youngsters. While she may help her sons set the ground rules of revision, and mark their assessment books, she gives them room to figure out their mistakes on their own first, and only steps in when necessary.

By involving children as active participants in their learning, and giving them a measured level of autonomy as they mature, we communicate to them that their feelings and opinions matter, and that ultimately, they have ownership over their own choices, including how well they do in their exams.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/nr