How We Can Help Our Kids Learn

IMG_7222In the beginning, I was like any typical Singaporean parent. My focus was mainly on making sure that my kids learn their subjects well. I made sure their homework was done, tests and exams passed with reasonably good results and I attempted to instil good discipline and studying habits in them.

And then something dawned on me.

I started to see things with new perspective and realised that something was not quite right. My #1 was about Primary 4 or 5 at that time. I realised that though he was doing ok in school, I was dealing not so much with him not following in class but a whole bunch of other issues that had a direct impact not just on his learning but his overall development as a person.

I realised that I was not equiping him for LIFE. I was not equipping him to handle post-PSLE, post-school and beyond.

Just to be clear, I am all for independence training and have always trained the kids to be independent as much as possible. I gave them time-table to follow so that they could do things independently on their own. I set expectations such as “finish your homework before you play’ so that they would have good work habits. I have done all that. But there were plenty more I neglected to do.

I forgot to train them to take ownership and be responsible for themselves.

I was a good, organised mom. I noted all the test and exam dates and all their appointments in my calendar and planned their revision. So much so that when they were asked “when are you having your exams” or “when is your English exam”, their answer would be “I don’t know. Ask mummy.”

They did not learn time management because they never had to look at a calendar and find out how much time they had left for revision and plan accordingly. They had no sense of time in the broad sense. They did not need to learn to plan ahead and think about things like “Tomorrow, I have a full day in school and piano lesson after that, so I better learn the spelling test on the day after NOW” because mummy would remind them to do so.

If they had problems with their subjects, mummy would be around to teach. If mummy could not teach – like how to answer Science questions the way the examiners want it – there is always tuition.

They didn’t have to set goals for themselves. They didn’t have to learn to solve problem or think of real issues critically, which was a complete irony because our whole curriculum seemed to be focused on “problem-solving” and “critical thinking”. Yet, how many of our kids can actually do that in real life for real issues? How much of our kids’ inability to solve problems and think through issues is our own doing actually?

It is all these innocuous little things that parents like to do that are not helping the kids. Parents are in Whatsapp chat groups with their kids’ classmates’ parents “just so that we can share information and find out from each other what’s happening in class because, you know, kids are not always reliable, so they may not come home with the right information, like whether there is homework today or test tomorrow”.

So what do the kids learn? “I don’t have to pay attention to what the teacher is saying in class because mummy can always find out later what I am supposed to do.” It is better for us to let them suffer the consequence and not bail them out. They will soon learn to be responsible for themselves by paying attention in class and get accurate information.

We want to make sure our kids submit perfect homework every time so we help them with their homework (or we engage tutors to do that), and we do their projects for them so that they do not ‘waste time’ on things that do not contribute directly to the final results. It is more important to us that our children do not make mistakes or fail than for their teachers to actually have an accurate assessment of our children’s ability through their daily homework.

Besides being too eager to prevent our kids from failing and making mistakes, we are too quick to save our kids. If they are just struggling just a bit in school, we are too eager to shove into their throats the “miracle pill” called “tuition” to cure the problem. In fact, we are treating tuition like taking supplements – better take it now to keep up with the rest. The result of it is that kids learn that they do not really have to be responsible for their own learning. Instead of actively learning by paying attention and asking questions in class, they expect to be fed with the necessary information. If they cannot understand their school teachers, it is not their problem. It is the teachers’ problem for not making the lessons interesting enough to engage their attention or easy enough for them to understand. So their slacking results are not their responsibility. It is the school teachers’ responsibility to feed them the information in such a way they can accept, and their parents’ responsibility to find alternative sources of teaching that would appeal to them more. They become passive learners. Without a sense of learning being their responsibility, they will not pay active attention in school nor at tuition.

That’s how kids these days end up having tuition from primary school to secondary school and even up to University level. As ridiculous as it may sound, it is sadly true. It is because they have not been given the opportunity to learn how to learn, how to find out information, how to solve a problem they face in school, how to be resourceful. My husband asked me what are these kids going to do when they go out to work and there is nobody to spoonfeed them anymore? I jokingly said, “They would say ‘Let’s hire a consultant’.”

We missed the forest for the trees when we are so focused on results that we do everything we can to ensure our kids get that desired result. Like making sure they do not miss a test or spelling just because they did not listen to the teacher and got the date wrong by joining parents chat group ourselves, and as a result neglect to teach them to pay attention in class. Like when we quickly jump in to sign them up for tuition just to make sure their results do not fall behind their peers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with networking with other parents or with tuition. But I think most of us resort to them too quickly, too soon, too much.

Another thing I learned through the years is that as parents, whether we are aware of it or not, our attitude towards learning affect our kids’ attitude towards learning. When we impart negative attitude, it will affect their learning for life. We can do all the “right” things, like telling them they need to do well in school to get into good secondary schools and sending them for all the expensive tuitions to help them every way we can, but with a wrong attitude, all these are merely stop gap measures and we will find ourselves fighting the same battle over and over again and we wonder why the constant nagging at the kids and the spending on tuition never end.

Take Chinese, for instance. A lot of parents show their children that it is a difficult subject not to be liked and everybody has no choice but to put up with it. How can we expect the kids to be enthusiastic in learning Chinese when their parents are sending this kind of negative vibes? All that expensive enrichment classes and tuition cannot undo the damage constant exposure to such negative attitude does.

Sometimes, we are not even conscious of the fact that we are sending out wrong signals by our actions and by the things we say. When we keep saying things like the kids ‘have no life‘, or studying is very hardwork and they “deserve a good break” after exams, essentially what the kids get from us is that they have gotten a bad lot in life, and that nobody likes studying and they are the only ones to suffer this hardship and hence deserve all kinds of reward and breaks for suffering it. When we can hardly wait to plan for that “post PSLE special getaway’ for our kids, or when we burn books after the exams, we are basically telling them PSLE (or any other exam) is a torture they have to suffer through and because of that, they deserve something really really special for going through it. When we keep portraying study as some kind of torture and hardship, how do we expect our kids to be happy about going to school?

The fact is that everybody has to work and most people have to work very hard. Many parents have to work very long hours, or put up with a lot of nonsense at work, and they do so every single working day. Our kids do not have the worst lot in life. Studying is not such a hardship. Certainly it is not a walk in the park and many of them do have to put in a lot of effort and very long hours. Examinations are certainly no party. As parents, we are well aware of that. But taking things positively and portraying a positive attitude will do a lot to help our kids go through it and subsequently, handle difficult things in life.

We need to keep things in perspective. There is learning and then there are exams. The goals would be quite different but both are important. For learning, knowledge acquisition is important. For exams, it would be handling stress and learning time management, or doing things smartly. When the kids go out to work, there will be times where they have to go through a period of stress. Perhaps a project deadline to meet. The ability to handle stress which they develop through exams will be helpful. Instead of seeing exams negatively, we can make the best of the situation and stay positive. Our positive attitude will in turn influence our kids’ attitude. Stress is usually caused by parental expectation. If we could first examine ourselves and adjust our expectation and attitude, then we may find that even when nothing has changed externally, things are better and our kids are handling things and learning better.

For me, in the end, I realised that while achieving good results is important, it is not about getting that good job or earning a lot of money or getting into some good schools. It is about knowing what your responsibilities are as a student, being diligent and accountable for what you are responsible for, and being responsible and resourceful at solving any problems that you may encounter while carrying out your main job, which is to study. That is the value that I want my children to have. Same goal (good results) but different. If my children learn diligence, resourcefulness, problem-solving, time management, the ability to manage stress, being positive towards situation, responsibility and accountability, then they are equipped not just for learning in school but for life.

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