Parents should do less to prepare kids for the future

It is almost second nature to parents like myself to think about our children's possible career paths. In the next 20 years, they need to stay relevant so as to compete for jobs with their peers and with the efficiencies that innovations bring. Instead of applying for jobs using a mobile app, they could well be creating new jobs unheard of today.

The world is changing. Shifts in global dynamics, technological advances and new disruptive business models are coming at us so fast, they make our heads spin. These also seem to induce fear about employment prospects. But will such concerns be valid 20 years from now or are we simply passing on our fears and imposing them on the next generation?

Science Centre Singapore recently collaborated with Imagin8ors to host a panel discussion during which we talked about how children come into this world with no fear or inhibition. My fellow panellist Chan Yi Wen, who was on Forbes Asia's list of 30 Under 30 young entrepreneurs and innovators and is a co-founder of Bolt Media, shared her own story of venturing out of her comfort zone to start a business and how motivated she felt doing so. She was initially afraid of failing but later realised that was due to an excessive need to succeed, which she learnt to overcome.

Yet it is only natural that every parent wants his or her child to succeed and achieve many great things. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we allow such ambitions to inhibit our children. Children need to play in the mud so as to get their hands dirty; they need to do things on their own. As parents, we should encourage them to learn by using their eyes to observe, ears to listen, mouth to communicate, heart to engage and hands to practise but is that what we are doing?

When my peers and I started our families, mobile devices were less popular than they are today. We could not distract our children with colourful videos or electronic games to stop them from creating mayhem in public. Not that those would have been my first-choice solution anyway.

It is only natural that every parent wants his or her child to succeed and achieve many great things. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we allow such ambitions to inhibit our children. Children need to play in the mud so as to get their hands dirty; they need to do things on their own. As parents, we should encourage them to learn by using their eyes to observe, ears to listen, mouth to communicate, heart to engage and hands to practise but is that what we are doing?

My close circle of friends and I started our very own kids' club to meaningfully engage our kids. Every weekend, one set of parents took the lead to plan fun and age-appropriate learning activities for the children. It could be my wife and I getting them interested in all things science-related, or a geography professor getting them to discover new things about our neighbouring countries. The doctor in our group conducted a session about the birds and the bees, while the rest of us excused ourselves to give our children some privacy. Our kids' club was no Mickey Mouse Club but our children started to look forward to the weekends filled with opportunities to discover something new. Family friends became co-learners and play dates turned into fun and informal learning platforms.

I have been asked if parents are at fault for robbing their children of curiosity. Are helicopter parents doing too much for their children? When parents monopolise decision-making, does that eat into children's motivation to learn, and will that hurt their passion to hunt and create new job opportunities for themselves in future?

I choose to believe that children are born inquisitive, investigative and innovative, what I call the three "ins". They have the potential to make it big in life as long as we don't intentionally or unintentionally kill their spirit. We need to be open-minded and welcome the qualities of each new generation. There will always be a next Sim Wong Hoo (Creative founder) in the making if we provide the appropriate classroom setting, whether in the form of an informal kids' club, a Tinkering Studio, such as the one at Science Centre Singapore, or a structured curriculum in school that encourages applied learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or Stem.

Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say has said that as we transform our economy, we need to keep pushing for quality job creation. I cannot agree more. Some jobs will inevitably become redundant with the incorporation of new business models, innovation, artificial intelligence, robots and design thinking. At the same time, new jobs will be created and current ones will be redesigned. We need our next generation to stay curious and to keep learning so as to remain resilient in the face of a fast-changing job environment.

Many parents wonder what more they can do to help their children learn, to pave the way for a brighter future for their offspring. It's also worth asking what we can do less as parents. Sometimes when we are tempted to say something in the hope of pre-empting failure for our children or steering their decisions to match ours, it might actually be better to bite our tongues and zip our lips. That was a point that came up during the panel discussion we held, and the advice - I am glad to say - went down well with the audience.

Fear can kill the joy of learning and eventually dampen the desire to be inquisitive, investigative and innovative. To my fellow parents, I say take a breather from time to time, be surprised at what your children are capable of achieving on their own and let them loose on their journey of discovery.

Never underestimate the power of the young ones!

• The writer is CEO of Science Centre Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'Parents should do less to prepare kids for the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe