By Invitation

Tiger mums, helicopter parents and modern child-rearing angst

Parents have to contend with conflicting accounts of what's best as they strive to give their children a head start in life


Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I had what could be accurately called a carefree childhood. Mostly I was left to my own devices to entertain myself. I wasn't taught to read or write until I went to primary school nor was I enrolled in a kindergarten; I think now it was because my parents couldn't afford the additional expense (there were already four other children at school) and they probably felt that it was unnecessary.

A few months into Primary 1, my form teacher asked to see my mother: She'd thought that I might be intellectually impaired. My mother listened passively to her and when we got home, she didn't say a word about this to me then and never after.

My mother, who had a few years of formal education and could read and write only in Chinese, proceeded to coach me on that single subject and kept an eye out that I would complete whatever homework I was given - even though she couldn't understand most of the other subjects.

Somehow, I schlepped through my primary education and there was no further mention of any intellectual backwardness. Schooling was relatively straightforward then: You went through primary school, took the Primary School Leaving Examination - which had no aggregate score - and, having cleared that, you proceeded to secondary school which, in my case, was the one that was nearest to my home.

And if you did reasonably well by Secondary 2, you were expected to go to the "science stream". I made that decision myself as with all other decisions about my subsequent education: which extra-curricular activities to join, which junior college to go to, and what university degree to pursue.

I felt no pressure from my parents, though, of course, they were proud (and probably surprised) that I was admitted into medical school. What mattered to them was that I should at least have a university degree and thereafter a steady job, and be an honest, decent and useful person - and they tried to ensure all that in a rather instinctual way.


At this present moment, we are all very much taken up with the talented and wholesome Joseph Schooling in whom the whole country has taken such proprietary pride. There is no doubt that much has gone into the making of what he is today. Other than the good luck of having good genes, and armed with grit and steely discipline, he has access to top-notch training and, as important, he has loving , effective and supportive parents who - let's face it - are unusual and remarkable in their abiding faith in and sacrificial commitment to their only child's dream. Had his parents quashed this seemingly improbable childhood dream, and insisted - perhaps as most other well- meaning parents would - on him focusing on his academic studies so that he could get a "real", conventional and safe job like a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, we would probably not have our very first Olympic gold medallist and true- blue Singaporean sporting hero.


Within two generations, Singapore has catapulted itself into the First World. Meritocracy has been the organising principle of that transformation; and for better or worse, it has also been imprinted into our psyche.

With growing affluence and with most couples having fewer children, the latter have become the most precious of all possessions and, in tandem, parenting has become a very deliberate, self-conscious and angst-riven activity - particularly with the so-called helicopter parenting which is that odd amalgam of pampering and achievement pressure. Overprotective, over- controlling and intrusive, these helicopter parents would hover and keep their children on their radar screen: orchestrating and monitoring their activities, and swooping to blast away any obstacles in their path.

Sheep-like, disempowered and bereft of any sense of agency, these children are ferried, guided and nudged along the highways and byways of a demanding terrain of academic and extra-curricular activities. Having imbibed the ambitions of their parents and squinting through the parental prism, they see only one narrow path to success in life. The consequence - as we are told by concerned scholars and educators in a slew of scholarly studies, best-selling books and newspaper and magazine articles - is that these children who are consumed with the fear of not measuring up, don't learn to cope effectively with problems nor do they know how to soothe themselves when they are distressed.

There is "declining student resilience" and "emotional fragility", according to the Boston College psychologist Peter Gray. "Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things," he wrote of the students in the United States and the growing mental health crisis among them. "For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development."

A five-year study from the National University of Singapore published in the Journal Of Personality this year showed that local children of intrusive parents who have high academic expectations of them are likely to be more self-critical and more inclined to feel that they fall short. "The child may become afraid of making the slightest mistake and will blame himself or herself for not being 'perfect'," said the study's lead investigator Ryan Hong, who warned bleakly that "it increases the risk of the child developing symptoms of depression, anxiety and even suicide in very serious cases".

Other research elsewhere has shown that students with "helicopter" parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and depression.


To a certain extent, some parents may feel as hapless as their children, being compelled as they were in a meritocratic elitist society where - so goes the popular narrative - the best chance of material success in later life is attaining the requisite academic credentials earlier in life. And which parent would not be beset by that raft of guilt, uncertainty and anxiety of not doing enough in securing that head start for their child?

But still there is a general feeling that such values and expectations are wrong. The tendency is to blame the education system for being that crucible of feverish competition and high pressure.

There have been many calls for changes. As The Straits Times editorial of July 16 said, the recent revamp of the PSLE nurtures the hope that primary education should be for children "to develop their passion for learning, grow in values and character, and explore their strengths and interests".

That sounds intuitively and sensibly right but there is a salutary lesson to be learnt from the experience of the world's most powerful nation. Americans have been drilled to respect the individuality of their children, to support them in their self-chosen passions, and to boost their self-esteem which is supposed to make them learn better.

But as the American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her piece in The New Yorker a few years ago: "After a generation or so of applying this theory, we have the results. Just about the only category in which American students outperform the competition is self-regard."

She highlighted a study by the Brookings Institution that compared students' own assessments of their abilities in maths with their actual scores on a standardised test.

Nearly 40 per cent of American students declared that they usually do well in mathematics, but only 7 per cent of them actually did well enough on the test to qualify as advanced.

In contrast, 18 per cent of Singaporean students said they usually did well in maths; 44 per cent qualified as advanced on the test, with even the least self-confident Singaporean students outscoring the most self-confident Americans.

As Ms Kolbert commented wryly: "You can say it's sad that kids in Singapore are so beaten down that they can't appreciate their own accomplishments. But you've got to give them this: At least they get the math right."

And it's not just maths - American students are far from the top in international rankings for excellence in science. This Western orthodoxy of nurturing the self-esteem of the children and allowing them unfettered expression is anathema to Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of that controversial book, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, where she expounded her exacting Chinese child-rearing of her two high-achieving daughters.

She argued that the sort of parenting which emphasises self-esteem without an accompanying insistence on actual accomplishment will set the children up to accept mediocrity. And it has another darker implication - a society that nurtures and blithely accepts unearned self-esteem could turn out entitled narcissists and weaken its global competitiveness.

The changes to Singapore's own education system are made in the hope that our children will have a less burdened childhood. But there is, I think, another intent, which is to help them be more creative, more original and more imaginative as adults - attributes that are essential for a "knowledge economy".

Let's hope that it will achieve all that, though Amy Chua's stern assertion might be something to be borne in mind.

However, being what we are, it is unlikely that our tiger mums and cubs would be an endangered species any time soon.

  • The writer is vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'Tiger mums, helicopter parents and modern child-rearing angst'. Subscribe