THERE is a very fine line between caring and caring too much, and parents should be careful not to mollycoddle their children.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat made this point yesterday at the inaugural Straits Times Education Forum, in answer to a question about whether Singapore children belonged to a "strawberry generation".
In a wide-ranging dialogue with parents that lasted more than an hour, he also outlined his ministry's thinking on issues such as why every school must be made a good school, and how to motivate and get the best out of weaker students.
While every school would strive to bring out the best in each child, this did not mean all schools would attain the same academic results. Parents, he said, knew from experience that each of their own children was different, with their own strengths and needs.
He noted that many caring parents hanker after top schools, but reminded them that a child's social and emotional skills, values and character also matter. He said these things cannot be easily assessed or measured but they are important to thriving in an uncertain and changing world.
He also stressed the point that all children learn differently and at different paces. Some will learn faster in certain areas, some learn better when things are very abstract, some learn better when the learning approach is very hands-on, he said.
He pledged that Singapore's schools will try to cater to every student and bring out the best in them. Education, he said, was not about chasing that additional point or grade, but learning for life.
Punctuating the session with real-life anecdotes from his interactions with parents and teachers, Mr Heng said one parent had e-mailed him to complain that her Primary 5 daughter had not been allowed to take a mobile phone to a one-night school camp.
"She said that ever since her daughter was a baby she had kissed the kid goodnight every night... and the child sleeps better after that," said Mr Heng.
While the parent pointed out that the phone would be useful in an emergency, the teacher had taken down all of the parents' phone numbers, as well as given her own to them, he said.
"I thought that was quite a reasonable arrangement," he added.
Another parent had considered retiring early to accompany her son when he went overseas for university studies.
"I said, 'let him go', but she told me I didn't understand and that he was her only son," Mr Heng said. "In the end, I asked her, 'Do you want grandchildren? Because with you around, he might never get a girlfriend!'" he continued, drawing laughter from the audience.
On a more serious note, Mr Heng said a secondary school principal had recently expressed concern that teachers were doing too much for children, for example, by giving them too many notes to prepare them for exams.
"One of the things that get lost along the way is this sense of independence and self-direction," he said. "When you do too many things, the child becomes too dependent on you."
Asked whether children today were protected too much, he said: "I'm not in a position to say definitively whether this is a strawberry generation," he said, referring to people who are easily bruised and unable to take criticism. "There's a very thin line between caring and caring too much... (but) I don't have a formula to say what is the right thing. How to calibrate that is very much people's independent decision," he said.
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