'Without extra lessons, our kids may lose out'

Parents who hothouse their young children blame it on peer pressure

We want our pre-schoolers to enjoy their childhood too, but if we do not send them for extra lessons, they will lose out as almost everyone is doing it.

This was the cry of 37 out of 40 parents who spoke to The Straits Times outside enrichment centres on Monday - a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech that hothousing pre-schoolers can result in unhappy childhoods.

Citing research by child development experts, he said sending kindergarten-age children to tuition can lead to "over-teaching".

"Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It's good for young children to play, and to learn through play."

Parents yesterday, however, argued that setting a good foundation for a child helps to build their confidence in primary school.

"Having a childhood is important, but unfortunately, so are grades," said part-time teacher Serena Foo, 45, who sends her five-year-old son for Mandarin classes four times a week. "If you're in Singapore, you cannot take a laissez-faire attitude."

Others say they have "no choice" because other parents are doing the same.

Some teachers "go over things very fast", said housewife Adeline Wu, 40, who enrolled her two children in classes when they were one year old to learn how to count and identify basic shapes.

"I don't want my son to be singled out in school for not being able to catch up - that is more stressful for him than attending these extra classes," she said.

With many of the parents polled citing peer pressure, several enrichment centres that cater to children as young as 18 months said that they are not expecting demand to drop any time soon. Some of the popular programmes among parents are Mandarin and reading classes.

Parents do not sign up for classes blindly, but pick programmes that help their children in specific areas - such as hanyu pinyin, said curriculum specialist Nurliza Shah of Enfant Educare, a childcare centre that provides phonics and abacus classes, among others.

Mr Wong Ju Ping, the owner of Lynn Tuition Centre, said one way to prevent "over-teaching" is to be clear about what level of knowledge is required of pre-schoolers before they enter Primary 1.

A recommended textbook by the Ministry of Education (MOE) for pre-schoolers, for example, would help parents understand exactly how prepared their children should be, he said.

MOE said that in its view, the focus of pre-school education should be a "well-rounded" education that "builds a child's confidence and desire to learn". The ministry currently sets out a broad framework for kindergarten curricula. But it does not spell out specifics.

It is, however, reviewing the framework to state the core competencies a child should possess, such as in language and numeracy, at the end of pre-school education.

Having such guidelines would help, said some parents.

"I realised P1 is not that scary after all, after my eldest kid went through it," said housewife Pamelia Tng, 31, who has three children aged seven, six and three.

Still, she feels the need to enrol her three-year-old in phonics and Mandarin classes. "There is only so much you can cover in a few hours in pre-school - especially for Chinese as they don't teach that every day," Ms Tng said.

But there are some like Ms Ruth Soh, 41, who does not believe in sending her five-year-old daughter for extra lessons. Said the marketing communications director: "If we just put them to books, they won't learn how to handle life, how to socialise or be creative. My philosophy is that we don't need to pressure them. When they are adults, they will be on an equal level eventually."