I’d be a hypocrite to be snobbish towards enrichment classes. At four years old, I started badgering my mum for piano lessons. My family wasn’t rich but she managed to carve out the budget anyway, and got me into a classical piano class when I was 6 or 7 – the minimum age for one-on-one lessons.
For some reason, I had a knack for this music thingy and stuck with it till I was 16. Of course, I was never gifted enough for the Music Elective Programme in junior college. It was also unthinkable at the time (at least in my family) to study music or arts management in university. (“Do you want to be a beggar after graduation???”) Also, I couldn’t afford an overseas university education.
So then, what was the point of “investing” in music classes when there are no tangible ROIs?
Plenty, in my opinion. My decade-long “piano enrichment” intensified my knowledge in and love for music. I joined my school choirs, took on leadership roles in these groups and made some lifelong friends in the process.
I learnt to appreciate the unseen hard work behind putting together a 5-minute performance. Being in a choir gave me the opportunity to travel to the US to perform at the age of 13 – it was also when I found out many people had no idea what or where Singapore was.
Through adulthood, music has served as my escape. It makes me smile and cry; it makes me run a little faster at the gym; it takes me to places in my heart that I didn’t know existed before.
I am thankful to my family for what I’ve been given.
Why am I saying all this?
Because I fear, the role of enrichment has shifted in terrifying ways in Singapore.
Many parents look to things like Heguru, Shichida, phonics and even confidence building classes (for pre-schoolers!) to give their kids an edge in school. To excel academically. Let’s not even talk about the tuition culture. It was with dismay that I recently found THREE Learning Lab centres in Tampines Central alone. THREE. WTF?
There are expectations of returns with the nature of these classes – better grades, exam skills, and ultimately, a good university degree and a successful career, ka-ching.
Which honestly makes me want to vomit my guts out.
I’m a product of the Singapore education system. I did decently in school. Went to a SAP school, one of the “better” junior colleges and then got a communications degree from a local university.
I was raised in an environment where getting 96 on a math test wasn’t ideal because my classmate scored 100.
It was rough but I survived. Many, if not all, of my friends did too.
But I was also lost. Lost for a long time.
After graduation, it felt like “this was it?”. There was no crazy passion that drove me to take one job over another. A lot of my career decisions were made based on the salary and the lifestyle, benefits and flexibility the job accorded. But it was never really about the work.
I was lost because there’s no textbook or 10-year series assessment books for adulthood.
And I fear our children are now being squeezed to do the same. By pumping them with private academically-driven classes, we are telling them that grades, money and external validation are the most important things in their life.
Until I took the plunge to be a self-employed person, I was afraid of deviating from the path. Of depriving myself of monthly CPF contributions, a stable income, and I was afraid of being perceived as a failure.
But I also knew deep down that having my self-worth pegged to others’ expectations was unhealthy. Change was needed. And today, I fiercely want change for my children.
Enrichment is meant to enrich.
I believe it’s safe to say that all parents in first-world countries hope their children can be free of the shackles of the rat race. That they truly can pursue their interest, whatever that may be.
And to this, I say, yes they can! If we let them.
Music was what gave my years as a student extra dimension. It taught me discipline, helped me appreciate the arts and opened my senses to ideas that are beyond words. To me, this was infinitely more valuable than scoring straight As. (Also no employer cares about their candidates’ PSLE scores.)
Let our children play. Indulge their curiosity.
Instead of signing up for tuition, why don’t we consider other options with our white-collar budget?
Is your kid athletically inclined? How about exploring a new sport? It will teach him the value of collaboration and hard work.
Does he like doodling? Create a doodle wall at home! Or see if he enjoys art class. His imagination will be expanded by the possibilities of a blank canvas.
Is he an aspiring performer? Maybe he can find her groove in dance or drama? He’ll learn the breadth and depth of human emotions.
Is he a handy helper at home? Take him volunteering on the weekends so he can extend his willingness to serve the wider community.
The possibilities are endless. But it’s also important not to overdo things or expect anything in return.
By letting the young ones explore new arenas, we help take their curiosity a step further. It may lead to something. Or it may fizzle out, and then something else starts up.
The measures of success are changing.
By now, we have established that money and fame are not the recipe for lasting joy. Instead, following one’s inner purpose is the only way to do that.
We may have been late to the idea, but we can help our children find their “why”, their raison d’etre.
Great innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the Wright brothers all knew their purpose. And it led them to change the world.
I’m also not deluded.
I know that when my kids get to primary school, they may be entering an environment where all their classmates already have the year’s syllabus down pat in their heads (thanks or no thanks to private lessons). They may be frustrated when they can’t answer quickly enough to their teacher’s questions. They may end up feeling demoralised. Heck, they may start badgering me and my husband for tuition classes.
And this is what I will tell them.
That it’s perfectly ok to be a “B” or “C” student, that it’s ok that their friends scored better than them on a test, that they don’t always have to follow the crowd, and that just because most people are doing something doesn’t make that thing the best.
If they flunk their exams, there will be consequences (like staying back a year) but they have the power to claw their way back. After all, resilience is something that we all need to learn in life.
Above all else, they have to know that the world is bigger than school – though fundamental knowledge is a must before they are qualified to contribute to society. They need to look at things with a wider lens. They need to read the news – we have to make it interesting for them.
I’m not sure if they will be able to understand or appreciate the advice. But we sure as hell will try our darnedest, and take them places as far as our shallow pockets can allow.
In no way will I claim that this way of parenting is superior to another, because all parents are doing their best with what they have and what they know.
But this is what I believe in so strongly and what suits our household. And I feel passionately enough to bare my thoughts here. Maybe they will resonate with you, maybe they will not. And it’s all ok, because at least right now, the community at large is starting to have this discussion and this is what is going to inch our education system forward.
On a parting note, I urge everyone not to look to governmental cues on how to parent or navigate our children’s education. Government policies are always inevitably tied to potential economic outcomes.
Economic outcomes have nothing to do with human happiness.
Always look to inner wisdom. Look to parental instincts. Get your child to do the same for themselves. If we lead our lives based on a strong personal belief system, one built with love, kindness and morality, we probably can’t go very wrong.