OCTOBER 26 -- The recent news of an 11-year-old schoolboy from Singapore who committed suicide because he failed a subject should leave us all stunned. It should -- but probably won’t. Why? Because the cruel paradox is most parents remain stuck in the cycle of Die-Die Also Must Succeed (pun sadly intended).
In the Ancient Near East, certain tribes sacrificed their children to fire gods and fertility gods. Nowadays things haven’t changed much. We’re still offering up our children’s blood and happiness at the altar of Career and Capitalism.
Very few parents (not least in Singapore) are going to stop viewing their kids like billionaire football players for whom every minute goalless is a universal disgrace. Very few parents are going to give thanks to heaven that despite treating their children like prized bulls, their kids endure and haven’t yet hurled themselves off 20 stories.
And the cycle will continue because when bad things happen only occasionally, we miss the terribly fragile nature of things.
If we received news every day of friends getting a stroke, we would surely cut down on that oily food and shit. But because our friends only kick the bucket once every few months or years, we find it suffices to a) shake our heads, b) write a meaningless quip on WhatsApp about healthy eating and c) maybe take one less prawn at the next meal.
If every day (instead of every few months) someone we care about gets bankrupt, then – and only then – may we be concerned about the way we spend our money.
Likewise, it will require one student suicide per day before we realise two indisputable facts:
1. Shoving our kids towards delusional paths of success (which begets non-delusional pain and trauma) isn’t love -- it’s insanity
Newsflash: Not every child is a junior Stephen Hawking, not every child is Steve Jobs in the making, not every child will solve string theory.
For an entire society to be obsessed with academic achievement is like a country training everybody under 12 to be the next Lee Chong Wei or Joseph Schooling, failing which the child is made to feel like he should crawl back into the garbage dump from where he was picked up.
Students like Master H jumped because he was stuck, cornered, given zero options. His whole life boiled down to being forced to succeed at something he – like 99 per cent of students – hated with all mind, body and soul.
Such students have their minds shut off from other possibilities e.g. home-schooling, excellence in sports, the love of art, the power of friendship, full-hearted support from parents regardless of material achievement. The tragedy is that he wasn’t given the chance to excel in anything other than what his parents forced him to do.
Again, this is like expecting everyone in the office to be able to deliver great speeches on pain of having one’s monthly pay deducted.
2. When nothing short of "world-class achievement" is acceptable, we will always feel like losers
The system is making our children feel like failures and losers, and parents are helping. Because the way things are wired, only sky-high goals are celebrated. Assume Ahmad got 94 per cent in Science – how long before his mum demands 95 per cent and above for the next exam? So now not only does he no longer feel like he’s actually achieved something, he will always feel like a loser until he scores 95 per cent, followed later by 96 per cent.
Should he obtain 91 per cent, he’s a goner. May as well slit his wrists right there, no? The fragility is astounding i.e. the only acceptable way is Onwards and Upwards with the slightest decline proof of abject failure. In other words, there was no grace in such a life. The prospect of "salvation" demanded work, sweat, infinite accomplishments.
Dammit, even writing this makes me want to jump out the bloody window.
Only upsides, few downsides
Imagine if every student didn’t fear failure or low marks because the only thing which would produce a "commotion" was doing well. Imagine if they bombed, say, their Geography or Maths, neither Daddy or Mummy will make a fuss; no one will rap them on their knuckles or make snide comments about winners and losers; no one will compare them against their higher-performing cousins, no one will force them into many more hours of prison (I mean tuition) time.
No downside, only upside. We must engineer this asymmetry into our children’s lives. They must know they are already loved and accepted, there’s nothing to "prove" anymore. Everything is smooth sailing from here, regardless of whether they get 92 per cent or 29 per cent.
Imagine if every student faced absolutely no stress from exam time because only successes will be highlighted and, whilst improvements can be discussed, failure or "non-performance" are not detrimental to their very personhood. In other words, like in JK Rowling’s case, nobody cares if 10,000 people refuse to read Harry Potter & the Cursed Child – all that matters are those millions who do.
Downside? Nobody would even dare.
To all the parents out there with kids in school, if the right column below is even close to how you’re treating your kids, please reconsider. And do so fast. Our kids deserve better than that. And, heck, maybe we should try on the left column for size?