Saturday, March 05, 2011

Pressure-Cooked Kids

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I reviewed for the DNA some weeks back, is causing a sharp intake of breath among educationists everywhere. The book is about her life as a hysterical over-ambitious parent, and what disturbed me, personally, is that she is not the only one out there.

Whether it’s Ms Chua in America, or Mrs Rao in Matunga, pushing kids to ‘reach their potential’ begins much earlier these days. Moms I meet at school look at me like I just crawled in from under a particularly grimy rock when I tell them that my 6-year-old has only just begun to learn basketball and music. I can see their antennae quivering: Neglectful Mom Alert!

One lady has been ‘showing’ her kid books of maths tables from the time he was 3; put him in Abacus classes by 4; ‘piano’ or keyboard classes (yes, it’s not just the humble ‘Casio’ anymore) by 4.5; and of course, chess by 5. Another, the mom of a 7-year-old musically gifted child, takes him for Hindustani, Carnatic, and ‘piano’ classes on alternative days, after he’s done seven hours at school. Being excessively liberal, she says, ‘If he finds it too much, I have told him to tell me.’ Yeah, right. See, kids live to please the adults in their lives. Practically everything is acceptable because they don’t know of alternatives. That’s why we, as parents, need to calm the heck down.

Among the favoured classes these days are ‘phonetics’ (doesn’t matter that the term is wrongly used), grammar, tuition, dance, music, Abacus, Vedic Maths, story-telling, creativity, taekwondo and chess. Having shoved their clueless kids into strangers’ homes, mummies enjoy a bit of that precious commodity – free time. And they’ve earned it by paying to have their kids ‘build their potential’ and ‘increase their confidence’, no? It doesn’t matter that being pressurized to do too much early in life can actually lead to anxiety and diffidence in kids.

Increasingly, psychologists tell us that unstructured time – when children hang about with friends or figure out ways to engage themselves – is important. Between school hours and various classes, what about this generation’s unstructured time? Most of us grew up with time which we were allowed to cheerfully waste. Turns out, that ‘wasted’ time – when we could do what we liked – is actually an important tool to de-stress and to build creativity.

The real risk with parents who ‘work so hard’ is that they start expecting rewards. If Aryaman doesn’t make the building aunties swoon at a ‘society function’, then why did we send him to all those Hindustani Music classes, yaar? And if he does sweep ’em off their feet, then, you know, how about Indian Idol next? Alarmingly, The Guardian’s Terri Apter notes that over-parented kids often grow up to be ‘compliant and devious’, ‘obsessed with grades and lacking interest in their subjects’.

Every generation gets the sort of writing on education which reflects its beliefs and aspirations. In the last century Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Waldorf Steiner, Aurobindo, Gijubhai Badheka and others propagated a humanistic, benevolent approach to learning. The 70s had John Holt, who advocated homeschooling. It would be truly sad but telling if Amy Chua – who slaps and stresses-out her kids – were to write our generation’s educational classic!

A longer and duller version of this article appeared in the DNA of Sunday Mar 6. They printed an earlier version by mistake :( and they also used a different title!

That lovely pic was drawn by Yuko Shimizu for the Time mag. See more of his brilliant work here.