Can you imagine how thankful I felt when the school teachers of my two children coincidentally made a similar remark at the teacher-and-parent meetings recently, “We have no worry about his academic performance. Your son is among the top students in his class.”
I mulled over the remark repeatedly and arrived at some insights that are hopefully useful to others:
- Never let others have the final say about you
- Do not end up like a dead fish
- The big fish in a small pond
- Do not seek success dictated by others
A family of two tales
Things weren’t always so rosy.
My elder son, Kyan, aged fifteen, now studies in a high school for special needs students. Prior to this, Kyan barely coped with the academic demands in a mainstream school for nearly five years despite making good progress. His academic ability turned out to be relatively better than his classmates in the new school. His special needs teacher said, ” Kyan is an exemplary student in Maths and reading for the other students in class.”
His younger brother, Conan, aged thirteen, now studies in a junior high school for academically excellent students. He was consistently ranked among the top five students in his cohort up to primary three. But Conan went through a rough patch in Primary five, a year after he was transferred to another school that offered the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), a rigorous education programme designed for the most intellectually-gifted students in the country. Conan revealed, perhaps with a little exaggeration, “I felt driven to the brink of depression at one point of time.”
Never let others have the final say about you
After the recent teacher-and-parents meetings, I excitedly told Conan about the positive comments I received,
“Your teachers in the new high school spoke very well of you. But I was most surprised by what your Maths teacher said.”
Conan looked at me with anticipation.
“She was telling me how good and quick you are at Maths.” I said.
Conan replied with a triumphant smile, “Talking about that, I only took a small fraction of the allotted time to complete all the problems correctly in a recent test.”
“No wonder.” I said, “I was told that you would always finish all the homework on the spot even before she finished teaching the class. She revealed that you are one of the two students in this cohort, whom she observed, to be of high calibre.”
Conan was grinning from ear to ear. I continued,
“Do you know what my response was?” I paused, then teased him, “I was tempted to ask your teacher, ‘Excuse me, are you talking to the right parent?’”
We both laughed. Conan understood why I made the remark. His confidence in Maths plummeted badly after his performance repeatedly paled in comparison to his brighter classmates in Primary five. Since then, he saw Maths as his Achilles heel.
Having worked in the education field for twenty years, it has always disturbed me how children’s confidence in studies is adversely affected by test scores, comparison with peers and teacher’s comments. I cautioned Conan,
“That’s what I have been telling you. Never let test results, or for that matter, anyone else to have the final say about you. Keep trying and learning to know yourself better.”
Do not end up like a dead fish
I think one of the most precious lessons for children is to have them learn to know themselves better. I was inspired by a wise statement that Einstein purportedly made,
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
As there is no substantial evidence to suggest that Einstein said these words, I made up a fable to tell Conan when he was younger.
“A tadpole and a fish were friends who grew up in the same pond. One day, the fish saw the tadpole, which had turned into a frog, leaping to the land and hopping back into the water. The fish was envious and thought, “If my friend can do it, surely I can do so too.” So the fish leapt up high and far with all its might. It successfully landed far away from the bank. What do you think happened to the fish in the end?”
Conan, amused by the story, replied, “It became a dead fish, of course. The fish couldn’t possibly leap back into the water.”
“Precisely, don’t be a dead fish, my son!” I added a cautionary note in laughter before saying, “Keep learning to know who you really are.”
The big fish in a small pond
Conan apparently took the lesson of “know thy self” to heart.
Last year, Conan achieved a remarkable score of 270 at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a national examination for all primary six students in Singapore. Everyone expected he would opt for the prized school of Raffles Institution (RI) that top students were gunning for. But he was adamant that the school would not be a good fit for him. He explained,
“Dad, I know myself. I am good at learning things quickly. But I am also laid back. That school’s competitive culture won’t suit me.”
I laughed, “I am glad that you know yourself well.”
But I wanted him to know what he was giving up. I told him, “To many people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to enter RI. The school has produced two out of the three prime ministers since our country’s independence. And they also produce many successful people in all fields. It’s almost like a guarantee for success in life to gain admission to the school.”
Conan replied, “No thanks. I will probably struggle and lose motivation eventually.”
After much deliberation, Conan chose National Junior College (NJC,) a reputably good high school that matched his needs and aligned with our expectation. I asked Conan how he thought of the decision after nearly nine months in NJC. He explained
“It’s just the big-fish-in-a-small-pond effect that I am doing well now.”
He elaborated, “I have compared with my GEP friends who are attending different junior high schools. Most of us are doing about the same kind of stuff, except for RI. You would be in awe of the “out-of-the-world” kind of questions my RI friends have to tackle.”
“So do you think you have made a good decision?” I asked.
Conan replied, “Well, the good thing is I am having an easy time. I have lots of free time to read, play games and do the stuff I like. ”
Do not seek success dictated by others
There were moments that I wondered if I have short-changed Conan’s future by not pushing him a little harder like what some Asian tiger moms would do.
But I thought quietly to myself, “I know NJC. It was my alma mater at senior high school level. It’s just the first year in the six-year programme. It’s a matter of time that Conan has to rise to bigger challenges in the subsequent years. Let’s see how things go as he grows older.”
In the meantime, I am heartened that Conan has found time to pick new hobbies such as reading Chinese novels this year. He has also become more engaged with the family, and even takes the initiative to take care of his autistic brother. These were things that he was less inclined to do when the school stress heated up two years ago.
We’d rather our children grow up holistically to become wholesome people who keep learning for the betterment of themselves and others, than to become people who are obsessed with pursuing success dictated by others. Don’t you agree?
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William W K Tan
(aka Uncle William)
15 Sep 2019, Sunday