More to childhood than good grades

Image credit: KC Wong

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

Billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma once said this to his son: “You don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only a middle-of-the-road student has enough free time to learn other skills… if China’s economy wants to develop, that requires a lot of entrepreneurs with values and drive.”

This is a similar perspective I share when it comes to my own children, both of whom are relatively average students (though my daughter is in one of the better classes).

My wife may disagree with me on this, but I’ve never set result targets for them. Instead, I would say, “You go do your best.” I don’t know how many hours they actually spend on studying for their exams, but if getting a ‘C’ was their best effort after spending two hours on each subject, then so be it.

They may not show it, but I can occasionally catch hints of disappointment on their faces when they knew they had underperformed. But to me, as long as their results came back all right, I would still be happy to take them to our neighbourhood ice-cream parlour as a reward for their effort.

This next thought may make me sound like a broken record, but here goes: let us parents not waste the short but wonderful years of our kids’ childhood. We may now drill them to be expert exam-takers with an excellent short-term skill set, but they may lack the common sense and critical thinking skills that would serve them better in the long term.

Kids are like sponges; they can absorb all kinds of information and knowledge, especially when it comes to pursuing their own interests. Bigger is the ocean of knowledge than just the trickles of what they learn in their school curriculum.

My 11-year-old daughter has always been interested in art and craft. One aspect of that she dabbles in is the rainbow loom, a fad that has long since died down elsewhere. She often borrows all types of art and craft books from the library and experiments with new techniques and creations.

She chose to join the Art Club as her CCA and still attends private art classes. I tried to persuade her to drop the private lessons on numerous occasions, only to be rebuffed each time.

“You are already an art club member in school, for free!” I would tell her. “Why don’t we save money and time and pursue something else?” To that, she would retort, “No way, José ! You are so cheapskate, Daddy!”

Her other passion is ballet. It is probably the only thing in life that she would watch the time for. Prior to each class, she would impatiently wait outside our main door and yell, “Daddy, let’s go!”

She also studies Spanish once a week under the tutelage of a very kind Mexican lady, who is the mother of a friend. It has been almost five years since she spoke her first Spanish words, and frankly, I have no way of knowing how far she has progressed.

I have a confession to make: I was the one who decided that she should pick up Spanish as a third language. I cannot pinpoint a particular reason, but if I had to, it may have been influenced by the way Spanish football commentators express themselves so passionately. Either that, or this is to prepare us for the day we travel to South America as a family – she would at least be able to help us order food! Finally, I bet that someone fluent in English, Mandarin and Spanish, while being familiar with the languages’ nuances and their respective cultures, can discover a New World post-Columbus.

On the other hand, I have to be more patient when it comes to my nine-year-old son. In his short existence on Earth, he has tried football, tennis, hip-hop dance, and even attended a few Japanese lessons, but nothing has genuinely excited him thus far.

I recognise that he marches to the beat of his own drum, so to speak. He dropped out of the same art school that his sister attends, because he prefers to draw manga his own way. So far, he has about fourteen editions of ‘Ultraboy’ waiting for a brave publisher. He creates weapons out of cardboard, and still indulges in imaginary play with his toy figurines. One consolation is that he has stuck to his two CCAs, international chess and badminton, even though he does not represent the school in either.

I might have given you the impression that I am a ‘chill’ and ‘hands-off’ father. Trust me – it takes nerves of steel to not worry about his development.

In my search for answers, I chanced upon The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, the memoir of writer Bill Bryson. It humorously explores the ordinary but carefree childhood he had in ‘extraordinary’ 1950s America. Of that, he wrote, “Growing up was easy. It required no thought or effort on my part. It was going to happen anyway. So what follows isn’t terribly eventful, I’m afraid.” I am pretty sure that if I dig deeper, I would find many more famous and ‘successful’ people with equally average, unspectacular and ordinary childhoods.

I believe there is more to childhood than just getting good grades, and that there is much to learn and explore outside the classroom. I cannot help but wonder if good grades serve to boost parents’ egos or truly benefit their kids’ CV. It’s also important for us to recognise that every child learns differently and at varying paces. Their learning journey is a long, steep curve; as parents, we just have to make sure we are there to cheer them on, and they continue to stay on course even after we are gone.

And as for the visionary, gutsy and astute Jack Ma: since he was able to prove his detractors otherwise when it came to Alibaba, I sure hope he is also right about the advice he gave his own son.


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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