By Vivienne Scott
Singapore was recently ranked joint first place as the “best country for children to grow up in” by Save the Children’s 2018 End of Childhood Report, while the United States ranked 36th alongside Russia, Kuwait and Bosnia. The report rates 175 countries, worldwide, on indicators relating to childhood mortality, education, conflict, labor and safeguarding. It is difficult to argue that Singapore does not have well-resourced and privileged healthcare, education and criminal safety but, as expatriates, are these criteria really relevant to the lives we have left and the new context in which we are raising our families? Risk factors such as child labor, child marriage, poverty and extreme violence were unlikely to feature in our former circumstances and, fortunately, the priority for our kids here is to thrive, not survive.
Singapore is safe, clean and multicultural and offers many outdoor and family friendly spaces. It presents a lifestyle that may be far removed from what we have been accustomed to in our home country and, as creatures that adapt to their surroundings, what we initially perceive as being pampered and, to a certain extent, spoiled can easily slide into becoming the norm. While this environment is an enviable one in which to bring up children, the issue that emerges when we eventually repatriate our kids may not have had the same preparation for life’s hard knocks as their contemporaries back home. And this is a shock to the system. So, are we setting them up for failure in adulthood?
In my career I have seen some of the most privileged and high- achieving students present with very few coping skills, poor mental wellbeing and high levels of dissatisfaction. The situation corelates with the trend of educationally gifted students having some of the highest dropout rates when reaching further education, possibly because they have had less experience of failure or significant challenge and, as a result, have a lower level of resilience or perseverance when perfectionism is not possible. It is vital, therefore, that we raise our children to be mastery learners and not encourage focus on competitive attainment outcomes. Similarly, we must nurture learning on how to face challenges with confidence, independence and resilience.
Although long-term stress is damaging to our physical and mental health, research now suggests that exposure to low levels of stress can, in fact, be beneficial. In the short term, a little stress can temporarily boost the immune system, improve memory and increase energy levels, while exposure to the same low levels of stress in the longer term makes us mentally stronger and better equipped to manage future stressors. Students who avoid situations that cause them anxiety, such as public speaking, exams or swimming lessons, only learn further avoidance strategies and never access opportunities to develop resilience or their abilities in these areas. Experience in overcoming stress teaches children how to apply effective coping and self-regulation skills and builds confidence to approach challenge in future.
The challenge for parents, then, is to strike a balance between preparing their children to experience failure, minor worries and struggles that they will inevitably come across in adulthood while benefitting from growing up. In busy households and with the accustomed privilege of employing a helper, it is easy to fall into the trap of withholding early opportunities for our children to develop independent skills by simply doing too much for them. Failure is important for learning and age-appropriate responsibilities teach children how to be self-organized, reflective and grateful, as well as strengthening vital skills for multi-tasking, planning and remembering. Adolescents who are delayed in acquiring these traits in childhood are often burdened with additional stressors when greater independence is demanded in higher education.
When working in more socially disadvantaged locations, I have witnessed far younger children with exceptional independence and resilience, motivation and tenacity. As expats, it is likely that most
of our children will not spend the rest of their lives in Singapore, but will move to other countries and come across others, perhaps from similar disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps from different social dynamics and outlooks, different cultural mixes, different family structures, different social backgrounds and, moreover, an altogether different environment with the challenges it brings. Our job is to ensure our children are prepared and ready to be resilient, independent, happy and contented when that time of transition happens and as they develop as young adults.