Yesterday after some work in the office, I went to South Bank and met a family from Denmark whose mother is a visiting scholar to Griffith Gold Coast campus. They have three children – two girls and one 10-month-old baby. It was a lazy and relaxing afternoon. The kids play and mix with other kids, and we were having beer. The kids don’t speak English, but they mix well with other kids in the playground. Isn’t this a beautiful picture of childhood?
In contrast, although Hong Kong is an affluent city, parenting and childhood can be quite pathological. Many parents keep being pushy and doing things they and their children don’t want to do. So many monster / helicopter parents cram their children’s schedule with activities – on Monday, ballet; Tuesday, piano; Wednesday, swimming; Thursday, drawing; Friday, English; Saturday, Taekwonto; Sunday, private tutorials. After reading a bit of Lacanian psychoanalysis, I start to understand a bit why so many anxious and paranoid parents are afraid that their children ‘will lose at the starting line’, a well-known phrase in Hong Kong and China.
Because of such anxiety, there has been a mushrooming of ‘good parenting’ guide books such as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in the market. In 2016, Agnes Chan, a wealthy Hong Kong-born singer who later on went to Stanford for her EdD and a self-appointed expert in parenting, published a book called ’50 education methods from a mother who put 3 sons into Stanford University’. Chan is married to a Japanese producer and is currently living in Tokyo (or Hong Kong now? I’m not sure). All her kids went to Stanford for undergraduate studies. So, in Bourdieu’s terms, it’s a typical case of social reproduction. Such a title definitely appeals to a lot of anxious parents in Hong Kong.
I’m not trying to debunk everything Chan said. I’m sure the methods she described in her book are good parenting strategies – at least, the methods themselves are innocuous and work well to a middle-class Japanese family living in the affluent Hiroo district of Shibuya in Tokyo. My worry, however, is how such ‘new middle class’ viewpoints such as Chan’s are taken by policymakers and working-class parents. From a Lacanian symptomatic reading of these popular titles, such ‘good parenting’ discourse has several problems.
First of all, the brand of ‘Stanford’ creates a lack in the readers which turns out to prompt a desire for cultural and symbolic capital. Such a good parenting discourse seems to assume that it is a problem if my kid is doing his/her undergraduate studies at Griffith or James Cook. This is the logic of capitalism – we are forced to want more and more. The same logic works in other aspects of life. Having a Toyota is not good enough. You need a Mercedes, then a Porsche, then a Maserati, and so on, despite the reliability of Toyota.
Second, I’m quite concerned about the hidden ‘anti-education’ discourse contained in such popular parenting guides. ‘Mainstream education doesn’t work well for your kids. It’s stultifying. It’s crippling creativity. Mainstream schools are just factories manufacturing robots. But look – if we put this or that into schools, make our curriculum more progressive, make them look like Eton or Dulwich, and encourage students to challenge teachers, we will have bright kids and future leaders.’ This is the line repeated by many celebrities on parenting and education – Alfred Cheung (張堅庭) and Lawrence Cheng (鄭丹瑞) are the vocal critics of Hong Kong education.
Celebrities have more cultural and economic capital. To them, their children succeed in schools because of their effort and a meritocratic system. However, the reality is that schooling systems under the agenda of neoliberalism are so stratified that wealthy kids are excluded from the majority. In Orwell’s well quoted words, all are equal, but some children are more equal than others.
That’s why parents are always caught in contradictions. On the one hand, we launch into a tirade against schools and hate spending money on tutorial schools, piano lessons, drilling for public examinations, etc. But on the other hand, we want to be at the cutting edge and beat the others down. What’s the result? We don’t know what we like and don’t like. Some kids don’t know what they like because their lives have been planned by others. No wonder so many young adults feel confused. Way too many.
More to come on the ‘good parenting’ discourse…