Thursday, February 4, 2016

Too Good Intentions

In preparation for this first post, I first read a pair of articles written by Hanna Rosin: “The Overprotected Kid” and “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Rosin examined how current forms of parenting may be doing more harm to children’s potential than good. It comes as no surprise that a neglectful parent will have a negative impact on how the child learns and grows. Without guidance and essential needs fulfilled, the child will be at a severe disadvantage. What we may not have considered is the opposite end of the spectrum. What happens when the parent becomes too protective? What happens when a parent’s good intentions of raising a child yield negative results?

Rosin studied a park in North Wales know as “the Land.” The Land has the appearance (and name) akin to something you might see in a Mad Max film. It is complete with an abundance of junk, tattered furniture, and basic tools scattered about the place all covered in mud or residing in puddles. Children build their forts from some wooden pallets and some tarps.  They are even allowed to burn things at will. This is not something I could refer to as “familiar”.

While it sounds like the nightmare of the typical family, the Land is, on the contrary, a place of learning. It is a different kind of learning from math or history; the children are learning lessons of a much more practical and diverse nature. They are learning the consequences of their actions as well as self-responsibility and independence. They are building confidence and creativity. They are undertaking manageable risks and discovering the results. They conquer fears and learn new skills. The only adult supervision is by professionally trained “playworkers” who only intervene in serious safety matters.

Few parents would ever allow this type of risky freedom today. Whether the danger is real or perceived, big or small, allowing children to take part in an activity that may cause physical harm is a tough thing to do. However, it is one thing to prevent serious injury, but to avoid all injury is taking it to far. Having the ability to manage risks and make choices for ourselves is something that we all eventually have to do in our daily life, and it is something that takes time to learn. Getting a head start on these skills could increase the child’s potential more than sheltering them away until they are forced to learn these lessons anyway.

This kind of learning is not something that can be taught in a classroom nor from complete safety. It is a lesson in independence, self-responsibility, and understanding consequences that cannot be learned adequately without taking a few small real-world risks. Regardless of whether or not a place like the Land is right way to learn these lessons, they are certainly worth learning.

Safety is one thing, but pushing children too hard is another matter entirely. Consider “The Silicon Valley Suicides” by Rosin. In this article, danger takes a different form. At Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, home to some of the hardest-working students in the country, there is a very real concern for the danger of overworking a child; seemingly ordinary students tragically taking their own lives likely due to a combination of educational and parental pressures. In an effort to provide the best future opportunities for their kids, parents may sometimes push too hard. In some cases, they push way too hard.

Like the overprotective parent, any negative side effects of extreme child-pressuring are purely accidental. Finding a balance between pushing too hard and not hard enough is critical, but it is not always easy. Nevertheless, when an environment is created where a child is afraid to speak honestly and openly to their own parents, something has to be done. It is up to the parents to recognize when they have created such an environment. These situations do not happen overnight.

In addition, everyone has their limits. There is a point of diminishing returns where pushing forward starts to yield negative results and perhaps negative side effects. Constant stress takes a toll on people over time. There is a point where doing less may boost learning rather than detract, and an increase in happiness would be a powerful added benefit.

Finally, if there is one overarching issue in how children can be raised with good intentions but negative consequences, it is an aversion to mistakes. Most of us have this aversion to making mistakes, including myself, to a varying degree, and it is possible this trait starts from childhood. The overprotective parent does not want their child making a mistake of getting hurt. The parent over-pressuring their child does not want mistakes that will jeopardize the future.

In Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” one of the themes is that children are sent down a path in life by their parents and by the education system away from their talents and their passions. Rather than nurturing the child’s abilities, adults tend to waste them; they do not want their child choosing the “wrong” direction in life.

Furthermore, parents and educators instill this right vs. wrong mentality in their children for six or seven hours a day in the classroom. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” says Robinson, “you’ll never come up with anything original . . . And by the time [children] get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong . . . And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.” Overprotective parents, as well as schools, have a major part to play in this. They watch over the child like a hawk, half-expecting something to go wrong. Children do not get the privilege of being wrong. They do not get the opportunity to take the risk that may lead to them to be wrong.

Good parenting and over-parenting can be two very separate things. Overprotection and pushing too hard in education may be with good intentions but do not necessarily lead to higher potential. It has to do with finding a balance.

Something that is often overlooked is the benefits of making mistakes. It never feels that way at the time, leading to physical injuries or a bruised ego, but as we all know, they are part of life. Preventing the serious mistakes are a must, but their seriousness can also be subjective. More important is to turn mistakes into learning experiences so these children can find their own right path into the future.

Works Cited

Rosin, Hanna. “The Overprotected Kid.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, April 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Robinson, Ken. (2006, February). “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Retrieved from


  1. Let me talk about parent motivation here, and then maybe face to face we'll talk about teacher motivation. One idea borrowed from economics is called the bequest motive. This provides a different rationale for saving. Eventually, the parents want to give some of their estate to the kids. But then add to it that well known phrase about teaching a man to fish. (By the way, you can and should use the link tool in blogger to make reference to the pieces you cited. In that sense, blogging is like fishing and I'm try to teach you how to do it well.) So a good chunk of the bequest should be in the form of education or, if you prefer, investment into the kids' productive capacities.

    That much of it is benign and sensible. Then things can go awry, as they seem to have done in Palo Alto. One problem is that good education is not universal. There is a tournament aspect to it, so that the winners get the better education. There is then incentive to game the system, to increase the chances of winning the tournament. But that gaming moves education outside the realm of nurture and instead into the realm of amassing credentials - good grades, lots of extracurricular activities, etc. This makes the education mainly about pleasing somebody else.

    Let me switch to other choices parents make and how my generation did things differently than my parents did. I grew up in an urban residential setting. There were individual homes, not apartment buildings, but the population density was pretty high and I thus was able to have friends who lived very close. We played a lot of ball sports on the street, right in front of the houses where we lived. I wrote about this in a post called Slapball.

    My generation seemed to prefer suburban living (or small town living). The population density where I live now is definitely less. My kids had friends, but they needed to be driven to their house (or vice versa) to get together. The suburban lifestyle lends itself more into structured activities for the kids with parental supervision.

    There is also that while I had TV, it was pretty primitive - both in the rendering and in the programming. We didn't have anything that substituted for video games. The dependency on modern electronics, I believe, contributes to Rosin's hypothesis. Then, and I'm not sure how much this happened elsewhere, but I had both parents work, so my brother and I were often left alone. My wife, in contrast, decided to be a stay home mom when my younger son got into first grade. So she was much more available for my kids than my mom or dad were for me.

    In that sense, over protection might be what economists call a superior good (high income elasticity). There is a question of whether the parents of means understand that they are perhaps blocking the kid's learning via the over protection and, if so, why they persist in doing it. To that I'd add there is a time preference dimension. The risks seem pretty immediate. The benefits from the kid taking his knocks are longer term.

  2. Reading the article about "the Land" with the lens of a typical American family of modern times, I sort of understand the hype the narrator alludes with regards to the approach of the rough playground.

    However, my Malaysian roots and upbringing has allowed me to experience and observe the rough side of life even though I live in a middle-income family in an urban setting. This is primarily due to the fact that East of Malaysia is really small (about the size of Alabama). Through visiting friends and relatives, I got to enjoy the rural side of Malaysia and that has enabled me to do quite a number of "rough" things such as swimming in rivers, lighting up firecrackers, and exploring fruit orchards just to name a few.

    Those rural lifestyle can be fun and exciting, especially when I personally enjoy getting physical and sweaty, and I wish it's practiced more in the urban settings. This sentiment are shared by many - in fact, there is a famous Malaysian cartoonist whose main work is to depict the life he had when he was still a small boy living in an estate doing lots of fun activities. In his works, he sometimes depict the present time where he is with his small son of about 7 years old in a modern and urban settings. He wondered if his son was ever going to experience something as exciting as he had back in his childhood.

    Having said that, there are many issues that could point to the behavior of parents being too overprotective. Taking the example written about parents suing the management for accident happening on the playground, I wonder if high cost of medial treatment contribute to the lawsuit from materializing.

    Aside from that, I also feel that modernization has also caused us to move away from seeking physical activities as form of leisure, substituted by puzzles and games on the iPad. The "entertainment" utility gain by the latter are as comparable without being too draining on the body and it avoids the potential harm to the body.

    On the issue of the "Tiger Moms" - I feel that the part about "mistakenly transposed the reality of education in, say, China or Korea, which is that how you do on a single test can determine your entire future.." is really relate-able to me. In Malaysia, we went through our entire schooling phase to prepare us for a national exam that's taken when we are 17 years old.

    This national exam will make or break our future as it is used to apply for an entrance into a university. Having good result is definitely a must if you're seeking to secure a scholarship or you want to enter the public university (which was also significantly cheaper than private university, hence having greater competition between applicant)

    In the period when this exam was taken (which happens year end annually), it is not unusual to receive news about tragedy of students committing suicide - usually immediately after a hard examination.

    I'd say that there are many possible causes of this sad event and it cannot be pinned down to solely on the parenting style. It might be interesting to investigate this further in the future.