To Kumon or to Mickey




A girlfriend sent me this New York Times Article about Junior Kumon hitting lower Manhattan. As in, not a kiasu Asian community in Singapore or Hong Kong, but New York. (The funniest thing is there you have Kumon boom in the big apple, and there Bloomberg reports in China kids are getting Disney English lessons.)

Every time I hear about tuition classes for the young, I start to freak out. It's not like I don't pay any attention to what Rockstar learns, I answer his WHYs constantly til I don't even realize when I'm speaking to my husband in the same way, but - I barely even knew what Kumon really was til quite recently (I've never been to a Disney theme park either, but I am proud to disclose I knew what that was for longer).

Maybe if there was a Disney Putonghua equivalent? (We ended up with full-fledged one-on-one Putonghua lessons for Rockstar by fluke, one of the Putonghua speakers we got to hang out with him when he was a baby turned out to be an actual teacher. And well, I have serious Putonghua-block. I once learnt to swing Faye Wong for work karaoke, but seriously gave up learning to read/write chinese several times <shame> (I'm Peranakan, Kebaya and all, my family hasn't spoken chinese in several generations... I didn't want Rockstar to find it similarly tough when he was older.)


Disney English, Mercedes Putonghua?

But back to Kumon. I would like to keep not paying attention to any more of that stuff, please, at least while Rockstar's still shy of 3 and a half. It is Voluntary Deaf-Muteness. Of the kind that takes over when I hear a nurse at Rockstar's pediatrician's ask the parent ahead of me, "So, she's school-going age now isn't she, what school is she attending, would that be Chinese International (ie most exclusive private school in HK with debenture price tag HKD 4.95mio thereabouts)?" - I mean seriously why would you want to speak to a person like that anyway? (And Ms Nurse, a child's developmental stages at a well-baby/child checkup are not determined by whether they are attending Chinese International, so where did you go to nursing school please? Don't dish out unless you can also swallow, bullies. Damn, I hate bullies. Ok, maybe not so mute after all.)

I have to constantly check myself, because it's actually much easier for me to cave and schedule up a storm of tuition (I didn't, ok? All Rockstar's got is Putonghua and that's cos we seriously suck at it). Had I still been at work I would probably be doing just that because I couldn't be there and seriously don't trust helpers to parent. The Rockstar may as well be having tuition rather than hanging out with the helper. Right? Right??

At Rockstar's well-baby checkup when he was about two, his (then) pediatrician took out a bunch of board books and puzzles. In a corner on display was a vintage-looking board with different shapes and I kinda shot myself in the foot by asking about it. It was there for sentimental reason, because two siblings in the clinic, when they each had been 2, had demonstrated their proficiency in identifying not just squares and ovals, but pentagons, hexagons, octagons. (They were apparently taught to these children by the helper they spent all day with, while mum and dad were bankers and lawyers at work.)

"Never mind," Rockstar's then-pediatrician consolled me. "Even if he gets (pentagons, hexagons, octagons) when he's 3 that should still be quite good." Y-eah I still haven't explained pentagons, hexagons, octagons to Rockstar - there's a helper out there that appears to be doing a better job than me. Back then I still worked, and my knee-jerk reaction was Why The Hell Can't I Ever Find A Helper Like That? I'm Working Toooo!

It took me almost a year of reeducation (ie quit job, spend time at home just un-complicating things) to realize you can actually teach your child to memorize lots of incredibly impressive bits of information that will seriously freak out other kiasu parents like yourself. It took me a little while longer to erm, "grow out of it" - what's the real point in doing that, the whole time you're showing off that cool little thing your child knows, you actually also know he doesn't really know why that's a hexagon or what-not. He might have just memorized where each shape should be on that board.

And why do I even care so much about whether he knows octagons from hexagons (sour grapes me, cos I'm pretty sure he doesn't haha)? Because when you love your child (and especially have your first one I guess) it can be even harder to not go looking for something else to worry about. But - how come professional soccer players practice hundreds of penalty kicks, get it right every single time in training and then can royally screw up in front of 10,000 fans? Bill Crowder in Daily Bread, quoted a basketball superstar in a radio interview who had a knack for making crucial game-winning shots, "You only need to make one shot..." Forget about the  expectations of your coach, teammates, fans. It's the same shot you've done. The same thinking you've always had. You love soccer. Basketball. Parenting (uh, right?) Or whatever. You get to do it hopefully the rest of your life. How come you're worrying, not enjoying the blessing?

"Research suggests that there is little benefit from this kind of tutoring (ie like Kumon); that young children learn just as much about math, if not more, fitting mixing bowls together on the kitchen floor" - NYT article

“The best you can say is that they’re useless,” said Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who compared the escalation of supplemental education with Irish elk competing to see which had the biggest antlers. “The result is that they go around tottering, unable to walk, under the enormous weight of these antlers they’ve developed,” she said... - same article

I can think of a parenting equivalent - we get lulled into a false sense of security about what our children really absorb and learn when they start reciting cool sums and multiplications. (Only problem with that is if/when one day you then discover your child simply got taught to memorize every damn thing you might get a little upset.)

We don't really need to talk numbers/ shapes/ bedtime stories, it's all being taken care of. And off I go to work, trot, trot, trot (not you, me. That could've been ME, before I got it together and quit the job). I'm sure he can ride a bike, I paid SGD 600 for him to learn.

(I met someone in Singapore who was What, SGD 600 to ride a 2-wheeler? I'm teaching my 6-year old myself! He did. His son btw, is special, mildly autistic. Sometimes when I see the yucky competitiveness among parents of non-special children, I have so much more respect for the others... I also crossed paths briefly during a bank merger with a (Dutch, I think) boss who had an interesting take on parenting - he adopted an HIV-positive child into his family of 3 biological children. He believed raising their adopted sibling together would educate the whole family...)

Anyway. "Repetition, derided elsewhere as drill and kill, is considered the key to developing concentration." Parents interviewed for the article talk about self-esteem boosts, little kids who cry because older siblings get homework/ already know how to read... Different strokes for different folks.

And with that, I've gotta stop lifting from one and the same article. It's Mickey's turn:

“It’s a very efficient way of marketing their brand as well as the amusement park,” said Shang Yang, chairman of Shangyang Enterprise Management Consulting Co. “They’re starting years early, brainwashing Chinese children and cultivating them as potential clients in a very indirect, yet penetrative, fashion.” - Bloomberg article on Disney English

Yeah, where can I buy stock in Disney English? Even better investment than when the hub told me to go buy stock in Victoria's Secret (private joke). The irony is, Disney English, unashamedly about marketing their franchise, might actually teach English more effectively in China than say, the Kumon stuff teaches math in Manhattan?

And not to say memorizing cool bits of info isn't necessarily a good idea - it comes in pretty handy when you want to totally impress the pants off the grandparents.


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About Aileen

I blog about living and raising my son in Hong Kong - where toddlers have entrance interviews, parents keep test score spreadsheets, private school debentures can trade for more than half a million USD. Raising Rockstar's the most important thing I'll ever do. We show our true colors by the choices we make in bringing up our children. My blog is a message to my toddler son, about what the world and his parents are like today - for when he becomes a teenager and knows everything.
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  • zmun2

    I applied for work at a Kumon center in KL before and after attending the interview briefing by the center principal, I freaked out and did not continue with my application – reason being I really think they are turning children into robots/calculators/computers!

    But I understand the pressure felt by parents. Here in KL, the Shichida Method is all the rage. My friend’s sister sent her 6 months old baby to the center and my friend told me all they did was flash cards at the baby and the fees are very expensive!  6 months old!  Some parents insist that their 6 months old baby can pick the card with the correct answer when asked to solve an addition sum. So is the world going to be filled with geniuses soon!? I would rather the world be filled with compassionate and kind people than geniuses.

    • Anonymous

      Agree, agree, agree. Though maybe not everyone does it to say, keep up with the Joneses or try to “up” their kids’ IQ.. I remember how I felt having to leave my son with helper n go to work last time, I wud have picked well maybe not Kumon but some activity or other simply to not have him b alone with helper all day.. We once thought to hire a helper from an abused maid shelter, thinking social workers could vouch for her and we would also be giving her a second chance by bearing the much higher processing fee because of her history.. That was how I learned a lot more about the rubbish Hk maids do, like apparently supplying each other with sedatives for the more hyper children under their care, hiding and pawning stolen goods for each other, doing additional “work” on days off n not coming back at night.. Without family to keep an eye it can be very, very scary to leave your child with a maid here