With so many holiday activities to choose from, you could be forgiven for thinking that boredom is bad for your child. Carla Sapsford Newman investigates what’s best for kids when they are away from school
Should kids ever take a holiday from learning?
Every parent sooner or later faces the dilemma of the dreaded school holidays. For working parents, the issue is doubly difficult. Sensing a void and an opportunity, a ‘holiday tuition’ or ‘holiday workshop’ industry has sprung up in Malaysia. Now there are classes and workshops for football, Mandarin, maths and even scuba diving. No matter what academic or sports issue the parent feels insecure or anxious about, there is a holiday remedy for their kids. But who really benefits? And is boredom a bad thing? What we learned may surprise you. Children’s learning, or learning issues, has often more to do with the parents than the children themselves!
The expert speaks
We spoke to Ivy Tan, a child psychologist with a Master’s in Counseling Psychology from the University of San Francisco. She works with children and their families at Sprouts in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya. In her practice, she sees a lot of anxious parents who have brought their children and teens in for diagnosis and counseling. Having worked with hundreds of adolescents and at-risk youth in the United States during and after her studies, she has seen the wide range of behavioural issues affecting families. In a way, the question of whether to send your child to a holiday programme is a luxurious one. For many parents, they don’t have the money to do so. And for many, they don’t have the time either to spend with their kids given their demanding work schedules.
So we asked Ivy about the pros and cons of holiday activities. But as we soon discovered, the issue really isn’t about holiday camps at all. But more about a child’s emotional, intellectual and social development and what best serves the individual child.
Educate… the parents?!
When parents think of education, they often think of schooling, tuition, flash cards and educational activities designed to cram as much information as possible into their children’s heads. What they often do not think about is play. Increasingly, the latest scientific research demonstrates that play can be as, or more, important than learning in a child’s development. Case in point: Consider all those Chinese athletes or artists pushed to perform at world-class levels from the age of four or five. Many fizzle out by adulthood. They never had the chance to be kids before they were expected to perform like adults.
Ivy says she does see a lot of helicopter parents. ‘I do see parents who worry for their kids’ well-being. And it impacts the child. The worry passes along to the kids! Kids are like sponges. Whatever the parents are feeling or going through, the children are feeling it even though they may not verbalise it.’ In other words, if the parents are stressed about their child’s grades or ability to get into the best universities, the kids take on that stress as if it were their own. And this stress often pushes parents into pushing kids into learning when they could be… doing not much at all.
Ivy mentions that problems don’t usually develop until children become teens. ‘With adolescents, the parents can’t control them anymore. The kids say, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I want autonomy. I just want to hang out with friends!”’ In this case, she says, it’s the parental expectations that are out of sync with their child’s development. Not the children themselves. It is normal for teenagers to want autonomy and to fit into a group, not to fit into the picture their parents have of
who they should be and what they should be doing.
That’s not to say parents shouldn’t push kids and teens to do things they don’t want to. Ivy says, ‘It’s good to have routines and structures. But you have to take into account their psychosocial development.’ If the parents have done their job well in the younger, formative years of a child, the structure is there, she says. They’ve built a good foundation of self-discipline, learning and respect for others that will stay with the children for life. Yet, ‘as they grow older they may want to break out of structure’. Her advice? Sometimes let kids be kids and let teens be… well, obnoxious.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Sometimes parents come in, says Ivy, comparing their children to the prodigies described by friends and family. Yet the child has to be looked at as an individual, not in comparison against others.
Ivy states that increasingly, ‘sometimes parents feel pressure.’ Pressure to do this or that, to send their kids here or there. Pressure to push their children hard, week in and week out. But don’t be swayed, Ivy advises.
However, even though many parents look to her to tell them what to do, she says she’s not the real expert. ‘At the end of the day, parents are the experts on their own children. No matter who you consult, parents know what is best for their child… they know the child’s routine more than I do. I say trust what you know is best for your child.’
Ivy looks at the bigger picture when a family comes in to see her because a child isn’t responding the way parents expect. ‘When you do family therapy, if one person is feeling this way, everyone factors in. It’s very interesting if you look at the issue as a system. Sometimes parents get shocked when I say, “When your child feels this way, it’s not their fault.”’
Parents, she says, have to separate their child from their own expectations. Her advice? ‘Create more support for the child.’ No matter if the child says they’d rather hang out at the mall rather than learn to play the violin or master their Mandarin. Longer term listening to your child, she suggests, can reap far more rewards than the incremental improvements in test scores or athletic prowess.
Ivy says parents also have to look at how the child is doing in general. ‘It is good to have goals and structure, but is the child doing well so far? Does he need additional academic help? Talk to the school, the teachers.’ But at the end of the day, she says, ‘the decision is on the parent to decide on a strict schedule or not.’ If the child isn’t doing well in school then it might be beneficial to introduce extra support. But not at the expense of some fun, she cautions.
The secret of quality holidays
According to Ivy, the bottom line regarding school holidays is that children need to feel the parent’s involvement and undivided attention. If they come home from an intensive Mandarin or Bahasa class and you’re asking questions while reading emails on your BlackBerry, don’t bother. When you are with your kids, be WITH them. They know the difference between time and quality time.
Ivy counsels to ‘know your child. You think you know what matters to them. Parents can plan [outings to] theme parks and Disney[land]. But if it’s not what matters to the kid, it doesn’t matter. Some would rather stay home with Nintendo!’
HUPENG / DREAMSTIME