Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Madeline Levine

Psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Madeline Levine gave a talk on March 11, 2015 in Hong Kong on “The Price of Privilege”. After reading her book, hearing her speak twice and spending an afternoon touring around Hong Kong with her and her family, I got a little more sense of her message and want to share my thoughts on how her message will translate into how my own children will be raised. I hope this will be helpful to friends who are also pondering, and rising up to, the challenge of raising children in Hong Kong.


Mothers crying when their 2 year-old children do not get into their first-choice nursery/kindergarten is a good indication of the current state of parental investment in their children’s lives.

Dr. Levine made a humorous comment, saying that the audience should accept that their children are “average”, and that the best way for their children to get into Harvard would be legacy, sports or arts scholarship, or significant donation. She joked that parents should be aware that sending their teenage children to Africa to build water treatment plants “was not going to get their kid into Harvard”.

The question is not: “If water treatment plants won’t help, then what will help get my kid into Harvard?”

Rather, parents should be asking themselves: “What kind of kid would I rather have at age 30: (1) a kid who went to Harvard but learned nothing, feels and acts with a great sense of entitlement, and is unsuccessful with work and personal relationships, or (2) a kid who enjoyed his college experience, learned a lot, made real friends, found his authentic self and truly appreciates his life?”

Of course, there will be children who thrive under “the chosen path”: getting straight A’s at the right schools that allow them to get into their first-choice college. But there is a much larger percentage of children who will end up as great kids that parents may not necessary be bragging about in terms of grades, first-place prizes and other metrics. Dr. Levine’s point is that, having a child who falls into option (2) may not be a bad thing. 

Dr. Levine states, “Parents need to truthfully separate their own desires from the desires of their children.”

Yes, most everyone will logically accept the previous statement, but how does this apply to your five year-old child? Who the hell knows what he desires, least of all himself?!?

My personal view is, go ahead and freak out about kindergarten. Everyone else is doing it, so unless you live in a bubble and absolutely don’t care about your child’s school path, you should be doing all you can get your child into your/his first-choice school. Because the best kindergarten will feed into the best primary school, which will help ensure the best way to secondary school or boarding school, which will feed into the best college. We are a generation of hands-on parents, and if we don’t expend at least the same amount of energy as other parents, we will be doing our child a disservice. 

BUT, please freak out without letting your kid know that you’re freaking out. Please don’t judge your child on what kindergarten/primary school he gets into or not.  Please don’t judge your child only on his achievements.  Things I have said in the past that I will try very hard not to repeat in the future:

“You got 100% on your dictation test, you’re so clever, mummy is so proud of you!”

“You got first place in that competition, that’s so awesome. You’re such a champ!”

The reasoning is, unless you have a consistently high-performing child, statements like the above will have kids who don’t achieve in future tests/competitions thinking, “Oh, mummy isn’t proud of me, and I’m not awesome because I didn’t come first.”

Dr. Levine asked the group of 600 parents at the talk: “Raise your hand if your life has gone completely according to plan.” And 30 people (5% of the audience) raised their hand.

She continued, “Raise your hand if you have NEVER experienced a divorce, death in the family, financial reversal or other serious hardship or setback in life.” And no one raised a hand.

There is so much more to life than academic achievement. There is so much more to life than brand-name school. You need to consciously make your children believe this is the case.

“Children need to see that we value their character first, their effort second, and then their grades.”

The best parents are not those who find the best tutors and extra-curricular activities for their children. The best parents are those who help their children develop a resiliency to face setbacks. Sure, everything is awesome when your child comes in first place, and mummy & daddy are so proud that they’re sharing this achievement all over social media. But how will your child cope when life throws a curve ball? Because life is not perfect, and that curve ball will come sooner or later, at age 10 or 30 or 50. How will he handle it then?

Dr. Levine found it incredulous that, when she advised that parents should not focus too much on school grades, a Hong Kong parent asked her, “But how will I know that I’m being a good parent if not from my child’s grades?” (Really?!? That's how parents measure their own success as parents!?!)

She reminded us of the US Department of Labor forecast that, by the time today's grade-school children grow up, 65% of them will be in jobs that don’t even exist today (e.g. avatar design consultant, digital death manager, online community curator). The traditional education system only focuses on hard skills like memorizing facts about English grammar, mathematical concepts and social studies trivia. Parents (and hopefully educators too) need to turn their efforts to preparing children to solve problems and learn skills for jobs that they have never seen before.

The best way to equip children for the future is to nurture non-academic skills, such as creativity, problem-solving, resilience and “grit”. According to Dr. Levine, ways for parents to nurture these skills include: allotting “free time” into children’s daily schedule, making sure children have more than enough sleep, letting children make mistakes and fail, and connecting with children through reading aloud.


Before Dr. Levine, my view on extra-curricular activities was that academic tutoring was bad, but “fun stuff” was good.  I signed my kids up for swimming, tennis, art, tap-dancing and singing. And I haughtily tut-tutted at parents who filled their children’s schedule with phonics, Kumon maths and Chinese tutorials.

Dr. Levine talks about “the time wheel”. When we do a pie-chart of our child’s 24-hour day, we acknowledge that there are allotted hours which are non-negotiable: school, homework, meals and sleep. Whatever is left over is that “sliver of time” that is at the discretion of parents. 

We should go ahead and schedule that sliver of time with something fun, right? Wrong.

Dr. Levine argues that anything that corrects/criticizes/judges a child’s behavior is stressful and not fun. Splashing around in the pool is not the same as a swim class where the coach is telling your child to swim faster, learn new skills, or swim in the assigned stroke style. When a child is expected to be on best behavior for most activities on the time wheel, that sliver of free time had better truly be free. 

That sliver of free time should be left to an activity that is non-judgmental and not specifically focused on skills-building. Allow your child to hear you read-aloud a story, freely play with Lego/Playdoh, do silly things with sofa cushions/skipping rope/household objects, or simply just be bored. 

“Eat quickly!” “Don’t dawdle!” “Do it this way!” “Don’t do it that way!” “Now try it again!”

Isn’t it sad and stifling that, other than when they are asleep, over-scheduled children are constantly told to correct or improve his actions or behavior? Not every minute of a child’s life needs to be an educative opportunity. 

“We all know that some of our best work is done when no one is watching, when we feel free to be flexible and creative. Make sure your child has time to explore and create and learn without the pressure of constant scrutiny and the threat of constant evaluation.”

Yes there are many kids who love to have every hour of their day filled with stimulating activities. There are also kids who love to eat French fries and chocolate bars for every meal and snack. Parents have the final say in what their children eat as well as what to put in that sliver of time on the time wheel.


Dr. Levine puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having enough sleep, which means 10-11 hours for children under the age of 12, and 9-10 hours for teenagers. 

Mummy friends think it’s incredulous that my seven year-old child normally falls asleep at 7:30pm (dinner at 5:30pm, into bed around 7:00pm, asleep by 7:30pm and waking on her own 11 hours later). While such an early bedtime for a seven year-old is the norm in North America, it’s rare in the Hong Kong local school system.

There's no magic to getting my kid into bed at 7:00pm. It’s what I put as number one priority and I work very hard to make it happen in our home. I have friends who insist, “My kindergartener is fine sleeping from 10:00pm to 7:00pm”, “I cut my 3 year-old’s afternoon nap so that she will sleep better at night”, “My kid isn’t tired until at least 10:00pm.”

Yes, I agree that different children have different sleeping needs. But there are two kinds of kids who sleep at 10:00pm. There is the child who is put down with bedtime story and lights out at 8:00pm but takes a long time to wind down and fall asleep. And then there is the child who has extra-curricular activities until 8:00pm and homework until 9:30pm. 

Dr. Levine believes it is important to schedule in the adequate amount of sleep time for children because, in the long term, having an edge in maths or excelling in that second musical instrument or third sport is not going to produce a happy teenager (or get your kid into college!). Adequate sleep allows for memory consolidation, neural processing of knowledge and information, and ability to cope and think out of the box.


Well-intentioned parents provide their children with every opportunity possible, and devote large amounts of time to being involved in their school and extra-curricular life. And yet, no research study has been able to show a positive correlation between well-adjusted children and the amount of time their parents spend with them. It’s quality versus quantity. 

Some words of wisdom from Dr. Levine in this regard:

“Intrusion and support are two fundamentally different processes: support is about the needs of the child, intrusion is about the needs of the parent… We have to be acutely attuned to our own psychological issues and our own happiness, or lack of it. We have to be willing to take an unflinching look at our parenting skills.”

“We need to examine our parenting paradigm. Raising children has come to look more and more like a business endeavor and less and less like an endeavor of the heart. We are overly concerned with how our children “do” rather than who our children “are”. We pour time, attention, money into insuring their performance, consistently making it to their soccer game while inconsistently making it to the dinner table. The fact that our persistent and often critical involvement is well-intended, that we believe that our efforts ultimately will help our children to be happy and to successfully compete in a demanding world, does not lessen the damage.”

“We can be overinvolved in the wrong things, and underinvolved in the right things, both at the same time.”


Can something so simple and straightforward as reading aloud with children (from babies to teenagers) really address the challenges of parenting and raising good kids? YES!

A quality picture-book (including illustrated, read-aloud versions of chapter books) will give both parent and child a perspective outside of their everyday existence. 

“Help your child develop compensatory strategies for things that are hard for them. Remember that development is still very uneven, and the child who has trouble stringing a sentence together at age eight may be on the debate team in high school. Parents need to help their child maintain a sense of perspective and not cut off interests prematurely.”

Reading aloud stories such as The Little Engine That Could and Leo the Late Bloomer will teach your child perseverance and give you perspective about your child’s pace of developing abilities. 

“Too often with our children, we rush in and offer suggestions, propose alternatives, or solve problems. While well-intentioned, this kind of premature cutting off of communication is often a result of our anxiety about letting our children struggle.”  

It’s natural for parents to want to protect their child from disappointment, shame, failure. So the natural reaction is to step in when we see our child heading towards a course of action that will lead to getting emotionally hurt. We need to go against this natural instinct and consciously stop ourselves from “helping” our child. 

Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Spoon is a wonderful story for children to learn about self-acceptance. And the bonus is that it is also an awesome example for parents to learn about supportive and non-intrusive parenting, with Mommy Spoon in the background, adeptly handling her child’s complaining and discontent. Sometimes, all your child needs is someone to understand and support him, not someone to fix problems for him or protect him from experiencing bad emotions.

[The insightful comments about the mother in Spoon were shared with me by master reading specialist Julie Fowlkes.]

[click on below images to enlarge]

“Our children benefit more from our ability to be ‘present’ than they do from being rushed off to one more activity. Try to slow down. It is almost always in quiet, unpressured moments that kids reach inside and expose the most delicate parts of their developing selves.”

The more children read, the wider their vocabulary, the faster they think, the better grasp of language learned in an organic way. Yes, improved literacy is a wonderful by-product of reading together.

But reading together is ultimately about parent-child bonding and a lifelong love of learning. Learning about the world, and learning about each other. Through storytime, and conversations that you and your child have about those stories, you will have a deeper understanding of your child.

And if you truly understand your child, you will not need to wait until he exhibits signs of stress or distress to realize that he needs help. You will be able to provide support in the individual way that you know your particular child responds well to. When the parent-child bond is healthy, and both enjoy reading together, I can bet that chances are that we and our children will enjoy each other’s company more, and also that we will have less of those “I’m such a bad parent!” days.

No comments:

Post a Comment