Accomplished toddlers primed for success

“No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

It has been over two hundreds years since Miss Bingley made this snooty assertion, and yet her sentiments seem today just as relevant as the latest iPhone. To be “esteemed” (or even to have job-security in a society buffeted by the advent of disruptive technologies and the swings of financial markets), one is expected to “surpass what is usually met”. As the title of this post suggests, this trend begins at a very young age.

“Yoyo Chan is preparing for an important interview that could help her succeed in life. She is one-and-a-half years old… Yoyo’s younger brother, still a baby, will begin interview classes in a few months… when he’s about eight months old.”

Unlike the first quote, this one doesn’t belong to fiction, but to a recent BBC article titled “Toddlers prepare for their first big interview”. The article starts with some background:

“Getting into good schools or universities is tough in many parts of the world, but in Hong Kong the pressure begins earlier. Often parents try to get children into a good kindergarten – and before that, into a good nursery. So there are now classes preparing toddlers for that all-important nursery interview…
The best nurseries and kindergartens are seen as a gateway into the best primary schools – which in turn, parents believe, pave the way to the best secondary schools and universities.
So the most renowned of them can receive more than a 1,000 applications for just a few dozen places. As a result, enterprising tuition companies are now offering interview training for toddlers.”

The article brings Yoyo and her baby brother as examples. As a parent, the reasoning of Yoyo’s mother left me puzzled. An eight-month-old baby cannot walk or talk. He should wear diapers. So why would a dotting parent expect her baby to “study” for “entering exams” in a coveted nursery?

Apparently, babies of farseeing parents can and do manage to do so. In fact, these little guys don’t have much time to waste. An accomplished toddler is expected to greet the interviewer and introduce herself, complete a number of tasks (such as building a house with bricks and identify pieces of fruit), take part in a group singing and move to music. She may be asked “to identify colors or shapes, or to explain scenes in a picture book.” In any case, she should express herself well during the interview while making eye contact.

Being able to do all that isn’t enough. To quote again Miss Bingley, “and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expression, or the word will be but half deserved.” For one-and-a-half years old, confidence is the key to get in. Even at this tender age, being shy is a disadvantage.

Another similarity to Jane Austen’s world is the weight given to one’s family. Having suitable parents is an important factor in nursery’s decision process. The competition is so intense, that an erudite toddler may be rejected if his parents do not convey the right impression. I don’t know whether parents take preparatory classes, but many interviewers watch them more closely than the child. If the parents seem to be very pushy, it’s automatically a ‘No‘.

Reading on, I was curious what is going to happen to these toddlers – the few who will get into the top nurseries and the majority, who will have a rejection in their resume before their second birthday. The article, however, doesn’t say what happens during or after the interview. It cites experts advising parents to ease the pressure on their toddlers, then ends by stressing the high-stakes and the low odds. Suspiciously absent is the word “failure”. It seems that parents are generally hopeful and determined, but aren’t particularly concerned that their kids may fail down the road if they won’t get the head-start of good schools. This article’s avoidance of the topic makes me uncomfortable. A FALURE (in capital letters) is scary. Fearing it may be at the root of some of parents’ obsessiveness.

“I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty.” J.K. Rowling said in Commencement Address at Harvard (2008). Her speech was titled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”:

“They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.”

Opposed to success, failure is rarely mentioned, let alone publicly discussed. Parents dread it so much that they outsource their kids’ upbringing to experts in prestigious institutions. Children quickly learn to hide their insecurities from bullying peers and prying eyes of grown-ups, to act confidently regardless of what they feel. Naturally, their fictional role models are cheeky and resilient. Again, it takes J.K. Rowling to allow the cleverest student in Hogwarts to succumb to fear of failure:

“Hermione did everything perfectly until she reached the trunk with the Boggart in it. After about a minute inside it, she burst out again, screaming.
‘Hermione!’ said Lupin, startled. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘P-P-Professor McGonagall!’ Hermione gasped, pointing into the trunk. ‘Sh-she said I’d failed everything!’
(From Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

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