Isnin, 28 Oktober 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

New York parents eager to put kids through language lessons


Lessons begin as soon as tots start babbling.

THE pursuit of educational excellence is so competitive in New York that some babies are given personal tuition in French and Chinese, and four-year-olds are hothoused for the best schools.

Some of the richest, most competitive, most fashionable parents on the planet leave no stone unturned in the fight to provide their children with the upper hand.

Babies who cannot even form sentences in their native English are signed up to "baby and me" lessons in Chinese or French in the ultra-trendy TriBeCa neighbourhood of Manhattan.

At Tribeca Language, the lessons are open to tots as soon as they start babbling.

In one, a French teacher sings a well-known French nursery rhyme to nine-month-old twins sitting under a "baby gym" on a mat with their American mother.

The teacher then guides them through a game with little doors illustrated with pictures of rooms in a house, behind which are animal figurines.

"Where is the rabbit? In the sitting room!" she says in French, opening one of the little doors.

Maurice Hazan, the founder of Tribeca Language, says when he moved to New York 20 years ago, he realised there was a huge market in introducing children to foreign languages as early as possible.

In a city where 37.2% of the residents were born overseas, many richer than average parents want their children to be bilingual even if mum and dad are not.

Wealthy parents are also influenced by research suggesting that growing up bilingual can have a positive impact on memory and early learning.

With the global rise of the Chinese economy, Chinese is currently the most in demand, but French still holds the enviable association of being seen as chic, Hazan says.

"We want her to develop cognitive skills and an ear for language to set her up for loving the exploration of language and cultures going forward," says one mother of a four-year-old girl who has been at the school for two years.

Learning a foreign language also bulks out applications for the best elementary schools, where a baby boom has made the competition for places fiercer than ever.

To get into the best private schools, where tuition can top US$40,000 (about RM120,000) a year, children as young as four are subjected to rigorous tests.

Middle-class parents who can't afford private education face an equally competitive fight to get their children into the best public schools.

Children must go to local elementary schools, but after that they vie for places at the best junior and high schools across the city.

"I would move in a heartbeat (to be next to a good school) if I could, but I can't afford it," says Lee Berman, a government worker and father of two girls aged seven and 10.

In the Lower East Side, a gentrifying neighbourhood of Manhattan, public schools are terrible, he says.

He did everything to get his daughters into the "gifted and talented" (G&T) programme at their school that offers higher quality teaching.

Until 2008, children were selected by their head teachers, but now they take a written test – for which parents stump up cash for private coaching.

Since they were four, Berman's daughters have gone to Bright Kids, which offers phone apps for US$35 (RM105), "boot camp" for US$400 (RM1,200) or private lessons for US$200 (RM600) an hour.

Although they are already in a G&T programme, Berman says their school is badly run, and he wants them to pass a new test to get into a more prestigious G&T school run by the city.

He recognises that it is a lot of pressure at a young age.

"To say whether your child is brilliant even when they can't read yet, many people say that's ridiculous," he says.

The aim is "not that they answer everything right but that they get used to the test", Berman says as his younger daughter learns to solve logical problems on a tablet with her tutor.

Bright Kids, which opened in 2008, already has 200 teachers at five different locations across New York.

Andrew Peterson, a Bright Kids teacher, says very young children who refuse to concentrate or sit down force a good teacher to get their attention "in a fun way".

He also needs to manage the expectations of parents and make them accept that "even if their child scores in the 98th percentile and not in the 99th percentile, they are still very bright". – AFP

Are Swedish kids getting too powerful at home?


In child-centred Sweden, fear of 'brat-ocracy' rears its head.

SWEDEN had a head start in the good parenting debate as the first country to outlaw smacking but some argue that its child-centred approach has gone too far and children now rule the roost.

"In some ways Swedish kids are really ill-mannered," David Eberhard, a leading psychiatrist and father of six, said.

"They shout if there are adults speaking at the dinner table, they interrupt you all the time and they demand the same space as adults."

Eberhard recently published a book entitled How Children Took Power which argues that over the years Swedes have effectively extended their 1979 smacking ban – now adopted in more than 30 countries – to a ban on correcting children in any way.

"Of course you should listen to your children but in Sweden it's gone too far. They tend to decide everything in families: when to go to bed, what to eat, where to go on vacation, even what to watch on television," he said, adding that the permissive approach to child-raising leaves young Swedes ill-equipped for adulthood.

"Their expectations are too high and life is too hard for them. We see it with anxiety disorders and self-harming, which has risen dramatically."

A question of culture

That view is contested by several experts including family therapist Martin Forster who says that on the whole Swedish youths still top international rankings of well-being.

"Sweden was very much inspired by ideas that children should be more in the centre and they should be listened to," he said.

"That children decide too much – that's a matter of values. Different approaches to parenting and children produce different cultures."

Nonetheless, there is a lively debate about how the approach has influenced schools with falling grades and complaints about rowdy classrooms.

"Two boys were swearing at each other – I didn't think seven-year-olds even knew words like that – and when I tried to intervene they swore at me and told me to mind my own business," said Ola Olofsson, a journalist at a southern Swedish newspaper, describing a visit to his seven-year-old daughter's classroom.

When he wrote a column about the chaos he witnessed at the school, the paper's website was inundated with hundreds of comments from exasperated parents and teachers.

One preschool teacher from Stockholm wrote that the four- and five-year-olds she teaches regularly say "You think I care!" when asked to do something.

"Just the other day a four-year-old spat at me when I asked him to stop climbing on some shelves," she added.

Parenting a political issue

But what is it that makes Swedish parenting different?

Family therapist Martin Forster says it's more of a political issue and that all the public debate about right and wrong may leave parents more confused than elsewhere.

Following a government inquiry on child welfare in 2010, a free parenting course, called All Children In The Centre, was offered by local authorities to support parents struggling with young children.

Its main message is that punishing children does not make them behave in the long run and setting boundaries is not always the right approach.

"If you want a child to co-operate the best way is to have a close relationship so the child will want to co-operate with you," said psychologist Kajsa Loenn-Rhodin, one of the architects of the course, rejecting the idea that children have taken over.

"I think it's a bigger problem when children are treated badly ... when there's harsh parenting," she said.

Marie Maerestad and her husband took the course in Stockholm in 2012 when their daughters were aged two and three. At meal times the children often ran about and pushed toys around the kitchen table.

"We found we were nagging them all the time, they were fighting a lot ... we had a lot of disputes in the morning when it was time to get dressed," said the energetic 39-year-old personal trainer.

"Our youngest would have tantrums and nothing worked. ... We had a pretty tough time so we thought it would be a good idea to get some tips and advice," she added, pouring coffee as her daughters played with Lego on the birchwood floor of their suburban house.

She said the course helped them "pick their battles" and communicate better with the children – but she added that children do often tend to dominate in Swedish homes.

"You can see it with many of our friends; it's the children who are in charge ... it feels like that."

The Maerestads with their daughters at home. The couple attended a parenting course last year and found it useful in improving communication with the children.

The Maerestads with their daughters at home. The couple attended a parenting course last year and found it useful in improving communication with the children.

Parents are not pals

Hugo Lagercrantz, a professor of paediatrics at Karolinska University Hospital, believes Swedish parenting owes a lot to the country's emphasis on democracy and equality.

"Swedish parents try to be too democratic. ... They should act like parents and take decisions and not try to be popular all the time."

However, Lagercrantz also sees an upside to the Swedish approach.

"Swedish children are very outspoken and can express their opinions," he said, adding that the country's tradition of equality helped spawn homegrown multinationals like H&M and Ikea, known for their flat management style, where there are fewer layers of middle management.

"Sweden is not very hierarchical and in some respects that's very good, it's one of the reasons why the country is doing fairly well economically." – AFP


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