The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Singapore's stressful education system.

I saw a sign today, of Singapore's stressful education system. It was a head of grey hair. Perhaps you don't think that is anything particularly unusual - but this head of grey hair was on a sixteen year old schoolboy.

That gave me pause. What could have prompted a sixteen year old to have more grey hair than many men in their fifties? One word came to mind: stress.

Singapore's education system is famous for two things: the extreme emphasis on "results" at all costs - and the attendant stress that goes with securing them. What effect could this have on children? This boy's head of hair gave me a clue.

He was a Chinese boy, who should, at his age, have a head of black hair - instead of which he had a mixture of black and grey. The grey was plentiful. Now, I am decades older than him, and I don't have any grey hair, yet, so seeing him with so much, was a surprise to me.

I did a little research to see if there is any justification in the belief that stress causes hair to grey - and it seems that there is. A retrospective study among patients at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore showed that those who had endured stress for two to three years went grey faster than those who had not.

I have never seen a person in their mid-teens with as much grey hair as this boy had, today. That he is a student in the Singapore system provides a possible explanation. At the very least I would think that it is a contributory factor in his early greyness.

His grey hair was not all that I noticed. He looked tired too. He had the sunken eyed look of too many late nights and early mornings. His skin looked unhealthy, as well - somewhat thickened and not as elastic as I would expect for someone of his age. In short, here is a boy who is aging fast: stress does that.

Education is meant, in most countries, to be a preparation for life. It should not, I feel, be at the expense of life - or health, for that matter.

Countries with less stressful education systems do not seem to be less successful than Singapore (the UK, Ireland, Australia etc...): so perhaps it would be of benefit to have a somewhat more relaxed system, here. Grades are great - but not if they cost your child their health. What they need, instead, is a warm environment, friendly people around them, and a good night's sleep: every night.

Now, that is the recipe for a happy nation.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and five months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and ten months, and Tiarnan, twenty-seven months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:51 PM 


Anonymous Jackson said...

I agree that Singapore's education system is stressful and focuses too much on academic results rather than overall physical and mental development. For example, few years ago I went back to my college to receive my A'level results. To my shock, my teacher refused to shake hands with me because I was the only student without As. I got Bs and Cs.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous djohn said...

8) 1 word came to my mind genetics.

but i have to agree the school system is retarded due to the sec 2 streaming i was forced into taking history and geo my weaker subjects even tho i topped the school in scienec in sec 1 and came in 2nd in sec 2...

the reason for this pple who wanna take sciences must be good in chinese, geog lit and history. so they can drop them and take science does that make sense to you?
doing my masters in science now so thats all under the bridge...

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the grey hair in youths were truly due to stress, I think that grey hair would then be much more widespread. But you've been in Singapore for so many years and did not see a head of grey hair on a youth till now, despite how stress is prevalent among our youths. He's an extreme minority occurrence, which probably means that the 16 year-old boy in question has a genetic aberration that caused the grey hair - not stress.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anonymous,

That stress causes premature greying is established. It accelerates aging, too, by shortening the telomeres in the cells (a sort of biological clock ticking down to death).

What we don't know about this particular boy is what stress he is under. He may have a highly stressful home life AS WELL as a highly stressful school life - this would take an unusual toll on him.

Typical estimates, according to my reading, of the acceleration of the greying of hair are five to ten years earlier, for a common level of stress. That this boy was grey at sixteen could indicate either a genetic condition - and/or unusual stress and/or a lower level of ability to cope with the stress load compared to others.

Given what we know (ie. not much) we cannot say for sure what particular mix of factors he has.

Thank you for your comment.

By the way, he didn't have the appearance of some with progeria (a rapid aging disease).

9:10 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Jackson,

I am appalled to hear of your teacher's refusal to shake your hand. By any normal yardstick you did well in your exams: only in a world where it is perfection or nothing, could such an incident ever occur. Your teacher quite clearly didn't have a heart (and shouldn't really have been a teacher).

It is the WHOLE child that counts: not the pieces of paper.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Djohn,

I agree that there should be more inherent flexibility in the system with people being able to pick subjects to better match their true natures.

Best wishes

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am from an elite boys school in Singapore.I am 14 years old and my classmates have a head of white hair. In my school it is not uncommon to see secondary school students with white hair and "panda eyes" .I agree that the Singapore education system is indeed too stressful.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is disturbing that white hair and "panda eyes" should be so common in your school. It shouldn't occur at all in 14 year olds. It is an indication that many are under too much stress and that their health has been compromised as a result.

I hope you find a means to relax amidst it all.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a singaporean mom who's currently overseas. I have a gal who's turning 5 this yr n a 3 yr old boy. They r currently in an american intl school. I have friends coming to tell me, i should get my gal prepared for P1 registeration next yr. Friends who have kids a yr younger than my gal or same age. Its really scary to know what they put they kids into to get them 'PREPARED' for Primary 1. "Kumon, Chinese tuition, Shichida, English phonics etc..e list goes on...Come on people, e kid has barely started their childhood. They should be learning happily... Learning thru play.

I do not deny that i hv a choice now, cos i'm not in Singapore. But its really disturbing to know what my kids will go thru when we are posted back to Singapore. The education system is really a Killer!! I actually heard P1 student having to do presentation thru PowerPoint with parents help...Halo educators, wake up!!! What is the purpose of a difficult task when the job is ultimately completed by the parents? Makes no sense! I really hope something can be done.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree. Kids should be free to play...all this tutoring is ridiculous. None of my children have ever had tutors.

Good luck on finding a better way for your kid. Perhaps you could stay overseas?

7:08 PM  
Blogger Cai Yun said...

I agree that the education system in Singapore is really stressful, i had mild depression even a year ago because of the need to get perfect grades.

8:29 PM  

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