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 +

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The dangers of a kiasu mentality.

Somewhere, in Singapore, as I write at 10.30 pm, there is a child at work. This child is nine years old, and still has hours of homework to do. Every day, when he comes home from a full day at school, he is required, by his mother, to start upon his homework. This can take an hour or two. Once this is done, you would have thought that his efforts would be over for the day...but no, they are just beginning.

After this little boy has finished his official homework, his mother sets him more homework. This second round of parentally appointed homework tends to require more time, more effort and more thought than the work he is required to do for school. The mother calculates that he should have enough homework to keep him busy until midnight, at the least.

Some nights there is too much homework. Some nights his mother overdoes the extra homework and the little boy is unable to finish it before midnight. Does the mother then let him sleep, for school in the morning? No. He is required to work on, until he finishes, sometimes not until one or two a.m.

Once the boy awakes, at perhaps five thirty a.m., from too short a sleep, he is off to school, for another full day at school, knowing, all the while, that home will be no respite. When he returns home, an endless evening of homework awaits him.

This is a nine year old boy's life, in Singapore. It is also a true story.

Now, how do you think this endless round of academic demands and incessant home and schoolwork makes this boy feel? What is his young life like? Is it a happy one? Is he stressed? Will he grow up with fond memories of his "childhood"? Will he know what it is like to play with friends? Will he ever have any friends? How long will he be able to keep up the pace before he can no longer go on?

This last question is of particular relevance because there is something I have not yet told you about this real life young boy. He has a pacemaker. That is right: he has an electronic device inside his chest, keeping his heart going at times when it feels like stopping.

This little boy, who lives a life of incessant homework and endless school days, and never ending academic demands, has a heart problem. The question is: did his stressful academic life cause his heart troubles? Is his parentally imposed way of life in danger of killing him? I am not privy to the cause of his heart problems and whether his stressful schooling is actually the cause - but it is clear that his daily late nights and endless study sessions cannot be helping his health. It is even possible that this rigorous "education" will lead him to an early death.

So, why is his mother doing this to her son? She says that she wants to make sure that her son "gets a good job" when he grows up. She seems to have overlooked the fact that she is greatly impairing his chances of ever living long enough to grow up in the first place, with her educational regimen.

This boy never sleeps a proper night's sleep. He never rests. He never plays. He is ever working, endlessly scribbling, never ceasing to cover pages with his jottings. He knows nothing of life, but that of the answering of workbook questions, the learning of school material, the solution of maths problems, and the like. He is ever tired, ever wishing to sleep - and on top of all this, he has a heart that could stop at any minute, were it not for a pacemaker keeping him alive.

This is a Singapore schoolboy's life. This is the result of the kiasu ("afraid to lose") attitude of the parents. It seems to me, in this case, to be no coincidence that "kills" and "kiasu" both begin with "ki...", for surely this regimen could kill this boy.

This is just one case of kiasu parenting that I have come across. No doubt Singapore is filled with variants on this tale. I rather feel it is time to set aside the kiasu mentality. It does nothing to ensure the future of Singapore and its people - but rather does much to ensure that they will suffer too much to have much of a future.

If this boy survives his childhood - which, I would have thought is far from certain - he will have had one of the most unhappy of childhoods he could have had. I very much doubt whether he will become a balanced, happy, contributing adult. It is more likely that he will spend the rest of his life (if he survives) trying to overcome the damage done to him by the childhood he endured.

The most poignant thing about all of this, perhaps, is that the mother will have convinced herself that she is showing "love" of her boy, by trying to ensure that he has the brightest possible future. Perhaps she should settle for giving him the nicest possible present. After all, this particular boy may not even live to see that future she imagines - especially if she continues to ignore his health needs, as she is.

So, if you ever feel yourself overcome with a wave of kiasu-ness, please think on this Singaporean story of a schoolboy. Do you want your kid to have this kind of childhood?

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight 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 @ 10:22 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

My friend showed me an article that appeared in The Straits Times. A reporter did a survey with 100 randomly selected junior college/secondary school students, and out of these 100 students, 97 have private tutors. That is an alarming statistic. (Although the sample size is rather too small to paint a completely accurate picture, I believe that this is not too far from the truth.) One parent said that she didn't want to hire a private tutor for her child at first, because her child has always been doing reasonably well in school; but her child complained that his results were lagging behind that of his classmates, all of whom have private tutors. In the end she decided to hire a tutor for her child so that he would be able to catch up. Private tutors interviewed by the reporter also mentioned that, nowadays, those who seek their help are not only those who are barely passing their exams, but also those who are already getting 70 or 80 marks. One tutor enjoys so much business that he earns around S$20,000 per month.

I believe that stories like yours do indeed take place in Singapore. I've come across many peers whose parents exert an appalling amount of pressure on them. I feel lucky that my own parents are not so morbidly kiasu. I only had tuition for English when I was in primary school, because both my parents cannot speak or write that language. Throughout my academic life, I've always been given the freedom to study at my own pace.

I would say that the mother in your story doesn't care about her son's interests - she cares only about her own. It takes sheer callousness on her part to put her son through so much suffering when he already has a heart affliction. She probably wants her son to grow up to be a successful individual (and she defines success using good results, ignoring other important aspects like social skills, leadership qualities, etc., that a truly successful individual should also excel in; and these skills/qualities her son will not be able to develop given his imprisoned life) who earns a fat salary every month tolling in a respectable profession, so that she can show off to her friends and relatives, "Look, my son is such a talented young man."

If, unfortunately, her son does pass away early, I wonder if he would feel lucky (for he wouldn't have to suffer anymore) or sad.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Miao. The ironic thing about what that mother is doing is that, by preventing her son from developing the full range of social skills that are necessary to success she is making it more likely that he will be a failure. Her son not only loses his childhood...he will lose his adulthood, too, through not being able to cope with the social requirements of normal life.

Thanks for your comment.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

out of 100, 97 have private tutors and at least 2 lied. These days, those who could not afford tuition(or tons of enrichment\assessment books) will have difficulty reaching A levels. Maybe 1 or 2 (out of 100) exceptional ones that gets on national newspaper as proof of our meritocracy.

Mr Valentine ... are u really from the education system in Singapore? You just described the typical day of a 9 year old student and you expect a reaction?

"Teach Less Learn More" you know.
"I(MOE) teach less ... but you have to learn more ( for exams) .. from your private tutors". Kids are expected to write simple compositions when they enter P1.

Actually, if a child does badly in school, he\her will have to suffer inferiority complex for the rest of his\her life. "Children Not stupid". They are well aware of the class\caste system. Straight As (Band 1) students are treated as precious resources(the principals' promotion depends on them! ditto ability of schools to attract the best students). Those at the bottom ... and just in case u are not aware of the cruel joke ... ITE means "Its The End".

PS: Of course I have a cousin who went to ITE. He is doing great as a hairstylist ... in London.


4:39 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

While it's important to learn skills and techniques that can later be used in the professional world, parents and teachers must remember:

Science does not begin in the lab but in an original thought, idea, or perspective.

Music does not occur through well-trained fingers but from the soul.

Writing does not develop by fine penmanship but fine feeling and life experience.

In other words, no one "gets ahead" by sitting in a room and studying, every day, all day. Technical mastery without substance looks like a frame without a picture. It is incomplete. Useless. I recently watched a piano concert, and while I won't mention the musician's name, the performance was robotic and devoid of human connection.

Some individuals may benefit by practicing less and living more.

I agree with Miao. The mother in this story is not putting her son first. I'm surprised she is not in jail. The endangerment of the health or life of a child is a serious matter, and any "morbid kiasu" should be outlawed.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, No Name, for the second time, I have worked in the education system here for some time. The tale above comes from someone who knows the kid in question.

I am surprised at this kid's regimen for two reasons: firstly, no kid should ever live like that; secondly, he has a serious heart problem. That he could be treated like that appalled me.

The other reason I am surprised is that my children - including my prodigious eight year old - spend almost all of their time playing. They do not spend their time doing schoolwork. So, the contrast with how my kids live could not be greater.

I would hope to see every child in Singapore brought up in a more balanced way.

Kind regards

6:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree Shannon, in most developed countries the mother concerned would attract the interest of the Law...and be incarcerated or have her child taken away. However, in Singapore, such situations are not uncommon: the parents seem to think they have to drive their children with a fury. Poor kids.

You are right about the value of life itself. My children spend very little time formally studying...but much time just living a child's life. Even my prodigy son spends almost all his time playing (counter to the views most people would have about the life of such a child. When he learns, he learns quickly and this affords him more time to just all kids should.)

Best wishes

6:31 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

No Name, another factor to remember about my perspective is that I was educated in London. Thus, I have seen and felt another way to be educated and am making a direct comparison. The British system is much more relaxed and children there actually have a life. I think it is better than what I observe here, for many reasons.

Best wishes.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just checking cos I would expect even expats to fit into the system rather quickly. And as some1 in the system, you should know that the typical response in the education ministry is to constantly raise the bar. so as to seperate the creme from the chaff. At age of 9 (selection for "gifted" kids). Otherwise, if every1 is special, then no one is. And of course, you need to be "best" in the various standardised tests (but Foreign Talents .. like ur kids .. exempted of course)

To put it crudely, after being in a toilet for a while you sort of get used to the stink.

Oh, you and your kids have the option to packup and go. Most singaporeans dun have that luxury. Of those who does, many have left.


11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic but sort of explains. See link

Just to let u know that there actually are articulate Singaporeans out there (when they are not in the counry).


11:24 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

No Name, I get the impression that they don't really understand what the results of this system are. I don't see creative, independent thinkers coming out of it. I see people who need to be told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. That seems to ensure that Singapore's future will be a moderate one and not a great one.

Best wishes.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I followed the link, No Name: his time abroad seems to have given him some perspective on the situation back home.


7:20 PM  

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