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Taiwan's Helicopter Parent


Taiwan’s six million "elicopter parents" are hovering, their noses in everything involving their kids. And while their influence is expanding, their impact may not be for the better.



Taiwan's Helicopter Parent

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 368 )

The New Breed

Helicopter parents are a new breed, a never-before seen group of overly involved, overly anxious parents who hover like helicopters over their children, monitoring their every move.

Taiwan is home to three million children between the ages of five and fourteen, as well as over one million preschoolers and high school students. Their parents make up an estimated population of six million (averaging 1.5 children per couple).

Born mostly between 1961 and 1976, these six million parents went through compulsory education or college around the time that martial law was lifted, and were trained to see educational achievement as the basis for all competition. For them, going to the top school means getting the top job.

Raised under strict parental guidance, they bore witness to a changing society, and are now attempting to approach parenting in a more liberal manner.

But these parents are also facing history's two largest parenting challenges.

Raising the “Perfect Child”

Challenge no. 1: concerns related to fewer children. Today's helicopter parents were raised mostly in families where parental attention was divided among four to five children, while the majority of today's parents have two children at most. The latest statistics show that today's women have an average of less than 1.2 children each, meaning that the attention of a large number of family members is focused on only a few children.

Challenge no. 2: the unprecedented impact of educational reform. The pre-teen and teenage children of helicopter parents are the first generation to be taught under Taiwan's first wave of educational reform. Like guinea pigs, they were forced to deal with the chaos of the reformed educational environment. Further complications such as the ruthless nature of competition under globalization and an uncertain job market have caused them to view parenting as an extreme sport.

Anxiety from Age Zero

Participation in this extreme sport begins at birth.

Su Hsiao-ning, a 32 year-old mother, is driving her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son from Taoyuan to Taipei. Back when her daughter was eight months old, Su had already scoured the Internet for courses for babies, “I don't want her to grow up watching TV,” she says.

She found educational resources in Taoyuan County unsatisfactory. Today, Su drives her children to Gymboree in Taipei three times a week. Her daughter also swims at Qilian and takes exercise classes held by the Cloud Gate International, a prominent local dance company.

She also writes a daily growth blog for her children. “Eight out of 10 mothers are creating websites for their children. A lot of them work on these websites at work.” She has even had beautiful name cards printed for her daughter, and has studio photos of her children taken every year.

Like managing a project, childhood education begins from birth, as parents apprehensively fill their children's' lives with different forms of stimulation. And the market has responded to their needs with toddler versions of many adult-learning systems.

In the past, educational excursions abroad began in high school. Today, many cram schools and private schools are organizing all kinds of such overseas study tours during summer and winter vacations. One well known private school has even organized science tours to NASA. Consultants have also sprung up who perform aptitude analysis of babies' fingerprints to determine whether they are artists, leaders, etc.

Late at the Starting Gate?

National Yang-Ming University professor Daisy Hung recalls meeting one mother, also a working professional, who, having read in a book that contact with all types of materials, soft and hard, square and round, will ensure good sensory development, bought a stop watch so that her child could more effectively utilize his time. In 20-minute increments, the mother would move the child from Legos, to the sand pit, to other activities, as if directing military drills.

It is natural for parents to want to help their children develop by exposing them to different things. However, once you start treating learning as preparation for future competition, you have become a helicopter parent.

Scholars observe, that the greatest differences between parents in this generation and the one before are today's double salary and long work hours.

My Children May Stop Loving Me

In the day, working parents send their children to regular school, and afterward to cram school. Between 8 and 10 in the evening, all the family members drag their tired bodies home, and the parents, feeling guilty for being too busy, are often too accommodating when it comes to cultivating their children's living habits.

Parents are able to hire tutorial organizations to fill their shoes as education supervisors. But there is no substitute for home life, and parents eager to show love to their children often become their undemanding and compliant “friends” instead.

One working mother imposed a limit of one hour per day for her child to play video games, but gave up after only a few days, when her elementary school-aged son stopped speaking to her. “I'm afraid that he won't love me anymore if I take away his computer,” she says, sadly.

Parent Power

Helicopter-style parenting affects not only the home, but also the campus.

In 1994, teacher's educational requirements were liberalized and diversified, allowing college graduates from any university to be hired as junior high school teachers if they have earned 26 education-related units, and elementary school teachers if they have 40 units. Principal Tsai Siou-yuan laments that since this process began, teachers have become less professional, and their status has plummeted. The structure of teacher qualification has transformed the face of education, while helicopter parents are changing the nature of campuses.

As campus authority slackened following the 1994 reforms, parents joined in the fray. In early 2000, a series of local governments established regulations spelling out parents' rights to take part in school administration.

Involvement is particularly heavy with urban parents. Parents who send their children to prominent schools are often equipped with the “three highs” – high education, high income, and high status – and are oftentimes far better educated than the teachers.

“A lot of parents with high educational achievements think that having experience as a student and getting a doctorate mean they understand education,” one school principal remarks with a sense of helplessness.

How powerful are parents? We have only to take a look at their volunteer organizations. In the past, campuses were the domains of teachers and students. Now, they are also the homes of parent association offices, and mothers can also be seen helping out in every corner of the school from morning to night.

At Dunhua Elementary School, for example, the 300 mothers in the parent association far outnumber the teachers, and they have gone as far as to hire seven private security personnel to maintain surveillance during school hours.

At present, many elementary and intermediate schools have parent representatives and contacts for every class, like another official organization assisting with class and school operations. Parent organizations assist with everything from field trips to uniform designs, to supervising lunch menus.

Teachers' Authority Dwindles, Parental Authority Rises

Teachers, administrators and parents are supposed to work together, each in their roles as professional educator, professional administrator, and loving parent, to ensure proper childhood development. But now, mutual distrust is common, and frequent, excessive parental involvement in campus affairs has taken precedent over school operations.

Principals and teachers from campuses located near Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, Academia Sinica and National Taiwan University have the common complaint that parents are tough to deal with—they get involved in test questions and teaching styles, lording it over the teachers as if they are high-level directors.

A ban on corporal punishment was added to the Education Fundamental Law at the end of 2006. Ke Wen-Xian, president of the Taipei Teachers' Association believes that because of this joint effort on the part of parents to challenge teachers' authority, many teachers only dispense instruction, but no discipline.

All these factors have fueled a wave of retirement among teachers. In 2001, less than 7000 teachers retired from public intermediate and elementary schools. By 2004, retirement numbers peaked at over 9000; a total 46,793 teachers have retired over the past five years.

The dwindling of teacher authority and consequent rise in parental authority has brewed great distrust between these two greatest factions in the educational system.

Principal Yao Rong-hua of Taipei Mintsu Junior High frequently encounters parents who claim, “Flag-raising is a superfluous activity – children should stay out of the sun,” or “Staying indoors to study is a much better activity.” Parents have even demanded that students not be required to wear uniforms on field trips, threatening to take the school to court if their demands were not met.

Kids Must Succeed on Their Own

Helicopter parents have changed the state of the educational food chain: Parental beliefs have changed teachers' attitudes, and that in turn has affected children's motivation.

As public education grows less capable, family relationships grow strained.

Research shows that overly anxious parents raise overly anxious children.

This is a battle of values, and helicopter parents are trapped by their love for their children. Thus blinded, they believe that love means they must remove all of life's hurdles in helping their children to succeed, when, in fact, the value of love lies in teaching your children the right set of values.

“Our anguish rises from not truly accepting our children,” observes Larry Chen, chairman of DuPont Taiwan, who has personally witnessed the hardship of parenting under the current educational system. And once parents come to truly believe that all children are unique individuals, and all are valuable, they will learn to accept them and loosen the reins. The members of the National Alliance of Parents Organization jointly penned the following:

When our child was born,

We promised to love him for as long as we live.

But have we kept that promise?

A decade of educational reform in Taiwan has created a host of helicopter parents. At this critical juncture, parents and society need to take a moment to reflect on their actions.

Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman