September 28, 2023


Savvy business masters

Commentary: Home-based learning can be an opportunity to rethink parenting

SINGAPORE: We saw the writing on the wall, or we should have, when several weeks into DORSCON Orange, centre-based tuition and enrichment classes had to be suspended in order to reduce intermingling of students from different schools.

This wave of precautionary measures was met with relief and praise from some and slight panic from others as enrichment centres had to make a quick transition from classroom-based lessons to online ones: Music lessons over FaceTime, ballet coaching over Zoom.

Despite these efforts, the situation didn’t bate and the Ministry of Education announced that they were going to institute home-based learning (HBL) for all students. Once a week for the month of April.

That first day, social media was rife with photos of children at laptops and tablets; small, eager, earnest faces, each working on a liturgy of tasks vis-a-vis their Student Learning Space (SLS) and on pre-assigned worksheets.

Invariably, along with the pat-on-the-back posts, came the rants on how HBL was too disruptive, too exhausting for parents who have their own work to do. Some even mused that teachers must be having a relaxing day off now that parents have taken over for the day.

As the national COVID-19 numbers continued to rise, parents and educators clamoured for the government to do more, to close the schools. And so, that came to pass.


On Friday (Apr 3), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced to the nation that we were entering a stage of heightened measures, as a circuit breaker, which will see schools and institutes of higher learning turn towards HBL for a month. Employers too, barring those that provided essential services, were told to allow their staff to also work from home (WFH) during this period.

READ: Commentary: E-learning sees no smooth sailing in Malaysia and Indonesia

READ: Commentary: How to sabotage your child’s future – five dangerous notions about life, careers and education

Some lauded the move. Others decried how inconvenient things would be for them. How would parents work from home when their kids were going to be home as well?

In the weekend that followed, all hell would break loose.

Crazy queues formed all over the place. A mad scramble to stock up on assessment books at Popular Bookstore to board game buying sprees at Toys R Us. Over at Challenger stores nationwide, tablets became the new toilet paper and laptops the new rice.

Popular Novena

A queue forms outside Popular bookstore in United Square shopping mall, Novena, Apr 4, 2020. 

Parents stood in long lines to get what they needed to weather the upcoming month where WFH bumps its head with HBL. Most understand the necessity of this drastic move. But few, it seems, actually seem happy at the prospect of hunkering down with their children for an extended amount of time.


We who were envious of friends who got to work from home because they seemingly get the best of both worlds, are starting to realise that the grass is always greener on the other side.

READ: Commentary: ‘BBC Dad’ has learnt a thing or two about working from home

Or is it, perhaps, that modern Singapore parenting makes it easy for us to simply outsource our children to school, to teachers, to the next better enrichment lesson, or even our helpers. We assuage our parenting guilt of needing our own space and personal time by convincing ourselves that our children are duly entertained and engaged.

The thing is this, the grass is greener on the side that one tends to and waters regularly. For all the crazy curveballs that COVID-19 has thrown at us, perhaps this is the one silver lining: We get to reset the clock. Not just on the ruthless rampage that is this insolent illness, but also on the relentlessness of modern parenting.

A psychiatrist friend shared a case he had of a school-going boy on the verge of a breakdown who tearfully lamented that his parents get weekends off but he has to spend much of his weekends shuttling between tuition centres with a tight 30-minute window to wolf down his lunch in the car.

READ: Commentary: Remote working promised freedom, but seems to be delivering the exact opposite

LISTEN: Home-based learning: Good, bad, terrible … but mostly good?

A survey done by the Straits Times and Nexus Link showed that seven out of 10 families enrolled their children in tuition classes, with nearly half starting at pre-school levels.

A separate Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study showed that Singaporean students experienced much higher levels of anxiety over their school grades and tests compared to their international peers.

In a country where 70 per cent of all students go for supplementary lessons, where the tuition industry is worth S$1.4Billion and the pressure to excel in sports and school is high; we have always lamented about the need to re-evaluate this pressure-cooker environment on students. Now is the chance – but how?

COVID-19 says, well, hold my beer.

Parent child parenting (1)

(Photo: Pixabay/StockSnap)

Still, this difficult season unwittingly gives us an opportunity to rethink how we want and should parent. It makes us re-engage our children, re-jig our lives to better suit our version of work-life balance.


It forces us to unpack our over-scheduled lives and re-examine the walls between work life and family life. It means that parents get to reclaim their role as the main purveyor and steward of our child’s education and well-being, instead of outsourcing it to schools and teachers as many of us have done.

I don’t mean that you now need to be able to decipher how many marbles Ali has left after giving two-thirds of his original stash to Samuel and dropping another 15 per cent down the drain.

It means that your children get to take lessons with and from you in the school of life; and you get to craft the syllabus. In this special term, the usual rules don’t apply and the points don’t matter.

So, teach them how to cook, that’s home economics right there. Show them how you balance the monthly grocery budget— hello maths! Exchange Spotify lists for music lessons.

And after “school time”, let them be bored, let them play without feeling the need to police, govern or facilitate learning through play. If it helps you feel better, there’s strong research that shows that boredom is good for kids, it builds creativity and allows the brain to fallow new ideas.

A piece in Psychology Today encourages what they call a Boredomutiny, a rewriting of the rulebook where bored children should not be seen as problems that need fixing, but considered a starting point to encourage unstructured exploration, contemplation and daydreaming that often spurs creativity. The same is true for adults.  

READ: Commentary: How prepared are parents for suspension of schools if that happens?

READ: Commentary: The joys and frustrations of home-based learning

And, really, if you are a WFH person and thus have to be around your HBL children, be grateful.

My neighbour is a doctor and she leaves her four children daily to battle on the frontline, leaving her helper the primary caregiver and chief supervisor in this time of HBL. Add to that, the anxiety and worry she carries almost perpetually of bringing the virus home to her family.

Other parents are home because they have lost their jobs or face reduced volumes of work. It’s hard to keep a brave face when the uncertainty bubbles from within and without.

So, the quick and dirty take-home is this: stop whining, stop nit-picking (especially at the teachers) and suck it up. There are ways for you to still be productive at work from home while your kids are on HBL.

It is a rare time where all the pithy life values we espouse is visible up close and personal: adaptability, flexibility, empathy, resilience, gratitude, the importance of being part of the solution and the power of vulnerability.

Our children learn what they live.

You see, we are enrolled in school with our children — welcome to a new term in the school of hard knocks, where we lead by example.

Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.

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