My little one is finally sleeping through the night for the most part. I never thought this day would come. You may remember one of my very first posts with World Moms Blog in which I bemoaned the sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn. Now that he’s sleeping, you’d think that I would be well-rested, but unfortunately a year of constant sleep interruption seems to have led to a bit of a sleeping problem. I’m fortunate if I get 4-6 consecutive hours these days.
I was feeling very sorry for myself until I recently met a school teacher here in Seoul who told me that the kids she teaches in primary school are getting about the same amount. Reflecting back on my pre-pubescent school days I remembered a strict 8pm bedtime and a 7am alarm clock. That’s 11 hours of sleep. After school I had to do my homework and chores, and then I was free to play until dinnertime.
Here in Seoul and in other parts of Korea parents are incredibly invested, monetarily and otherwise, in the education of their children. Academic success is crucial. Many children attend public school from early morning to mid-afternoon, after which they go to an academy, called a hagwon, where they often stay until 9 or 10pm. Yes, you read that right.
After a full day of school they go to another school. Hagwon usually specialize in specific subjects, but sometimes cover the full gamut. Shortly after we moved here I remember reading in the paper that a law had recently been passed forcing these academies to close by 10:30pm since many of them were staying open until the wee hours of the morning.
So when do these children play? And sleep? Well, after they get home from the hagwon, they have to do their homework and whatever chores they have around the house. So, best case scenario, a lot of these children are not getting to bed until 1am. At 7am it starts all over again. This used to be the routine 6 days a week, but a law was recently passed that prohibits Saturday classes for primary and secondary school. The teacher I met told me that some schools have gone to an every other Saturday schedule, though. So, I guess the answer to when they sleep and play is simple: Sunday.
As she was telling me this it suddenly made sense that the two small children who live above us in our apartment building are often practicing piano at about 11pm. We don’t mind hearing it but we could never figure out why they were up so late. Now we know; they are probably just getting home from the hagwon.
I am by no means an expert on brain development or the sleep needs of children, but I do know that in order to learn we must be well-rested. If you glance at the statistics on world-wide standardized tests, such as PISA, you may conclude that South Korean children are not only learning, but learning well and better than many of their counterparts in other countries. South Korea has the highest rate of graduation from high school in the world (over 97%) and ranks in the top 10 for many core subjects.
South Korea’s focus on education has played no small part in this nation’s staggering rise as an economic powerhouse. The Korea of 50 years ago is virtually unrecognizable from what exists today, and much of that has to do with their education system.
Still, I’m not impressed. Standardized tests are not, in my opinion, a good measure of anything useful. It is one thing to have learned something and another thing entirely to have memorized it. Is school supposed to be about learning a specific set of facts on various subjects or is it supposed to be about learning how to learn? And is childhood supposed to be about preparing us for the workforce or for life?
While there are many wonderful things about South Korea, one thing that I will never be able to embrace is this preoccupation with a very narrowly-defined version of success.
Are our children successful when they can recite facts or are they successful when they enjoy learning new things? Are they successful when they get great scores on tests or when they adventurously explore new interests?
Now, when I wake up at 2am and have trouble falling back asleep I wonder how many school-age children in my building have just made it to bed or are maybe still up doing homework. Then I realize I don’t have it so bad.
This is an original post to World Moms Blog.
Photo credit to Angelina Creations. This photo has a creative commons non commercial license.
The pressure of academic success in Asia is astounding, isn’t it? I grew up with some semblance of what you describe, but not as much back in the 80s and 90s and my parents were a little bit more ‘casual’. But I still saw it with my peers, I see it with the kids these days. And it’s sad. I believe children should be well-rounded, to have time to play, involve themselves in sports and other extra curricular activities.
It really is astounding. I just can’t wrap my head around it, no matter how hard I try. And I agree – children need to be well-rounded!
Thanks for the comment!
Oh Lord! I agree with Alison, the pressure for Asian children are bewildering to my poor mommy brain. Here, a lot of children goes to after school enrichment programs and didn’t get home until late at night because of traffic and commute is pretty much a nightmare. I was so close to enrolled my son to a reading course because he must pass a reading test before he can even start Elementary School but thank God my mother told me “You never take those courses when you were little and you grow up just fine!”
I’d rather have my son do sports for his after school activities but no way he’s staying up that late. I’m a grumpy pants when I don’t get enough sleep so I can’t imagine those poor kids who goes without enough.
I know! Before I had a baby, I needed at least 9 solid hours to be even remotely pleasant. Not to mention, to function. I guess all the hormones or mommy super powers keep me pleasant on the small amount of sleep I get now, but I don’t know how these kids keep it together.
Thanks for the comment!
Small children learn through PLAY & they NEED a MINIMUM of 8 hours sleep per night! It’s extremely sad to know that there is such pressure put on young children in some parts of the world. 🙁
My son has finished school already and my daughter is in grade 10 (in South Africa you graduate at the end of grade 12). School is Monday to Thursday 8am to 2:30pm and Fridays 8am to 1:30pm. The Extra-Mural activities are optional extras.
We have always encouraged our children to take part in sport (or anything else THEY had an interest in) after school, but also encouraged them to have at least one “rest day” per week.
My personal opinion is that we shouldn’t force our children to excel just to make us proud. We should support them in trying their hand at as many different things as possible, in order for them to find out for themselves what they are talented at. For example, my son was only ever interested in computers when he was growing up. Now he works as a Website Developer and loves his job! My daughter took both guitar & piano lessons, but recently found out she’s more talented at sketching, photography & sculpting (which she only really started doing this year)!
I think we should encourage our kids to find their own passion … and excel at it because it’s what they love to do!
I agree! How will a child find their passion if we’re filling up all their time with things we think they “should” be doing?
Thanks for the comment!
How can children discover what it is that inspires them most if we are taking up all their time to be great at things that we choose for them? Children need time to explore the world and play. And sleep, so they can start all over again the next day!
This post brings to the question to the table of what it is that defines success in a society? Is it money? Is it prestige? Is it happiness? Is it how we treat others?
My kids are in bed by 8pm the latest, usually by 7:30pm. They have a lot of playtime. I try to choose activities for them based on their own interests. For example, my little one loves rolling a ball around and my older one is crazy about animals. The one thing I encourage that is not something that they did not choose is the introduction of a second language. Children have a language acquisition advantage at a younger age, and it is something that they can take with them throughout their life.
I don’t have a perfect recipe, but I do know at least that children need healthy sleep!
Intriguing post, Ms. V.!
Thanks Jen. I especially agree with what you say about the questions this raises – how is success defined? I think that is the million dollar question right there. I know for my own son, I hope to teach him that success is defined by how happy we are and how much we contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.
I also like your idea about requiring a second language. They’ll thank you for that later! I recently read that the First Lady, Michelle Obama, each school year lets the girls choose one extra-cirricular activity for themselves and she chooses the other one. And that’s all they do – just two. That seems reasonable to me!
Thanks for the comment!
It is nice to let the kids make some choices on their own. It prepares them for making strong choices in the future. I loved this post, Ms. V.!
Wow! I am blown away. Personally, I prefer more balance in my life. Makes me wonder what effects this will have on this generation of kids.
That’s a good question Jessica. Something I find very interesting about Korean society – they are obsessed with health and well-being but a ton of men smoke and they say that they have to to relieve stress. There is also a huge drinking problem here. Men are required to go out drinking with their bosses after work and this is all justified by the need to blow off stress. Of course kids growing up are observing all of this. So, yes, good question. Perhaps they will just handle the stress the same way their parents do.
Thanks for the comment!
It isn’t as extreme here in Japan as Korea seems to have gotten, but between juku (after school school,) activities, homework, etc. Japanese kids also seem to get very little play time. I put my kids (7and 5) to bed by 8 and won’t allow them to do any activities that interfere with that. But I’m the only person I know who is that strict about it….
I’ve always been against my kids going to juku, but since the local junior high has slipped a lot in quality and now has a very bad reputation, we are forced to consider sending the kids to private school, which means starting juku in third grade. It really isn’t a matter of if you will go to juku or not, so much as when you will start, because of the juken (entrance exams) looming over kids trying to get into JR high, high school, and then university. I wish public schools would do a better job preparing kids for jukenm but for whatever reason, it isn’t enough.
Japan also had Saturday school in public schools until about ten years ago. There is talk of them bringing it back. (Ugh.)
I have to agree with what you say about standardized exams being a poor way to compare countries. Especially considering in Japan that only the “academic” high schools (as opposed to industrial or agricultural ones) submit scores, and some kids with poor grades never make it to high school at all, the scores are artificially high because only the best are being tested.
Thanks for the comment Melanie and thanks for the insight into Japan’s education culture. I forgot to mention the exams in my post – yes, very important! Here in Korea it’s all over the front page of the paper, people are encouraged to keep the roadways clear so that none of the kids are late or have any trouble getting to their exams. The whole country stops and trains their eye on these kids. No pressure! Ha!
Wow! That is a simply grueling schedule. And I have no idea how these children are managing. I’ve been lead to believe that children REQUIRE at least 8-9 hours of sleep at night and that playing is crucial for social development. I imagine that’s a tough environment for you to raise your own kids in. Does it make you feel like you are somehow “underachieving” in comparison to the “hyper-achieving” (at least on certain dimensions) culture? It would drive me batty.
In Kenya there is also a huge emphasis on “time in school.” You see kids walking to school as early as 6 AM and coming home in the evening. Most attend on Saturdays as well and then during their school breaks (though this has been recently outlawed by the gov’t). But time in the classroom does not always translate to results, and school quality is incredibly variable.
Anyway, fascinating and very well-written article!
Thank you Mama Mzungu!
My son is only 15 months so I still have some time to feel like an underachiever. One thing I have noticed is that many moms, since they know that once their kids start school their childhood is effectively over, they keep them out as long as possible. So some kids don’t start this craziness until age 6 or so. That gives me time. But yes, I do worry.
I find this a deeply upsetting post. The stress on an adult’s body due to sleep deprivation has tragic long term consequences – what on earth is lack of sleep doing to these children? Besides, my children are simply foul if they don’t get enough sleep…!
I know! It is upsetting, isn’t it?
I do observe a lot of children struggling to stay awake. Especially on the subway as they travel between schools. Last week I was working at a coffee sh9p across the street from my apartment and a high school girl came in with her schoolbooks, ordered a tea, and promptly passed out and slept with her head on the table for three hours! I felt so terrible, but honestly glad she was getting sleep.