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.

Ms. V. (South Korea)

Ms. V returned from a 3-year stint in Seoul, South Korea and is now living in the US in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her partner, their two kids, three ferocious felines, and a dog named Avon Barksdale. She grew up all over the US, mostly along the east coast, but lived in New York City longer than anywhere else, so considers NYC “home.” Her love of travel has taken her all over the world and to all but four of the 50 states. Ms. V is contemplative and sacred activist, exploring the intersection of yoga, new monasticism, feminism and social change. She is the co-director and co-founder of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center, a non-profit yoga studio and the spiritual director for Hab Community. While not marveling at her beautiful children, she enjoys reading, cooking, and has dreams of one day sleeping again.

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