SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Parents face the preschool dilemma


My most vivid memories of kindergarten are from aged four, climbing on an old red fire engine in the playground; and the day I found the apple in my yellow-handled lunch box was rotten. That was 1973.
Therefore the concept of preschool for my son at two-and-a-half years old bothered me - at first. How could a child this age possibly gain more from preschool than going to the park or playing blocks with the neighbours?
But then, the world has changed. In 1973 - where we lived anyway - mothers did not work unless they were incredibly brilliant or duped by wayward and financially irresponsible husbands.
Every child on the street knew exactly whose mother was whom and children of all ages spent endless hours in and out of each other's gardens, swimming pools and living rooms. There was always some other kid ready to ride their tricycle while Mum prepared the dinner or surreptitiously caught up on Days Of Our Lives.
But that was 27 years ago. Now I, like millions of mothers worldwide, work and have children and in Hong Kong, couple that with a helper and the differences between then and now are glaring.
Furthermore, in Hong Kong - where the pursuit of academic excellence is highly ingrained in the culture - starting structured classes from the age of two is perfectly acceptable.
With many mothers working or undertaking personal pursuits due to the home help phenomena, many parents feel their children may need extra stimulation which a trained teacher can give while family is absent.
Of course, it depends on the child. Mine is particularly keen on interaction with others, noise, parties and so on, so it worried me that I was not providing him with the sort of games or activities he required when I was at work.
Take Carmen, a pragmatic mother of two. A new resident of Hong Kong from the United States, Carmen's son - almost three - attends a preschool on the south side of Hong Kong Island five mornings a week. For Carmen, the time spent apart means her son gets the extra social stimulation he requires when she is busy with her younger daughter.
When the time comes to pick him up, they are both looking forward to seeing each other.
"I know some people don't agree with me and they think he's too young. I don't think three hours away from me is going to be a huge problem. They learn independence and it gives them confidence - and we look forward to seeing each other," Carmen says. "The reason I started it was because it was obvious he needed more stimulation than I could provide for him."
Like many in Hong Kong, it seems a sensible choice to send your little ones to preschool, simply for the same reason my parents did not in 1973 - because that is what everyone else is doing.
"I think when we were growing up, no body else went to school [at that age]," Carmen says. "But the biggest thing I think it does give is socialisation skills. They learn a lot from watching other kids but with so many people working now there aren't all these kids running around."
Of course, it does depend on the child and, much of the time, if the mother or father is ready to leave their sometimes un-toilet trained child with a stranger for several hours a day.
Australian-born Sally also has two children - both girls. Her eldest is turning three and in the new year she is taking the step to send her to preschool - although it has not been a snap decision for Sally. "I still have my doubts, but I feel as though it's the right time in the new year. When we visited the preschools, she seemed happy when we were there and wanted to join in with the other children. That helped me make my decision."
For those still sitting on the fence in this competitively academic town, it might be wise to ask the parents of early preschool children what their experience has shown.
Carmen, for example, has noticed positive changes in her son: "The things that I've started teaching him at home are being reinforced outside the home, like washing your hands after the toilet and picking up after yourself."
Karen Ferris-Cole, who represents the Sunshine House Preschool (Discovery Bay and Tai Tam), understands that preschool for two-year-olds is not as commonplace in other countries.
"I think it is a unique society that we have here," Ferris-Cole says. "When you take into consideration that maybe both parents have taken the decision to work, they may wonder if their child is getting the stimulation they need.
"And they learn so much in those early years in areas that come along at a rate of knots."
For some, it is easy to rationalise that "we didn't have preschool at two and we're OK". But then we did all right without computers, too, but I don't fancy using a typewriter every day instead of my PC.
"It's an ever-changing world out there . . . our expectations have changed and we've learnt a lot about children in their formative years," Ferris-Cole says. "They have the ability to learn at a very fast rate."
In Hong Kong, there are many preschool options (such as Montessori), most teach another language through song and play, and the English Schools Foundation can help with inquiries.
Possibly one stumbling block for parents of children aged about two is the cost.
With monthly fees of around $5,000 for popular English-speaking preschools on Hong Kong Island - plus uniforms and bags - it may be reminiscent of your university fees.
Still, the price does not seem to be a turn-off.
"In terms of the cost, it's exorbitant . . . but on the other hand, I don't know if that's because it's Hong Kong and everything is outrageously priced here," says another mother of a preschooler.
"I still think it's worth it. It is pretty much what they all charge, so it's not like you'll find one cheaper than the other."