A few mornings ago, here’s what I read over breakfast in the local paper:
[C]ompared to the older generation…, young adults would rather stick to something that they are familiar with and can handle than take up new challenges. They also lack the tenacity to weather tough times—such as when they are unhappy at work—and will quickly look for greener pastures.
This criticism may sound familiar to American parents, we overprotective wimps who are supposedly raising a nation of passive, shallow, fraidy cats. The thing is, I was reading this piece in the Straits Times. My family has moved to Singapore for the spring, and I’m still culture-shocked enough to wonder whether they do things that differently here—or not.
In "The Young Singaporean Adult" by Ng Kai Ling and Stacy Chia, the illustration of a silhouetted young man is tagged with these labels: "risk averse," "easily discouraged," "in a comfort zone," "doesn’t think outside the box." The story hook is a recent cautionary speech that Education Minister Heng Swee Keat gave to students at the Singapore Management University, based on "feedback" he’d received from a group of CEOs.
In the article, other experts explain that setbacks are good for the entrepreneurial soul; surviving adversity makes young workers "hungry" (a term that’s used repeatedly in this article). But Singaporean youths have only experienced the benefits of a strong economy, the argument goes; most have never had to struggle to make ends meet.
Americans, meanwhile, "learn to make decisions for themselves and take charge of their lives at a younger age," according to one HR director. He also claims that Singaporean parents "tend to support their children emotionally and financially even after they have graduated."
“It makes me wonder if I’m messing up.”
The irony is obvious. Trend stories about kids and parents—and what parents are endlessly doing wrong—are always parochial, embedded in a view of everyday life that’s anecdotal and prone to ethnic stereotypes. This story fascinates me precisely because it implies that well-to-do Singaporean parents hover as much as their Western counterparts.
Yet, after observing my ten-year-old son in Singapore this past week, it also makes me wonder if I’m messing up.
It’s the conundrum of raising affluent children. That HR director is comparing Singaporeans to Indian and Chinese students, although I’d say this has more to do with economic status than culture—not to mention basic personality.
In Singapore, even in the most westernized of districts, my Asian adoptee is clearly American. Physically, he may blend in; but he runs down the streets and says exactly what he wants, no matter how much we shush him. At lunch yesterday, we joked about this with one of my husband’s Chinese colleagues, who wryly observed, "He acts in charge."
So my child already has the entitled manner of a CEO. Except that ten-year-olds are not meant to be CEOs—yet. And I wonder if our own American affluence is wreaking havoc with his work ethic, with his ability to focus on true rewards rather than the instant gratification of glitzy baubles. In those ways, maybe he’s just like affluent Singaporean children.
For a kid who loves to shop, the glitz is tantalizingly on display in the wealthier areas of Singapore like Orchard Road, a many-block sprawl of luxe malls that feature everything from Gucci to Salvatore Ferragamo to Starbucks. On a recent Saturday night, crowds a hundred thick, mostly youthful and many in sleek designer clothes—glittery black sheaths and stiletto heels, leopard-skin patterned platforms and mini skirts—jostled in the tropical night.
My son is drawn to this Times Square brilliance mixed with cleanliness and order. He says he wants to retire here—or at least to this Orchard Road version of Singapore. My husband laughs, saying, "Retire? You haven’t even worked yet." My son grins—I know that, Dad—but I feel a sinking in my lefty soul.
Every day, I tell him no: No, you can’t have your own cell phone. No, you can’t eat more candy. No, you can’t buy another app for the iPad. It’s no no no in this consumer gallery of delights, yet the fact is, we aren’t forced to say no by financial circumstances. My husband and I have our own iPhones and computers, and our son watches what we do.
Yesterday, we took a quick subway hop to Little India, a district that’s far more colorful and much less swank. Our son didn’t like it. He was whiny, and I felt annoyed, quick to think of him as spoiled, pondering those same labels—"risk averse," "in a comfort zone"—until I realized they apply to me, too.
I like the ease of air conditioning, of water I can drink from the tap. More important, I’m slow to adjust to new places, as is my son. We aren’t related by blood, but this coincidence of personality sometimes feels profound.
Of course I’m a guilty American mom, susceptible to stern advice. I’m tempted, so very tempted, to buy into this bootstrapping rhetoric. But I also think children become who they are regardless. And for my son, being an adoptee likely fuels his native caution. "Risk averse" takes on new meaning when it’s framed without the baggage of business ideology. He’s always thinking and processing what he sees, creating the world for himself.
“I think children become who they are regardless.”
That’s why I’m caught between indulgence of his fierce little spirit and tough love. I want him to understand the value of money. I want him to be ambitious and disciplined. Yet, I can’t imagine flinging a well-loved child into the cruel world as a learning experience.
At least he won’t see me go hog wild at Prada. Soon I’ll be dragging him to the nature preserve here, to a temple or two. He’s watched me type away at the old laptop we share, as I’m doing now in the early hours while he sleeps. He often wants to write his own story—and in my book, the impulse to write makes him rich beyond measure.
For a more nuanced counterpoint to this Straits Times article, see "In Defense of Young Singaporean Adults."
"Joy of Congee" (Singapore breakfast with the Straits Times)
© Martha Nichols