Helping our two daughters build firm foundations through their school years

Helping our two daughters build firm foundations through their school years

By James Kwok, M Soc Sc (Swinburne, Victoria, Australia)

edited by Vivian & Victor Sng


My wife and I have two daughters, now aged 35 and 30, who did their first degrees in Singapore’s NUS & NTU, and their second degrees in Australia’s University of Melbourne. Back in Singapore, they are now both on government service, the elder girl as an assistant director (who is married to an engineer and has 2 children), and the younger a lecturer, who has just married another lecturer.

They were not high flyers during their school years, and many times my dear long-suffering wife fretted over their ‘scary’ results. I wasn’t so fearful as when I was a school teacher I had seen worse. Also, I have been keeping in touch with my school students from 1965 (my first year as a school teacher) and watching them through the years, I can see that school exam results are not reliable predictors of how they will end up in later life. One of the brightest sparks has ended up in prison for a white-collar crime, while a ‘never-bloom’ is now a happy grandfather who lives in a condo bought with the profits he earned from the hard work he did in his provision shop.

However, when both my daughters’ “A” level results were below their own expectations, I began secretly to harbour fears that they won’t do well in future. Yet at the same time, somehow I was confident that their foundation was strong enough to help them through.

Like other parents, we wanted our daughters to score, to shine, to succeed, but we did not want them to feel that they were being forced to excel for our sakes. We wanted them to be happy with school, to be self-motivated, to enjoy learning for themselves, in school and out of school later in life.

What we did was to help them (especially when they were younger) to plan their time at home, setting proper priorities for homework, revision, rest, recreation, and Chinese tuition. When they needed assistance with their lessons, I explained principles without helping them with the actual work. We reminded them that it is their responsibility to check their work for careless mistakes, because in the exams we would not be there to help them spot their errors.

Beyond that, we provided a learning environment at home, and we gave them our time.

We asked friends and colleagues for books and magazines which they had no more use of. Also, I searched classified ads for garage sales, especially those that mentioned books, and brought along our daughters to buy what we needed, and thus showed them how to apply lessons in recycling and economizing.

So in our flat, besides pre-owned furniture and electrical items, there were always copies of Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, and other picture magazines and books readily available. In addition, we had many atlases, so that each time we came across unfamiliar place names in the newspapers or television news, we could locate the place(s) mentioned. Atlases also contain much useful information, besides maps, that not many people bother to read or even look at.

We ourselves set examples for our girls: as we read, we shared with them inspiring stories from biographies, history books or Readers Digest; National Geographic photo-essays of people suffering under harsh regimes or natural environments; wonders of nature from picture books; and useful knowledge from atlases.

During those times of bonding and learning, and getting inspired and/or touched by what we had read and shared, we would brainstorm about what they would wish to do as adults, and how they could begin working towards those goals. This way they discovered for themselves that they needed to succeed in school then so as to be able to achieve their own goals later.

Their occupational goals would change from time to time: one day it would be teaching, the next it would be medicine, but each time we would ask for the reason. As every occupation would be involved with improving other people’s lives, we would point those out and praise them for having a heart of a helper. Such affirmation helped us to inspire and bond with them.

The learning environment in our home was something that our girls were proud of, and we encouraged them to invite their friends from school and church to share in our learning fun. That was our way of helping them choose like-minded friends. Parents were welcome too. Thus, we as parents organized games, like charades, board games (such as monopoly & scrabble) and general knowledge quizzes based on what they have read, with prizes, so as to foster healthy competition, which, in turn, encouraged the children to put in more effort. That also helped them to learn about being humble in winning and gracious in losing.

It could have been disappointing that based on results of written assessments and exams, our daughters were never high achievers, just managing to gain promotion yearly. Perhaps they lost marks through carelessness, forgetfulness or not presenting their written answers according to what the examiners wanted. Their ‘A’ Level results were below expectations – their own and their teachers’. Through their disappointments we stood by and comforted them. They might not get into the faculties they aimed for, but at least, they still could get into the university – and that is reason enough to celebrate.

Just as I was hoping for, in university their results better reflected their efforts and capabilities. A reason could be that they were assessed not only by written work, but also by their active contribution and originality of thinking in their course work and during tutorials.



After graduation while in their workplaces, both received commendations and awards for their work quality and co-operation. However, perhaps more importantly for us were their choices of activities and friends: no parties or discos, but outings and quiet dinners. Also, most crucial were their choices of a life partner. They are decent polite gentlemen from humble backgrounds, who had got into university through the polytechnic way and are in respectable jobs.

For my wife and I, we believe that the foundation we helped to lay for them has enabled our daughters to set and achieve worthwhile goals for themselves. That, for us is success.