“Be decent mother, go through PSLE”: when children’s education becomes parental care labor

Academic Views / Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Associate Professor Teo You Yenn discusses how children’s education becomes parental care labour, with differing impacts on parents across class and gender lines.

Contemporary Singapore appears to be a great place to raise children—safe, clean, with good care infrastructure and a world-class education system. Singaporean adults also appear to be exactly the right people to have kids—healthy, educated, employed, and by global standards, wealthy. How is it, then, that fertility rates have remained below replacement rate over the past four decades? 

Attempts to answer this question have tended to focus on surveying young people who do not have children, to find out their plans with regards to marriage and childbearing. Efforts to link fertility patterns to social policy have mostly focused on policies targeted at new parents and babies—parental leave, baby bonuses, childcare center subsidies. While obviously important, two things are missing in these approaches: first, a deeper consideration of the social context of parenting, in which young people make decisions; second, attention to parenting labor beyond the physical care of young children, and therefore policy areas beyond those affecting early childhood. 

Between 2018 and 2020, I interviewed 92 parents to find out what it’s like to be a parent in Singapore today.[1] I spoke with both fathers and mothers, of various ethnicities and class backgrounds, whose children span a wide age range. One finding from this research stands out, and offers a way of viewing the fertility puzzle differently: children’s education is a central component of parental duty and everyday family life, in ways that exert significant costs in ordinary people’s lives. 

Everyday life in the primary school parenting zone

All working parents talk about being pressed for time and feeling stressed by the daily rush from home to work and home again, but parents raising primary school aged children stand out as feeling especially stretched. People who have children now older than 12 look back at the time with palpable relief, while those with children younger than seven speak with a certain anticipatory terror; parents with children currently in primary school, particularly those in Primary 5 or 6, talk like exhausted people in the trenches.

Photo: voxeros

These parents regularly spend evenings making sure their kids have done their homework and, where possible, helping them with it. Much of the daily labor of this form of care is neither pleasant nor pretty. Interviewees readily admitted that a lot of what they do on a daily basis is to nag and scold. They talked about feeling impatient and frustrated, about losing their tempers and having to “shout” or “scream”. Particularly for those in full-time wage work, having kids in primary school translates to forgoing their own leisure and rest. That this is a big part of their daily experience comes through in the way some invoked the phrase “me time”—for many, personal leisure is so rare that work hours or time spent running errands or on their commute to and from work constitutes “me time”. 

I saw parents spending time, energy, and money to garner resources around their children’s schooling needs. They try, for example, to figure out what is expected of their children by participating in parent chat groups on Whatsapp, Telegram, or Facebook. Many also regularly purchased assessment books and downloaded worksheets to assign extra work to their children; these are seen as necessary because doing well in examinations requires practice and familiarity with the style and mode of tests. Some attended workshops organized by schools to learn how to help their children with the school curriculum. Many also spend time looking for suitable tutors or tuition centers, coordinating after-school and weekend tuition schedules, and bringing children to and from these classes. 

Gender roles

These practices, which parents often framed as duty, draw on gendered scripts and deepen gendered patterns. Mothers’ lives were characterized by breaks—punctuated by the disruptions brought on first by childbearing and maternity leave, and then later by the demands of meeting the educational needs of children. They spoke frequently about caring less about careers after becoming mothers and/or having no choice but to “change priorities” and put their children first. In contrast, fathers rarely spoke of significant pivoting in wage work or adjustments to their ambitions and aspirations; they were more likely instead to express their duties to earn enough to support their families. Even for men whose wives earn income, there was a sense that fatherhood was very much about taking responsibility for earning. Although both fathers and mothers expressed concern about the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), it was generally framed as mothers’ daily work and duty. One respondent put it to me that she wants to “be decent mother, go through PSLE”—demonstrating the conflation of the two in six simple words. To accomplish this is often to try to create more time in their days to supervise and guide their children. Some shift to part-time work or quit their jobs, many more elect to take on roles with fewer responsibilities and correspondingly lower pay. Collectively, they brought attention to work structures and cultures that demand long and/or inflexible hours; of limited time off to deal with children’s needs; of worrying that they would be judged by bosses or co-workers; of not being able to focus on work when children are struggling with school; and of fewer opportunities for recognition and advancement due to their altered priorities either real or perceived. 

For the women who made significant changes in re-orienting their relationships to wage work, there was a cost they were quite conscious of and spoke easily about. Interviewees talked about the satisfaction they get from having wage work, and the sense of esteem they feel from doing things well and from being connected to people outside the family. Importantly, women who had seen reduction in their wage incomes spoke of the loss they experienced with the loss of money; this was consistent across class lines, that is, no matter how much or little they were earning from work. Not having one’s own money intensified an uneasy feeling of dependence on husbands, as well as diminished control, autonomy, and power in decisions about household expenditure.

Class and the outsourcing of educational care labor

Tuition is one such expenditure. Parents felt strongly that primary school is very important and consequential, and that it is their duty to help their children through it. Paradoxically, in this ‘world class education system’, parents also often expressed “understanding” that teachers cannot give their child attention when there are so many other children in class (in 2019, average class size from P3-6 is about 35), and therefore that tuition outside of school is necessary. 

There are important class variations in what parents can spend on this. In 2017/18, monthly expenditure on private tuition and other educational courses varied widely by household income: households in the 1st to 20th percentiles spent S$45.30 per month. Relative to this, those in the 21st to 40th percentile spent 1.7 times the amount (S$75.80); those in the 41st to 60th percentiles 2.7 times (S$121.20); those in the 61st to 80th percentiles 3.4 times (S$152.60); and those in the 81st to 100th percentiles 3.7 times (S$167) (Department of Statistics 2018). 

While the salience of primary school education as parental duty was high across class lines, parents took on strategies and practices that reflect and align with the resources they have. Even if children maintain average and above grades, higher-income parents can use tutors to help with the supervision of homework and test-teaching skills on a continual basis. For children from higher-income households, tuition can be paid for throughout the year and children’s school lives. In contrast, parents with more limited resources tend to pay for tuition for subjects their children are “weaker” in, and to step up on these near exam times and in crucial examination years. Middle- and high-income parents are also more likely to place children in enrichment courses, such as phonics classes, prior to primary school. They are conscious that children have to be ready to read and write by the time they begin Primary One, and are more likely to be anxious about ensuring school-readiness. Parents who are middle-income are most sensitive about the importance of educational credentials for securing jobs and financial independence. Compared with higher-income parents, they expressed more anxiety about children falling behind; compared with lower-income parents, who expressed more generalized beliefs about wanting their children to “study hard”, middle-income parents were more specific and consistent in articulating the importance of formal credentials, the streams and tracks available to children, and therefore the sense that much is at stake in examinations. They spoke more of the fear of falling into lower tracks. Private tuition is, unsurprisingly, least accessible to low-income parents. While they too feel the struggle to keep up with school and expressed worries about this, they typically relied on schools or voluntary welfare associations for after-school remedial sessions or free/low-cost tutoring. 

What does it mean to be a parent?

Parents I spoke with were conscious of the stereotypes of Singapore parents and often referred to them. A small handful of parents acknowledged or claimed themselves to be kiasu, and were relatively unambivalent about wanting their children to have maximum resources and do well against the competition. Most respondents, however, expressed deep ambivalence. The emotions at the forefront of our conversations were angst, frustration, and helplessness. They explicitly repudiated this stereotypical kind of parenting—insisting that they do not want to be ‘helicopter’ or ‘tiger’ parents. They questioned if it is right to pay so much attention to exam results. They felt tension between what they practiced and what they believed: although most spent time and energy on their kids’ education, they talked about pitying children for not having time to play; about their fears of stress and even youth suicide, which they attributed to a stressful education system; and of how “book smarts” are not enough to survive in this world. Some explicitly expressed that the rising need for tuition advantages children whose parents have more money and disadvantages those with less. 

No one, of course, regrets the children they’ve already had. Yet, apart from the fact that education as parental duty exerts significant costs on their daily lives and finances, I saw in these expressions of angst and unease that it exerted costs too in their feelings about parenthood, family, and self. 

The concept of ‘tiger parent’ has spawned its own Singaporean television drama. (Photo: IMDB)

In fulfilling what they saw as their duties, parents invoked multiple moral orientations that pull them in opposite directions. On one hand, they spoke of their desire for their children to enjoy learning, to have happy childhoods that include play, and to acquire good values and become good people. Their definition of ‘good’ persons often revealed a social dimension—to take care of others, to not hurt people, to get along in society. On the other hand, parents are conscious of the importance of educational credentials and therefore drawn to the everyday focus on homework, examinations, competing and not losing out to others. Importantly, these emotions of unease, and the emotional labor of managing contradictory parental desires, were present across class and gender lines although these factors meant parents experienced them differently. They signal, then, a broader paradoxical social phenomenon: a world-class education system in which people are not exactly happy. 

What does this have to do with fertility rates?

Accounts of low fertility tend to focus attention on young people’s plans for marriage and childbearing as if they are merely individual decisions, made through calculating and weighing individual priorities and finances. A sociological approach suggests instead that we need to think about the broader context that shapes these evaluations. A notable feature of my conversations with parents is how nonchalant they were when they told me about their habits and practices; how much they took for granted that I, as a Singaporean parent myself, would already know what they were talking about when they spoke in shorthand and acronyms about different educational streams and tuition and PSLE and adults struggling with primary school math homework. They presumed I would understand because they are speaking of ‘what normal Singaporeans do’. These norms, indicating as they do that parental lives and duties include shifting one’s priorities so that they revolve around homework and exams and tuition, are widely shared and deeply known. When any person thinks about parenting in contemporary Singapore, this is the picture that emerges; indeed, many young people now at the age of marriage or childbearing probably spent part of their childhoods on the receiving end of this parenting. It is not difficult to see how unappealing and/or irrational this can look. 

Education as care labor has become a major component of parenting, and an important source of struggle and unease. This suggests that those trying to make connections between fertility rates and social policy need to take a more expansive view of social policies—paying attention to how social policies beyond the early childhood years matter; how, instead of mitigating care needs, policy regimes can create more care labor; and importantly how, in this process, policy generates and reproduces gender and class inequalities. 

The question of how many children society needs for its collective and shared future is not a straightforward one. The terms we have for talking about it—population growth, replacement and below-replacement rate, dependency ratios—are from a time when we had views about development and economic growth underpinned by a meta-narrative of progress and teleology, and in which humans are economic inputs. Given the state of the world today—with immense inequality, the depletion of  resources through over-consumption and an intensifying climate crisis—it seems foolish to accept that the terms for thinking of the future should remain so narrow. The puzzle I began this piece with—why have fertility rates in Singapore been low?—is thus posed not because I think it needs to be higher. Instead, I argue that the low fertility trends, juxtaposed against Singapore’s seemingly fantastic conditions for raising children, need to be taken seriously as an opportunity to understand how people are living in society, the limitations and constraints people face in forging family lives, and the inequalities that are perpetuated in the process. To the extent that social policy should exist to enable people to thrive and flourish, reframing the issues this way would be more productive than a narrow orientation toward ‘increasing fertility’. 

TEO You Yenn is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University. More information about her work at her website.


[1] Most respondents were parents in full-time employment, although some were working part-time or not currently working, either temporarily or long-term. Respondents included both women and men. Most were married but a few were never-married or divorced. They ranged in age from their 20s to 50s and therefore had experiences parenting across the entire range of childhood and youth—from infants to young adults in their early 20s. Most parents had between one and three children, and a few had more. Reflecting Singapore’s population, respondents were of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Using a combination of housing type, education, occupation, and household per capita income from work as proxies, respondents of ‘low,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘high’ socioeconomic status were included. The variations in the sample allow me to capture a representative range of experiences and challenges faced by parents in contemporary Singapore.

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