All parents want the best for their children - to ensure that their children succeed in life can perhaps be ranked as a parent’s greatest accomplishment. This desire has resulted in parents being more involved than ever in their children’s development, all in hopes of providing them with the best opportunities available and platforms for success. This raises a couple of questions. In a contemporary society like Singapore’s, how does this desire often play out? And of course, the age-old question. Do parents really know best?
A culture of consumerism
Singapore is undeniably a consumerist society. Case in point? One would find it hard to miss numerous large signs promoting various sales of all kinds or large queues forming to purchase the latest gadgets, no matter which part of the country they find themselves in. It is all part of the culture. Our Gini coefficient, indicating the level of wealth inequality, may have fallen to the lowest since 2020, but it still ranks considerably high in the world.
As most families’ income has risen, so have their spending habits, naturally. This holds particularly true for middle-income families, who spend more on products and services of better quality.
Additionally, new shopping malls are popping up all the time and a weekend visit to the mall is for many, a family ritual. In this environment, it is no surprise that children are born into and grow up with a consumerist mindset.
Let kids be kids
It is important as a parent to acknowledge that our children are full interpreters of societal culture, and are constantly learning through whatever they experience.
Many imagine children to be “vulnerable”, or even “incompetent” beings. This sentiment can often be seen in the way children are depicted in Singaporean advertising. They are, more often than not, portrayed as objects to capture the attention of adults, and are shown to be passively receiving nutrition, health, and educational interventions.
This is influenced by a Western scientific development perspective, one that has shaped the idea that children are “inferior” to adults. Adulthood is seen and depicted as a symbol of “completeness”, while childhood is merely but a “transitional state” towards adulthood. This is a hasty generalisation and incorrect view of what our children are, and can be problematic as a result.
Ultimately, every child and adult grows to have particular views of the world, based on cumulative learning and experience. And those views change over time. A child's view of the world often appears novel to us adults, sometimes ridiculous, but it no less authentic or valuable because children's ideas show us how they make sense of things based on what they see, feel and hear. It is the result of their thinking process.
Hence, it is of utmost importance that parents know how much they influence their child's thinking about the world. They need to take a step back from overparenting and take a good look at their children. To see and understand them for who they really are. Furthermore, understanding how parents think and what their concerns are will benefit early childhood (EC) educators, especially in their relationship with parents.
Rising parental expectations
Generally, parents are regarded as the external regulators of the purchasing desires of their children. However, they also take on the role as partners in their children’s consumption habits. Especially when they purchase goods to display affection or to make up for not spending quality time together.
As Singaporeans gradually become more educated and affluent, it translates to more idyllic expectations for what they feel that their children deserve.
The following two case studies depict how parents, who possess the financial resources, go about providing the best for their children through consumerist means. With the notion of best being based solely on the desires and values of the parents.
Case Study 1
Singlish vs English
This first scenario took place in a typical Singaporean centre which accommodates a diverse mix of social classes where naturally, not everyone is a native English speaker.
Parent One spoke respectfully of the teachers, families and pupils of her daughter’s preschool. However, she was personally not in favour of the centre’s use of Singlish, believing it to have a negative influence on her daughter’s command of English.
Eventually, Parent One placed her daughter in a more well-known and commercially-run preschool that suited her preference. This consumption of service by Parent One will directly affect how her child perceives and prefers things in the future as well.
Parent One embodies the many Singaporean families who possess the financial capabilities to act upon their desires to influence their children’s future. This also represents the widening social inequalities, perpetuated by Singapore’s privatised and largely commercialised early childhood landscape.
Case Study 2
Differing Parental values
In scenario two, Parent Two is less well-to-do than Parent One and has different concerns regarding her daughter’s education and character development. Yet, she proved equally resourceful and determined to raise her child on the same traditional Chinese values that she herself was raised on.
Growing up in Malaysia, she found Singapore a little too westernised and liberal. She felt that children missed out on opportunities to learn about important moral values at certain institutions. Values such as respect for elders, filial piety, modesty and group collaboration.
Unlike Parent One who relocated her child, she supplemented her child’s centre-based education with an out-of-school Chinese dance group. Through the teachings and innate cultural nature of Chinese dance, the added environment provided her daughter with the same Chinese values that she was raised on.
Where do parents go from here?
Both parents created the learning environment that they had wanted for their children through their financial capabilities.
This demonstrates how adults are regulated by and give in to the consumerist culture as they attempt to become rational consumers and be “good parents” to their children. Some parents are even fuelled by the belief that they need to be savvy consumers in order to ensure their child’s educational success and fulfil their potential.
Raising a child in a consumerist society can be challenging but it is definitely not an impossible feat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents wanting the best for their children and spending more money to do so, but it still does not guarantee a child’s success when he or she reaches adulthood. A child's success begins with parents viewing them as the complete, thinking and feeling beings that they are.
This article is the first part of an adaptation of the journal article: "Early childhood care and education in a consumer society: Questioning the child–adult binary and childhood inequality" by Associate Professor Sirene May-Yin Lim, Vice Dean and Head of Early Childhood Education with Minor Programme, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).
 Income inequality in Singapore falls to lowest level in almost two decades as household incomes rise
 Gini Coefficient By Country 2020
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