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Mothers’ passion for education not always a good thing, experts say

Aug 20,2016
Korean parents are well-known for their passion when it comes to education. But teenagers nowadays, raised by competitive parents who grew up during times of economic difficulty, seem to be suffering more extreme cases of this fever.

Many hagwon, or private cram schools, see mothers in their mid-to-late 30s who suggest course curricula. Kim, the owner of a book debate hagwon in Mok-dong, southwestern Seoul, recently encountered a mother who said, “Maybe you don’t know, but to get into science high schools or elite schools, students must read books on math and science. I will give you a new booklist to instruct my kids with.”

“I have run hagwon for over 10 years,” said Kim, “but I’ve never had so many parents requesting me to teach based on their own curricula.”

Schools are also facing the demands of determined mothers.

“Parents nowadays demand schools to replace their children’s homeroom teachers,” said the vice-principal of an elementary school in Gangbuk District, northern Seoul, “and file civil complaints if the requests are not accepted.”

He added that when a hagwon exam coincides with a school trip, parents’ choices are usually hagwon.

According to education specialists, these competitive parents are mostly of the so-called “Generation IMF”, having spent college life in 1997 when Korea suffered a financial crisis and accepted a huge bailout from the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

“Many mothers who spent college life during the financial crisis educate their children based on their own criteria,” said educational consultant Lee Mi-ae, “rather than referring to advice from teachers or specialists.”

“When we hold special lectures for parents on education,” said Shin Eun-joo, a teacher at Sungshin Elementary School in Seongbuk District, northern Seoul, “it’s usually mothers in their mid-to-late 30s who rebuke teachers for being too idealistic.”

Schools and hagwon both point out that these mothers can be confident and anxious at the same time.

“It may seem like the two traits are very different,” said Moon Gyeong-bo, a counselor at Daegwang High School, “but they are derived from the same thought. Mothers think there’s only one way to success and that those who fail to follow the proper route may fall behind.”

“These mothers, experiencing the financial crisis, suffered through high competition in education and work,” said Song Jin-ho, the CEO of Meta Learning Lab. “Hence they think children need to work extremely hard to earn good opportunities in the future.” He explained that this is why they order children to do what needs to be done, instead of letting them do what they want to do.

Generation IMF also experienced different education systems. Up until the early 1990s, students needed to take only one set of exams to get into college. Private tutors were also strictly banned. But the ban was lifted when Generation IMF entered elementary school, and new college admission systems, such as early admissions, were adopted. This stirred up interest in private education.

“Mothers show extreme fervor for child education not out of greed or selfishness,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University, “but because they have experienced constant anxiety while growing up.”

“Every child has different talents,” said Moon, “so chances are slim that the same method will bring about the same outcome for all.”

BY PARK HYUNG-SOO [shon.jihye@joongang.co.kr]