Trophy children in Vietnam: Demerits of a merit-based system

By Ngo Thi Phuong Le   June 4, 2018 | 11:10 am GMT+7
Trophy children in Vietnam: Demerits of a merit-based system
A boy writes on a board at a school in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters

Vietnamese students bear brunt of parents’ egos and an arbitrary reward system.

In Vietnam, there’s this long-standing “tradition” of students getting gifts from their parents’ companies at the end of each school year. The gifts, so they’re told, reward students for the grades they’ve obtained that year through hard work at school and home.

I know this very well. As a small child growing up in the central town of Vinh in Nghe An Province, my parents always made copies of the “diplomas” we were given at the end of the school year, mentioning our ranking based on our academic performance. One could be an excellent, satisfactory, good or “needs improvement” student.

The International Children’s Day, June 1, was an event that marked the issuance of these diplomas aka grades sheets, copies of which would then be delivered to our parents’ companies’ labor association for further verification.

It’s like clockwork. Every year, I would go to my parents’ workplace, wait for my name to be called, go up the stage and receive the “prize.” Every single year.

Back then, both my parents worked in the education sector. We lived in a group of apartments reserved for the school’s faculty members. Every once in a while, I would hear my neighbors screaming and yelling at their children because the latter had failed to meet the former’s expectations.

A typical tirade would go thus: “Look at how our neighbors’ children are doing! They’re good at studying, always receiving good prizes at the end of the year. But you don’t! Your diploma is only ‘satisfactory,’ not ‘excellent.’ I am embarrassed; how can I face our neighbors from now on?"

Winning is everything

Winning is everything, adults teach Vietnamese kids very early on.

Decades on, little has changed. While the screaming has receded into the back of my mind, they’ve never left. Parents continue to confound their kids with their irrational behavior. On one hand, they complain about our education system being too “heavy” and “tough” and “too merit-based.” On the other, they jump to take photos of their children’s diplomas and grade reports to brag on social media, or preen themselves over their children getting good prizes from their companies.

To be fair, some firms have changed their approach lately. Students now receive the same gifts as their peers, like books, tickets to the movies or circus. Step in the right direction, for sure.

But the merit-based gifting is a deeply entrenched habit in government institutions, and come the International Children’s Day, the axiom of one parent’s pride being another’s resentment is on display, without fail.

Why is this happening? Shouldn’t the International Children’s Day be focused on the plight of troubled kids, on ways to prevent the abuse that is inflicted on them in parts of the world, and, on the positive side, help them have a good time on this special occasion? Shouldn’t it be a day when adults are reminded of our children’s equal statuses and rights?

Instead, in Vietnam, we seem to be taking this arbitrary, unfair practice even further, in the name of giving kids incentive to be good… whatever adults decide is good, that is.

I hear now that parents are offering cold, hard cash to their children for doing well. So our young and impressionable children learn to equate good grades with more money. The logic is that the prospect of earning more money (to spend on favored goodies) would push children to work even harder at school.

Sounds good, doesn’t work.

First, a materialistic reward like money would rob our children of their intrinsic motivations to be better. They would start to study for prizes, not for knowledge. Once the gifting stops, how would they react? This isn’t what education is about.

Second, a tangible, measurable reward like money would make it easy to compare a student’s rewards with their peers. For those whose strength is not in the academic field, this would instill feelings of inferiority and shatter the confidence to pursue their passions and talent in non-academic fields. You cannot judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree. A purely result-based rewarding system could hurt children psychologically and scar them for the rest of their lives.

My children and I have been living in France for many years, but not once did I see schools or companies reward students. At the end of a school year, a ceremony would be held to celebrate the occasion, but there were no gifts involved. Sure, during Christmas or Thanksgiving, children could receive some small gifts from their parents’ corporate employers, but these are never linked to academic performance or their parents’ positions.

The United Nations has stated that the International Children’s Day seems to bring the world together to protect our children’s rights and happiness. It is a chance for us to be aware of some of the most pressing issues facing our children, to voice our support for their causes, and to translate this concern into actions to build a better world for them.

Just a few moments ago, I stumbled across a small piece on the official website of a governmental institution in Hanoi, saying it held a gifting ceremony for over 1,000 “excellent students” who were its employees’ children. The piece stressed that the ceremony was being held to celebrate “the parents’ dedication to raise their children” and to show that “our government cares for our children’s future.”

I wonder when some critical thinking will enter such attitudes and practices. If a student fails to get a good grade, does it automatically mean that his or parents didn’t raise him or her right?

Does gifting “good” students means the government cares less about those who are not so “good?”

We need to rethink the lessons we are teaching our children through such practices. For this, adults should do some relearning first.

*Ngo Thi Phuong Le is a Vietnamese research fellow. The opinions expressed are her own.

 
 
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