Why do we teach children to box themselves up? I saw on Facebook a photo a teacher shared – it was costumes of firemen, doctor, police, nurse, etc made for children. She said she could not wait to dress up the kindergarten kids in these costumes. I nearly puked on my screen. 5 year olds dressed in cute little uniforms. The thought makes me shudder.
The message we send to the children is to choose a profession, a job, a title, a career they would go into 20 years later. We teach them a subconscious lesson: to define themselves by what kind of work they would do.
At an age where their minds are most opened and malleable, we put a frame on their thoughts and give them limited choices – what would be the uniform for an entrepreneur, an artist, a designer, or a person who travels and experience the world?
Then we spend the next 20 years telling them: everything is possible, the sky is your limit, dream big, you have choices… oh, the irony!
I had a sudden flashback as I scrolled through that Facebook photo (I wish there was an “unlike” button). In my high school, we did not rank students from 1 to 120. We only praised the one who did the best in each subject for every grade. Every year-end ceremony, that one little girl would get to walk up on stage in front of the whole school, parents, teachers, and dignitaries from the society and get presented a scroll that confirmed their excellence and hard work. It was an honour everyone envied, and usually there would be a few who monopolized the stage every year.
With no prior expectations, I walked up on stage for the first time when I was in Grade 9. I had won an honour scroll – for Cookery class. I felt like a clown. My classmates jeered. My teachers pretended they did not see me as I paraded in front of them. My mother shoved the piece of paper into a folder and put the folder into the crumpled bookshelf.
Cookery was not a revered subject. Compared to a Maths prize, Chinese prize, or English prize, it was nothing. My best subject was English – and every year my mother questioned why I did not get that prize. Every year I felt like a disappointment. And the year I received the Cookery prize I felt embarrassed and mocked instead of proud of my achievement. It was not good enough.
Naturally, I was not allowed to study Cookery in Grade 10 when it became an optional subject, and had to bury my head in Physics, Biology and Calculus – subjects that would give me an edge to becoming a doctor or engineer in the future, an invisible set of uniform hanging in my wardrobe since kindergarten.
The humiliation lifted an inch when I again walked up on stage in Grade 12 for Psychology, a more respectable subject as everybody else defined. Yet, I was still banned from studying Psychology in university. Being a lawyer would be more revered. I had to be in the best lot.
Never mind what I wanted and enjoyed.
Never mind no one knew who had the authority to define what was “best”.
For the next ten years, I branded myself as someone who could not cook, someone who did not even know how to make eggs or ramp up instant noodles. I thrived on ready-made cup noodles when I was working, or ate out. I had one pot at home, and one pair of chopsticks. I did not touch Psychology again and chose to read the Financial Times instead of an article about Freud and new breakthroughs in research.
I forgot what I loved. I lost the skills that were once natural to me. I abandoned the spurt of energy when I did what I was passionate about.
At 15 years of age then, I had no way of expressing what I felt, but I knew what it was. Sadly, adults put a frame on me even though they did not force me into a uniform costume. It took me another 15 years to finally realize this, and go back to where I started.
Depression brought it all back to me. It gave me a psychologist to talk to, and our sessions reminded me of the theories I studied back then. It gave me time to start beating eggs, flour and sugar together again. Enjoy the food I have whipped up in the last year alone below.
My silent reminder to myself, that when I have my own children, is to open their eyes to what is available in the world, guide them, and listen to their little voices of what they love and have a passion about, and nurture them. Little children know, they just do not know how to express it. The danger is as an adult, I would overpower their small voices. They can play dress up; I cannot judge how others teach and parent. But I can also let my own children know, that the world is more diverse than professions, and by no means should they be defined by what they do to generate income.
So if I want to cook, I will cook. If I want to write, I will write.
I do not need a uniform. No one does. You are good enough.
What boundaries do you have to shed today to do what you love once more?