When a child kills himself

Oct 22, 2016 02.00PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

WE DON’T talk about suicides because there’s plenty of evidence that this will invite copycats. But sometimes we have to. So Mainstream Media (MSM) broke some editorial guidelines on reporting suicides when it covered the case of an 11-year-old student who fell 17 stories to his death in Sengkang.

MSM did the right thing – and kudos to The New Paper (TNP) for covering the coroner’s inquiry earlier this week. It’s too heartbreaking for words but I’ll attempt to re-cap what happened in May to the boy and his family. They can’t be named because of his age. Nor can his school.

Before you ask, he didn’t leave a note. His father, 47, a customer service engineer, wanted to believe that he fell out his bedroom window at first. In other words, an accident. Although why the boy would be leaning out of the window while he was getting ready to go to school isn’t answered. But the immediate reaction of his mother, a housewife, on finding their son’s body at the foot of the block was illuminating. A police officer on the scene recalled that she was lamenting that she “only asked for 70 marks” and that she didn’t ask for 80 marks. That, plus the fact that he would be going to school to collect his results slips to show his parents.

The boy already knew how he fared for his mid-year Primary Five examination even before he received his result slips. He had failed two subjects, getting 12 marks for Higher Chinese and 20.5 marks for Mathematics. He scraped through English (50), Chinese (53.8) and Science (57.5). His teacher noticed how upset he was at failing two subjects. This isn’t surprising given that he used to score 70 marks and above in the previous four years.

So what happened?

The school said that students at Primary Five usually see a dip in results because of changes to the examination format to prepare them for the Primary School Leaving Examination the next year. There was a parents’ briefing earlier in the year for teachers to tell parents about their expectations. It seemed the boy’s parents did attend the briefing or other parent-teacher meetings.

You wonder about how drastic the changes were to let an average student move 70 marks to a mere 12 as the boy did for Higher Chinese. You wonder if his classmates fared in the same way or whether he was unique. You wonder if he had asked about his other classmates’ results and discovered that he was not alone. If he did, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so bad.

All these questions are moot because the fact remained that he killed himself. It’s tempting to point fingers at the mother, who kept a hawk eye on his results and employed a carrot and stick approach. How many parents do the same? Obtain marks beyond a certain grade and you get an iPhone or bicycle; go below and get caned for every mark that was missed.

The coroner’s inquiry was told that she was “flexible” in this regard and would take into account the level of difficulty of the examination papers. You wonder if she had known that the format was different.

Every parent who has read this sad story would probably be examining their own attitudes to their children’s education. And it would be difficult for any parent to accept that it could be their own attitudes that have pushed their child to take such an extreme step.

Although she didn’t refer to the suicide Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin wrote in her Facebook yesterday: “We were all children once. We all do remember what it was like to open a result slip and see that glaring red mark or to hear that passing comment ‘You could have/should have done better’.”

“In that horrible moment, that result doesn’t feel like it’s just a result, it feels more like a judgment of who you are. And if that moment is not dealt with, not openly talked about, it can become a part of your identity.”

When I was 10, I failed two subjects. It was Chinese and History, which was being taught in the mother tongue as an experiment then. From being a top student to actually failing not one subject but two was so traumatic that I started crying even before I got home. I lived through the blasting from my mother. At age 10, the idea of killing yourself simply doesn’t cross your mind. Rather you’re thinking about ways to lessen the impact that will come, even wishing that there was some way to forge your parent’s signature.

But statistics on teen suicides today are alarming. Last year, 27 children aged between 10 and 19 killed themselves, according to the Samaritans of Singapore. Two years before, it was 13. I can only imagine how hard it is for investigators to probe a family on the probable cause of a child’s suicide. Imagine asking: “Did you scold him earlier in the day?”

TNP reported that a questionnaire will be developed for such investigators. They will have to look into salient factors such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control and rage issues.

Some many theories have put forward for the surge with the usual scapegoat being the education system. Parents will say that they pressure their children because that’s the way to succeed academically. They find it hard to believe teachers and officials who say that they’ve already changed enough of the system to reduce the stress to be “exam-smart”.

No parent wants to drive their children to death. They want their children to succeed. They want children to fear failure, forgetting they too have had failures in their past – and that they are still on their feet.

I like what Ms Kuik said in her note:

“The uncomfortable truth is that the only way we can teach our children such emotional resilience in the face of failure is to ensure we ourselves have dealt with our story about failing and feeling like a failure. If we are uncomfortable dealing with failure in our own lives, the chances of passing on those self-destructive stories to our children is much higher.

“If your child brings you a terrible report card or shows you a shocking grade for some spelling test, emotionally centre yourself before you say anything. Take your time to figure out what to say. If you can’t speak it, write it. Writing forces you to be more careful.

“The words of a parent are profoundly powerful. Somehow they always impact identity. That’s why it’s worth measuring out, weighing out, calibrating our words thoughtfully for good effect. Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

“Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

Yup, the words of a parent are powerful.

They can raise you up – or cut you to the quick.

It remains for me to offer my condolences to the family – father, mother and 16-year-old daughter. May your son rest in peace.

 

Featured image Look At All My Designs by Flickr user Daniel Lee. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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