May 5, 2022
SEOUL – For many years, South Korea has lived with the infamy of being one of the unhappiest places to grow up in among advanced nations.
Dozens of articles have highlighted how saddening it may be to live as school-age children in Korea. Citing statistics that put South Korea at the bottom of advanced nations in terms of children’s happiness, they point to the competitive educational environment and lack of time and resources for leisure and extracurricular activities.
A 2019 study by Save the Children and Seoul National University on the well-being of children aged 10 placed South Korea 31st out of 35 countries surveyed. The study found Korean children were especially unhappy about how they spent their time.
South Korea’s pressure-cooker exam culture and hypercompetitive educational environment have pushed some parents to seek greener pastures.
A mother surnamed Kim, 35, is contemplating sending her 5-year-old boy to an international school or abroad to study.
“I think the Korean education system is too demanding and doesn’t allow room for free thinking,” said Kim.
Kim, who spent some of her school years abroad, added that she is unsure if she is up to the task of being a “Korean mother.” Due to the highly competitive nature of the Korean education system, mothers often begin mapping out a child’s education from early on, from which schools and private education institutes to attend, to special activities.
Another mother, who declined to be named, blames the system she grew up in for the pressure she put on her own children.
“When I was growing up it was all about the grades, and my parents had little time for me because they were working all the time, which is ironic as they say they were doing all that for me,” she said.
“I think the kind of childhood I had made me ill-equipped to deal with my children’s emotional needs, and to do things at their pace instead of pushing them to develop (academically) at the pace I want, and to achieve things that ‘society’ said they should be getting.“
Yet many say that South Korea is still a good place where kids can thrive in the competitive environment.
Meredith Khanloo, an English teacher in her 30s from the United States living in Daegu, says her children have enjoyed growing up in Korea largely because of the safety and public security it offers.
Since settling in Korea 16 years ago, the English instructor says she has never doubted South Korea as being an accommodating place for her children, giving birth to three boys after marrying her husband here.
“In Texas, being able to go to taekwondo practices and other activities is something that can’t be done by yourself unless your mom is not working and is staying home to take you to do all those things,” Khanloo told The Korea Herald.
“But here, you have a lot of opportunities to participate in these things, and you don’t need to have a guardian around to help you.”
Khanloo said she would not feel comfortable with having her children go around by themselves if not for the safety provided in South Korea. The country has been ranked consistently as one of the safest countries in the world.
“I’m not worried about (my children) doing drugs or facing an active shooter situation,” she added. “These are not day-to-day fears that people have in America, but they still exist, and they are not something that we anticipate at all here.”
Others say children in South Korea are also provided with ample amount of resources and subsidies to have fun in and out of school.
Under a Ministry of Education initiative, South Korea has upped investment on providing diverse educational opportunities for students, renovating schools and providing laptops and other smart devices.
Depending on their socioeconomic background, students can receive free after-school care programs, subsidized meals, textbooks and additional language or career-oriented courses.
“It was surprising to find that this many subsidies are available for me and my boy to take advantage of, and if we don’t count this as a benefit, I don’t know what else would be,” said Cho Ok-hyun, a working mother in her 40s in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.
“There aren’t any big ‘hagwon’ or other private institutions where I live, so having these kinds of resources help my kid stay active and have fun even after school until I return home.”
For a parent like her and her 11-year-old son, who live in the outskirts of a satellite city, life may not be so unpleasant or dissatisfying, Cho said. She added that it was rare to see her son without a smile, and she gave credit to the support given by the government.
Educators agree to a certain extent that today’s children are given enough resources compared to the past, saying it would be a mistake to simply categorize South Korea as a country not so friendly to children and those in school.
“Compared to when I was a student, the educational environment of South Korea has gotten much, much better,” said Im Gyeong-ri, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher in Incheon.
“An abundant budget helped kids receive education of various areas, and the physical school environment has developed significantly through initiatives like green smart schools.”
Im said that students, schools and parents are provided with enough resources to successfully curb the achievement gap. Even though the ongoing pandemic has contributed to widening the gap, the country’s devotion to education has provided a good environment for students to prosper.
But Im and many others still point out the fierce competition for college admission and interest in private education are burdening children, depriving them of precious time and opportunities to find happiness in their lives. There are not many ways for these students to relieve stress, they say.
Some argue that Korean society needs to start considering individual children as legal entities, meaning they should be outlined by law to be provided with resources and be assured certain qualities of life. They should not be seen as those in need of protection but as those with rights and duties.
“In the stages of development that children undergo, there are no legal statutes and regulations that define the roles of the nation, society as well as parents even though they must be held responsible for many in the footsteps,” read a Hongik University Law Review report last year.
“The basis of making decisions for children and their rights should not be indirectly pulled from the basic rights of parents. Rather, the basis should be directly pulled as the exclusive rights defined for and of children.”