Mothers caught in frantic effort to develop a child’s ‘spec’

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Mothers caught in frantic effort to develop a child’s ‘spec’

They are “early moms,” 21st century mothers who early on determine their children’s career paths and arrange their portfolios.

One of them is Lee Jeong-sook, 41, who recently took her son, who is a middle school student, to a center for abandoned dogs in Gyeonggi. While there, the mother and son learned about the characteristics of different types of dogs and helped out with their cleaning.

“This experience is for my son, who wishes to become a vet, so that he can have an early record of volunteer experience in the same field, which will help him enter high school and university,” said Lee.

Another mother, Kim Hyun-jeong, 39, started teaching English during winter holidays with her daughter, who is also in middle school, to 7- to 9-year-olds at a welfare center in Jamwon-dong, southern Seoul. The two, who are fluent in English after living abroad for several years, are teaching not solely for the purpose of volunteering, but for the advantage the daughter will gain majoring in English education when entering college.

Both mothers are fully devoted to their children’s education, pouring in time and effort.

They are, in fact, like secretaries who manage their children’s schedules and like education consultants who construct the future for their children.

They hardly have time for themselves. Both mothers mentioned how time consuming it is to find unconventional experiences, which they hope will set their children apart from others as they try to enter prestigious schools.

In short, their main goal is to accumulate so-called “spec,” an abbreviated version of the word specification, a term widely used among Koreans to describe the many achievements a student should have achieved for admission to universities, including their GPA, scores of language proficiency tests and work or volunteer experiences.

As more and more people are accumulating the standard spec, early mothers are looking for unique and distinctive experiences to add to that all-important spec.

Early mothers giving their children various experiences is a common site in Gangnam, southern Seoul. In the 1990s, “Gangnam mothers” were oversolicitous over their child’s education and were all about gathering information on hagwons, or private cram schools. Today, the term refers to those who are all about quickly figuring out what kind of unique spec will benefit their children when they apply to prestigious high schools and universities.

But there can be a downside to this excessive emphasis on spec.

Hong Hu-jo, a professor of education at Korea University, said that the effort can even backfire.

“It is advisable for a mother and a child to find out the child’s aptitude and career path together. However, excessive efforts from mothers can earn negative points from admission officers when evaluating the students,” Hong said.

The early mother experience can also take its toll. Early mothers with whom the special reporting team met all complained of stress.

“It hurts to constantly nag my child to accumulate more spec when you know that the child is exhausted,” said a mother surnamed Kim who has child in middle school. “You might call me frantic, but I can’t accept falling behind for being unprepared.”

One mother surnamed Choi said mothers are forced by intense social pressure to get carried away.

“This phenomenon is the outcome of the current education system.” said Choi, the mother of a 12-year-old.

One new system that was adopted this school year is the Creative Experience Program, which is applied to first- and second-graders in elementary school, first-year middle school students and high school freshman. Students are required to log on to Edupot at www.edupot.go.kr, which is operated by the government, to keep records of experiences approved by teachers. High schools and universities use the data for admission evaluations.

Often, mothers can feel overwhelmed by the education rat race. Mothers whose children participate in the Creative Experience Program are left with doing everything from looking for experience opportunities to recording the experiences online.

One mother, surnamed Yoon, 41, who participated in a Creative Experience Program briefing session said that “Daechi-dong mothers are known to keep helpful information to themselves,” adding that “mothers from northern Seoul are being alienated.”

Another mother surnamed Park, 43, from Gangnam said that “hushing up great information about creative experience opportunities is common” and that “it’s even difficult just to become a member of a mothers’ network.”


By Special Reporting Team [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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