Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Delayed gratification: Test of true love

Being married, monogamous and yet having a meaningful relationship with one's spouse seems a tall order nowadays. Psychiatrist M Scott Peck's discourse on the topic of love differentiates between love and being "in love". Love is not a feeling but an activity, defined as the willingness to extend oneself for one's own and another's spiritual growth.

The notion of romantic love that seems to pervade society today engulfs me sometimes.

From reading Mills & Boon to watching Sex and the City, I am seduced to believe that I am not truly in love unless I have that incredible "I'm in love" feeling.

At times, I possess feelings of love for other men and am tempted to act on those feelings. In an age of regular iPhone upgrades, we sometimes wish we could upgrade our spouse or we would begin to look for alternatives.

One gets to see one's spouse in his better moments but more often in his worse. Therefore, when we meet other men, when the opportunity arises, it is easy to fall in love.

They seem more caring, more sensitive to our needs, more in tune to our emotions. They seem more handsome, respectable, strong and stable. These are signs of falling in love.

Has one ever wondered what would happen if these upgrades stay for a year or more? Being accustomed and addicted to the feeling of love, one would soon be looking for the next upgrade.

Peck warned us to be careful of the "in love" feeling for two reasons. First, falling in love is specifically an erotic experience, which explains why most adulterous relationships often focus on sex. Second, this feeling is always only temporary.

The test of true love is to practise delayed gratification. One would stop and think.

A genuinely loving individual would take loving, constructive action if feelings develop for another man: Walk away and stay committed to the person one has vowed to build a life with together.

This was first published in TODAY on 26th Dec 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

All you need to do is point your kids in the right direction

I refer to the letter "It's not the tool, but our own insecurities" (June 15) and the issue of sending children for tuition, for which the common reasons given include the need for them to do well, so as to climb the education ladder.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my family could not afford tuition. Our cousins always did well in school, and we hated family gatherings, where grades were compared.

Wisely, my father ignored such conversations and left us to struggle our way through.

All of us made it to university. Now, we all have families, and our cousins are engaging tutors. One of my neighbours is looking for a third tutor for her son, as she feels that two is not enough.

My friend spends her weekend chaperoning her youngest child from one enrichment class to another because her two elder sons were tutored into the gifted education programme.

But is this the only way?

If a child requires excessive tuition to gain a place in university, he might end up being learned and obtaining a degree for the workforce, but might miss out on education in its totality.

We chose not to engage any tutors for our children, believing that tuition, where the focus is on completing homework, doing one more worksheet or attempting one more assessment book, cannot fully develop the joy of discovery and learning.

Once our children discovered this joy, they became self-directed learners who found their own drive to study, to do well in examinations and, most important of all, to be educated.

Instead of tuition fees, we invested in a good library for our children. They love going to Bras Basah Complex, where there are many second-hand bookshops. A high literacy level is the best gift for children, who would then be able to learn anything on their own.

Parents should be there to encourage, probe and challenge their children and to provide opportunities for them to ask questions.

To prepare children for the 21st-century workforce, where information can be outdated within six months, where lifelong learning is a necessity and not a luxury, parents must provide children with the learning process, not learning outcomes such as grades.

Once the process is in place, the results would come.


The writer has one child studying in Nanyang Technological University, one in National University of Singapore and one completing a diploma with At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy

This letter was first published in Today on teh 20th June 2012.

Proverbs 22:6

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sex education: Parents' gift to children
by Frances Ess
My friend has taught his three daughters, aged six to 11, never to sit on any man's lap, for they may be unaware of the effect they may have on the man.

I am impressed with his ability to protect his daughters from unnecessary risks.

Thirteen years ago, when my eldest son was 12, he was invited to go swimming with a stranger. He agreed but informed us first.

We confronted the stranger and, needless to say, were glad that they did not swim together.

The American Psychological Association estimates that 60 per cent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members - i.e. family friends, babysitters, childcare providers and neighbours.

Child pornographers and other abusers who are strangers may contact children via the Internet.

While I do not have the data for Singapore, I feel that parents must take proactive steps to protect their children before it is too late.

My children have been trained to know that sexual advances from adults are wrong. We tell them what are "okay" and "not okay" touches, that no one must touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.

We maintain open communication, encourage them to ask questions and talk about their experiences.

After their eighth birthday, they can ask anything about sex. Before that age, they should just accept our instructions.

Some of their questions included how babies are formed, why men masturbate, whether a girl can have sex without getting pregnant and why watching pornography is wrong when most of their friends are already doing so.

One of their acquaintances even boasted that his supply of porn DVDs came from his father. Another child, who is 12, downloaded porn on his iPhone and shared it with his friends. It is a step away from acting out what they see.

Children are curious by nature.

So, parents need to answer these questions, not abdicate responsibility to schools, trusting naively that a few lessons on sexual education is enough.

These lessons provide only information, with no assurance that children would make the right decision as to their sexual experiences.

Children often act based on their attitudes towards an issue, attitudes anchored in a family's beliefs.

Different families have different beliefs, but some are common to all, for example, that our bodies are not objects to be toyed with.

Other beliefs, like on contraception, abortion, divorce, the role of masturbation, visiting a prostitute, are more challenging.

Adults compromise on some of these but may be unhappy if their children follow suit.

Parents have to examine their fundamental beliefs about sex and sexuality and walk the talk. Children are sharp; they know when we are insincere.

If they do not think us trustworthy in this aspect, they would seek other sources of information, such as friends, the Internet or adult magazines

Sex education is parents' most important gift to children, as any misinformation may harm their health in the form of sexually transmitted diseases.

We should start as soon as possible to inoculate our children against paedophiles.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You are your mother's child

By Aubrey Ess, one of the children of MOS.

LAST Sunday, my family and I celebrated Mothers’ Day with a cake and a camera.

On a more essential level, we managed to spend time with mummy and grandma,treating the occasion as more of an opportunity to relate to our respective mothers.

The way I did it was to send my mother a cheeky SMS: “Mummy, you are a tower of coolness, comfort and cash”, to which we both shared a laugh.

Many advertisements seen leading up to Mothers’ Day were eager to bring mother and child together through a range of expensive gifts or holidays. I think, however, that we all know deep down that objects and vacations can never bridge any gap between two people.

On Mothers’ Day itself, an article in a newspaper asked Singaporean mothers
to grade themselves on how good a mother they have been.

Some felt that they did well because they tried their best, and others felt guilty for not being able to spend enough time with their children.

This was the deeper level of the importance of Mothers’ Day, with time spent not only in binding closer ties, but also in reflection.

I have three younger siblings. Over the years, I have participated in imparting
to them morals, behaviourial traits, and the mundane education of numbers
and letters. Consequently, today they are most like me than anyone else I know,for I helped make them who they are.

When my youngest brother and sister were toddlers, my mother told us “older siblings” not to fight in front of them as they would pick up our spite and

We older ones never succeeded, and today, though I am infuriated daily by the squabbling of my younger siblings, it is a result I expected would come to pass.

I have a share in the guilt and pride of these “children”, and even though I
am myself a teenager, perhaps I have an insight to what a mother— and likewise a father— feels.

What I didn’t expect,however, was to pass on my own fears and qualities. Deep
emotions and character traits, more innate than the spite that flies with every daily quarrel.

Often I only realise my actions after I have committed them. So my younger siblings follow them, just as they had picked up my shallow quarrels.

Looking at them, I can see my faults and know where I must improve. Other
times, I can see what is good in me, and it is like a boast come true.

I think mothers should continue to reflect on how good they are, and base their
conclusions not on their efforts alone, but also on how they are portrayed right
in front of their eyes by their children.

First published in Today 20th May 2006

Monday, February 27, 2012

It's not i-Family time

The other day, while having tea at Ya Kun, I noticed their motto: "The toast that binds". Sitting next to our table was a typical family, two parents and two children. The mother, who was in her 40s, was playing Bakery Story on her iPhone. Her children meanwhile sat quietly waiting for their toast to be served.
When the food arrived, everyone ate in silence and at the end of the meal, everyone started to work their finger muscles by swiping their iPhones.
In modern Singapore where most parents have to work, sometimes having sit-down family dinners is a luxury. Yet on the few occasions when the family does find the opportunity to have dinner together, I have noticed the ubiquitous presence of the iPhone or iPad.
Some parents use the iPhone as a pseudo-sitter for their two- or three-year-old child. They justify this by explaining that it keeps their children quiet. Others claim that they must log onto Bakery Story or else all the bread they have baked online would have burnt. Some reason that they must be contactable 24/7 or they might miss out on an important contract if they do not answer every email.
Professor Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, did a study recently and was worried that only one in five families sit down together. In America, they have also begun to discuss family values, and the professor said Americans cannot have family values if they do not even have family meals together.
But, in this i-generation of the iPhone, iPad and iPod, the purpose of a sit-down together is defeated if these devices of self-centred amusement (so aptly prefixed with 'I') become part of the family meal.
My family also finds it a challenge to eat together, as three of the older children are pursuing tertiary education and are seldom at home. So we would have late-night supper or early morning breakfast.
Sometimes friends and family join us, and one of the rules we firmly enforce is that these i-devices not be present at the table. I remember once requesting an acquaintance not to take any photos of the food - she had this irritating habit of stopping us from digging in when each dish was served because she insisted on uploading everything she ate onto Facebook.
Needless to say, we no longer share any meals, as she cannot eat if she does not post on Facebook and I will not eat if she does.
Imagine what it would be like having a meal without these i-devices. Our children might learn to see to others' needs instead of grabbing the food they like. They may learn to show respect to older members of the family as they wait their turn for the chicken, or invite their grandparents to eat.
Yes, they may fight over the otah, and that is where we can help them develop family values like sharing. They may even learn to have a decent conversation and hone their social skills.
During our family meals, the men and boys have to ensure that only after their mothers, sister and the youngest have taken their share, would they then take theirs. Some may say this is an archaic etiquette that is no longer relevant in this post-modern feminist era, but this is how we hope to produce gentlemen.
The girls, on their part, are expected to help prepare the meals, set the dishes and wash the plates alongside the boys. This is to ensure that the girls do not develop an entitlement attitude since the boys must let them pick first during the meal.
If we do not take steps to have proper family meals where there is laughter, interaction, exchange of news and information, I am afraid that all the effort to develop values in our children will fail, as we abdicate this vital function to the school, teachers and Ministry of Education.
Frances Ess is a mother of six.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Let traditions take root
04:46 AM Jan 08, 2012
by Frances Ess
Every year without fail, the entire family would troop down to the Thomson Road nurseries to hunt for a Christmas tree.
When the children were younger, it was a much easier process as everyone would be home and we could go any time in November or December. Last Christmas, it took military precision to execute this exercise with our six children, aged six to 22, to coordinate.
First, the event was announced on the family Facebook closed group. A date was selected, but it was rejected as one child had to work, while another had to go for a church outing. Another date was proposed, and it was accepted provided we could be done by 1pm as another child had to go online to apply for her courses at a local university.
Still, the occasion was filled with much fun and joy as the older children showed the younger ones the art of selecting a tree. It was good to see the family tradition passed down from one generation to another.
While watching Mary Poppins, a phrase from the song The Life I Lead caught my attention. It argues that tradition, discipline and rule are what you need to run a British family, or else there will be disorder, catastrophe and anarchy.
While we do not subscribe to ruling the family and our children with an iron hand, we discovered that, if we provide our children with a balance of tradition, discipline and rule, it would help them to navigate obstacles in life's playground.
In this globalised century, where our six-year-old understands the concept of Skype and protests that he does not wants his pictures to be posted on Facebook, unconsciously we are allowing this interconnected and integrated world to form part of his rituals and traditions.
For example, some of us will not believe an event has taken place unless it has been posted on some trusted website. Our children no longer take the textbook as the gospel truth, and turn to Google or Wikipedia to seek answers.
Dr Diana Oblinger observed that, by age 21, our children will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games, sent 200,000 emails, watched 20,000 hours of television and spent 10,000 hours on a mobile phone. This implies that our children could miss out on the opportunity to develop social and emotional skills. As our children's brains become digitally rewired, they may find it more difficult to interact with other human beings.
In addition, information and knowledge, data and facts are changing and being updated constantly. In the world of Facebook, there are some who constantly update their status with what they eat, where they are going and who they are with.
Although we have to train our children to understand that change is the only constant and that they have to learn to adapt, there is value in following some family traditions. They give the children a sense of continuity, of being rooted, of belonging to a community.
It provides them with a feeling of expectation, of waiting for something to happen, and thus develops patience - a virtue which is becoming more scarce as our children complain when a website takes more than 10 seconds to load.
In Singapore, we have many great family traditions that are threatened by the digital age, and we must guard against them being eroded. For example, Chinese New Year is around the corner, and we should ensure that it is a time for family members to interact and catch up on the past year's happenings.
But more and more children might prefer to stay home and hooked up to the digital world rather than go visiting. We need to ensure they learn how to show respect to our relatives and elders by continuing this beautiful tradition.
We may be accused of being old-fashioned or sentimental. But without developing and following traditions, we are depriving our children of the roots with which to anchor their lives. Of course, some traditions need to be updated and adapted. But as long as our children have some to fall back on, we are providing them some form of security to face the world.
Frances Ess is a mother of six.

This article was first published in Today 8.1.2012

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's wrong not to know what's wrong

My five-year-old son stole a piece of cake. When confronted, he denied that he had done so. He said his sister had stolen the fruit cake.For this "crime", he was caned for the following reasons: For nearly getting his sister into trouble, for "arrowing" his sister and for lying.

It broke my heart to cane him but he needed a memorable negative reinforcement. It was explained to him clearly why he was caned. The lesson was seared in his mind.

Sometimes, I am tempted to use the preferred method of counselling and reasoning. Parents now prefer such methods as they find the traditional autocratic style of parenting archaic. I do agree as the autocratic parent uses reward and punishment to enforce behaviour. Children are given instructions and expectations, and are given little room to grow and develop. As a result, their spirits are broken or they rebel.But in their eagerness to be seen as not autocratic, they become accommodating parents. They allow their children to do their own thing. There is little respect for request, routine and rules.

Professor Harvey Bunke accurately describes this as the non-judgmental approach, in which standards of right and wrong are discarded and the individual is urged to determine his own pattern of behaviour; each decides for himself what is right and wrong. Prof Burke suggested that this form of humanistic psychology contributed to the decline of American society.

For example, an accommodating parent shared how she deals with her five-year-old. He likes to use the hammer and screwdriver to take things apart. His grandmother would remove these items for fear he would hurt himself. His mother would rather reason with the youngster about the pros and cons of playing with such tools.

Of course, the child continues with his behaviour. His grandmother and mother do not come across as figures of authority: One he sees as someone who constantly snatches his "toy" away, while the other is someone he only has to listen to while she talks and then he can go back to playing with his "toys" again.

In my family, we strongly believe that to love a child involves disciplining him when he is wrong. Disciplining requires the parents to know clearly what is unacceptable behaviour. In our household, this includes telling lies, being unkind and showing disrespect. Our children know that, once they cross the line, they will be caned.

Many parents find caning primitive and unenlightened. They would rather engage their children with reasoning. However, this method often degenerates into a negotiation session, where a child learns to test how far he can get away with unacceptable behaviour.

For example, another accommodating parent did not allow her son to drink cold drinks at night. She explained that it would keep him awake and he had a cough. He "reasoned" with her and manipulated her into giving him the drink.
Now, we could celebrate that we are producing the next generation of entrepreneurs or negotiators but I strongly feel that a five-year-old is too young to know what is right or wrong and thus should not be allowed to negotiate in the first place.

For me, a firm "no" would suffice and our children would not even entertain the thought of challenging us. Only when their concepts of right and wrong have been developed and established would we engage in reasoning, discussion and negotiation. An indication of when a child is ready is when he can show mastery of his actions and is willing to change his demands in the light of reasoning.

Authoritative parenting differs from accommodating parenting. The critical difference is that the former encourages children to be independent but still places limits and controls on their actions. But whether our parenting style is autocratic, accommodating or authoritative, our children still need to know what is wrong.

We cannot just make empty threats. The minute a child crosses the line, negative reinforcement must be swift. It is up to each parent to decide what that negative reinforcement would be.

This was first printed on 3rd Dec 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I'd rather let my kid climb a tree than play on the iPad

I almost had a heart attack one day when I discovered my six year old son and eleven year old daughter up a tree. My first instinct was to scream at the top of my voice for them to come down at once. I managed to stop in time for I suddenly recalled what one of my friends had said when I forbade my six-year-old from climbing a water pipe. 

His basic point was that in this age of the iPhone, iPad and iMac, we might have become over protective of our children.

He was right. In the dinosaur age before Facebook was launched, children used to be more active. I remember growing up in the back alley of North Bridge Road, playing hantam bola. I belonged to a group where we would organise Moon Cake Festival parties complete with story-telling and lantern-walks to look for cockroaches.

We learned to negotiate: Do we play badminton or police and thief first? We developed values like loyalty and compassion as we looked after our younger playmates. We learned to give and take, quarrel today, be friends again tomorrow and sworn enemies the next week.

In other words, we learned to function in a society with other human beings.

Francis Xavier once said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man." This is a powerful idea which I have been contemplating regularly as I reflect on the choice of activities that I allow for my children's recreation.

My husband has been firmly against using the television as a baby-sitter. He observed that too many parents have taken the easy way out to keep their children quiet by turning on the television. With the installation of DVD players in cars, many children have learnt to demand to watch cartoons and movies while on the road. Whether it be on the road or in the comfort of the living room, allowing children to watch television excessively deprives them of the chance to learn to communicate and interact with other people.

In addition, with the sprouting of iPhones everywhere, we have noticed a worrying trend where children as young as five are addicted to Angry Bird or punching Tom Cat. 

What is wrong with using the DVD, iPhone or the television as a baby-sitter, you might ask? Are we not living in the 21st century? Everyone is doing it and no one seems to be the worse for it. At least it keeps the children quiet while we parents can have a peaceful meal in the hawker centre or a peaceful drive.

Here are a few questions to consider. Do your children get extremely upset if these entertainment devices are taken away from them? Do your children nag at you insistently until you give them back these devices? Can they behave politely when they are with their peers or do they prefer to be left alone with these devices? Must they play with these devices while at the dinner table? 

These entertainment devices, while fulfilling their main purpose of entertaining our children, are also grooming them to be insular as it only communicates with them in a linear and singular manner. Even when they play LAN games or multi-player computer games, they are not interacting with people face to face.

Excessive use of these entertainment devices often produces children who are demanding, rude and selfish. If you do not believe me, try taking the PSP or iPhone away from a child during diner and watch his reaction. Odds are, he or she would cry, scream or nag until they get their way. Parents often would rather give in and keep them happy than use tough love and discipline them.

Frances Ess is a mother of six.

This article was first published on 11.9.2011

Here are the rest of the article that was not printed.

When they are addicted to these communication devices, parents sometime are at a lost as to what they can do. They rather give in to the children and keep them quite and made them happy then to use tough love to discipline the children.

Parents must remember they are responsible for the upbringing of their children. It is the parent who put that iphone in the hand of the child. The child does not have the means nor the ability to buy any of these communication devices. If there really is a need to let them use these devices, ensure that a strict time limit is enforced so that children realised that there is a time and place to play these games. Do not allow them to play such games during family visits to their grand parents, during diner or at children party. Provide alternative form of entertainment like going to the park, swimming or playing football where they have the opportunities to develop their physical and social self.

As young parents of children, we have to consider the environment that we are allowing our children to grow up in. When we allow our children to use such communication devices, it is the game designers and the movies producers that design the virtual world with their own rules and regulations and values. Are we abdicating our roles and responsibilities as parents?

Is it too late to change? Start by pulling the plug and see what happens.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

'Mum, can you buy me ... ' It's a question our children aren't ever allowed to ask me, when we're at the store

One day, while shopping at Ang Mo Kio Hub, I heard a child scream loudly for a packet of sweets. He threw a tantrum when he was refused. To save herself from further embarrassment, his mum gave in.

That incident reminded me of the Marshmallow Study done in the '60s. A group of four-year-olds was offered one marshmallow but told that, if they could wait for 15 to 20 minutes, they could have two. The theory was that those children who could wait had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse. It was observed that those children who could do so did well in school and in life 20 years later.

Many of us who are now parents grew up in the '60s and '70s when we did not enjoy many material comforts. In my family, we would eat chicken and meat only during festive seasons. I remember going to Chinatown once a year to buy a dress for Chinese New Year. A birthday would warrant an egg and, if times were good, a plate of noodles.

In our eagerness to give the best to our children, often we tend to give them what we would want or had missed out on. We would not blink an eye spending S$300 on a themed birthday party, for instance. And providing music or ballet lessons is not enough now; we have to have deportment lessons or equestrian lessons too. I have seen children as young as nine with their own personal iPhone.

We have a policy in our household. Our children are not allowed to ask us to buy anything for them when we are shopping at the supermarket or department store. They are not allowed to buy anything that has been mass advertised, and we would never buy them any branded merchandise.

We feel that, as long as our children are provided with a basic nutritious meal, there is no need to eat fast food. A simple pair of jeans that can be bought from the neighbourhood shop is sufficient, without the need to pay five times the price for a branded label affixed.

They were taught from young to distinguish between needs and wants. We would never give in to what they want no matter how loud their protest but we would not spare a dime to provide for their needs.

Here is the million-dollar question: Are we parents able to distinguish between what our children need and what they want?

We have a few simple guidelines. Firstly, some wants are created by advertisers, and children with impressionable minds can be hooked by slick presentations. If we give in to their demands, our children will grow up believing that, if they make enough noise, they will get what they want; and they will believe that what is advertised is always good.

Secondly, we are very clear on what our children need in life. They need to establish a good relationship with their parents, communicate with their family members and friends and bond with the community. Thus, we would never buy communication devices that would allow them to play games at the dinner table. We have seen some children who are preoccupied with their iPhone at parties - it deprives them of the chance to socialise and they become insular.

Finally, we always remind ourselves that we parents are in control. A firm "no" often silences our children when they throw tantrums. The greatest disservice we can do to our children is to give in to their whims - we would be helping to develop children who are ill-disciplined and spoiled.

M Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled discusses the elements of discipline, which include the ability to delay gratification. As long as Maslow's basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied, we should focus on helping our children to grow into mature, loving human beings who can contribute to society, not little emperors who would terrorise it.

Every year, during the Hungry Ghost Festival, my husband will suffer from asthma attack. This could be due to the burning of paper offerings.

Yet we do not ask the Community Mediation Centre to mediate and ask our neighbour to stop this practice. We understand the need for our fellow citizens to express their religious practices.

Instead, my husband tries to stay indoors as often as possible and increases his medication dosage. Nevertheless, he would be incapacitated sometimes and would need a couple of days of rest.

Therefore, I am concerned when a family who have relocated to Singapore have requested that their neighbour stop cooking curry. They had resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell.

"Can you please do something? Can you don't cook curry? Can you don't eat curry?" they implored.

Maybe it is timely for us to remember that just as we are given freedom to express our culture and religious customs, we have to co-exist in our common space, such as the air we breathe.

It would be difficult to insist on the fragrances and smells that one will encounter. At best, we can decrease the space allowed for smoking, which has been proven to affect health.

Some would consider Singapore a melting pot of cultures, where different spices and flavours simmer together to form a great, delicious Singapore curry.

In fact, curry can be found in the cuisines of the four main races of Singapore, from Devil's Curry cooked by Eurasians during Christmas season to the ubiquitous curry chicken cooked by the Chinese to the "sayur lodeh" cooked by Malays.

The basic Indian style of cooking is to use a variety of spices such as turmeric, coriander and cumin as a base for a stew. From vegetable to mutton, eggs to jackfruit, we can make a curry out of any food.

Yes, the use of these spices will release an aroma that some people will need time to get used to, but I am sure that Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans will be able to acclimatise and accommodate the smell.

I feel strongly that it is inappropriate to ask the local family to only cook curry when the neighbour is not at home. It is equivalent to asking my neighbour not to burn paper offerings when my husband is home, which is a ridiculous request.

When we welcome guests to our homes for a meal, it is only polite to accept graciously what is offered on our table. If a guest finds the food offensive, the acceptable etiquette is to decline tasting the food, not demand that the host stop cooking it.