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.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A home schooled's child reflection

My eldest son Angus was able to go to an "elite school" St Michael's School (now known as St Joseph's Junior) as his father was an old boy of that school. So we need not have to volunteer for 40 hours like Zoe Tay or pay a large some of money to contribute to the school building fund. Yet when Angus completed Primary 5, we made the painful decision to pull him out of St Michael's. His father observed that the school was giving him tons of worksheet and homework just so that he was prepared for the PSLE the following year.
I remembered he was given a list of 500 hundreds word to know and spell before going to Primary 1. Since he could not remember all these words and spell them, he was branded slow and had to go for Learning Support for English class. Of course he did not managed to pass a single Chinese Test since Primary 1.
We decided to home school him together with his two sisters. But first we have to de-schooled him. Trianed him to stop doing home work and wait for instructions from his teachers. It took us a year.
From the time he was 13 years old to 15 years, he was allowed to explore and do what he wanted. He decided to focus on GO, a mind game that is more challenging then chess. He spent his weekend sparing with GO master from China and his command of the Chinese language improved. He obtained a 2nd Dan for GO.
He was allowed to explore music by learning to playing the piano and guitar himself. Only when he was sixteen did we asked him to start to prepare for his O level. Because of his strong command of the English language, he was able to do a subject without even knowing what it was about and have never attempted the question. He did well to go to the Poly and graduated top 5% of his cohort. This while doing his A level by himself.
I wrote this note because I am worried that many parents made the wrong assumption that once their child is in a good school, they can abdicate their role as parents and leaves everything to the school and the army of tuition teachers. It does not matter which school a child is enrolled in as long as the parents are responsible and play thier part.
As for Angus I will allow his own words to speak for him. This is an extract from an essay that he has written to apply for a higher institution of learning.
As a child, I was home schooled all the way up to my polytechnic days. My father had a strict policy that no teacher be give me in aid of my studies. Having a strong belief in self directed learning, he never forced me to study more than I wanted to. I had an extremely carefree and amazing childhood; exploring avenues which would never have been otherwise open to me, had I enlisted into in a normal school.
Resulting as of this unique approach to what an ‘education’ is, I developed an independent and natural thirst for knowledge. A thirst developed not just to know, but to understand.
Too many a time we find ourselves regurgitating theories with big names and phrases giving the semblances of understanding.
Many a time, you’ll find me asking simple questions which sound childish, but if we always have to hide behind the embellishments of our language then we’d never be able to have a conversation with much substance.
After all, as an art student, creativity and the question of what art actually is, is already an extremely complex question. An education to me has always been about having breath and a depth in knowledge of the subject.
I have to admit that at times I do get carried away when I am on to something or involved in a project. Passion is very much a part of me and I can go days on end working on a project without knowing until I fall ill.
Fortunately, the days in the army serving as an officer, has really forced me to see things from a more practical and less idealistic point of view. While I still am able to view a concept for its full glory and what it could be, I am also capable of executing it in a practical manner.
Two of my passions which I have taken very seriously throughout the course of my life are Music and Chess. To be more precise, I perform the classical guitar and play competitive Wei Qi. A couple of very different activities which require two very different unique skill sets.
Having studied music and performing at venues like the Sub Station and Arts House has enabled me to develop a senses of thinking with emotions. If you don't feel what you are playing then it is almost guaranteed that the music one plays will be technical and expressionless. Over the years, exploring the various genres of music has allowed me to harvest and control certain emotions.
On the other hand, I spent a great deal of my childhood engrossed in the art to Wei Qi. Developing a rigid structure of organisation and a sense of logical thinking. Wei Qi is a mental sport where each move is compounded by the moves before. A sport where not having a plan is a sure way to defeat. Calculating every point every step of the game to secure victory can be an extremely painstaking but rewarding process.
Going into the arts industry, these are two very relevant skills to possess. Having the raw passion and drive is the first step to creating that spark of creativity required for ever work of art. However, being able to control that rage of emotions produced as a by product is even more important to actually achieving a work of substance. Ensuring that an artist keeps a certain professional distance from his own works is vital in the sale of his ideas.
I have a great interest ideas and concepts. From whichever field it may come from, an idea has never failed to capture my imagination. And being in a town like this would enable me to explore and connect across various disciplines. At the same time having the control over the thoughts that come my may play a crucial role in the development of a creative piece, it ensures that imaginations don't degrade into mere daydreams.

We would not recommand that you homeschool your child unless you are willing to give up the Television and and ensure that you do not allow your child to play any computer games. (PSP, FB games, Lan game etc)
But then again most children who are enrolled in Primary 1 this year will be watching T.V. and play computer games. Hmmm.. Food for thought? Much ado about nothing?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why they decided to have all six children

Letter published on 23rd March 2011

HERE is my take on coping with work and having children and related incentives. I am a mother who often works 12 hours a day. My job also requires me to travel frequently.

When we had our first three children, my husband and I did not employ a maid as we believed they should not grow up being served hand and foot.

We were overjoyed when the fourth arrived, even though our finances were tight and I had to take no-pay leave because paid maternity leave stopped at the third child then. What was more, we could not use Medisave to defray delivery expenses because access then was limited to three children as well.

The fifth came barely a year later and there was no baby bonus, nor could we use Medisave for the delivery costs.

Five years later, we welcomed our sixth baby. My parents disapproved of our decision to have all our children as it was clear that we were struggling financially. However, we refused to give up any one of our six. We preferred to have all of them than to have that extra holiday or more personal time.

My children do not have tuition or enrichment classes, yet two of them are local undergraduates.

For us, each child is a priceless gift. That is why we should stop seeking more incentives from the Government or blame social pressures for not providing the right environment. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

In the book, Hard Truth to Keep Singapore Going, MM Lee made the following comments when asked to assess the progress of multiracialism in Singapore.

“I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not want to offend the Muslim community,” said MM Lee.

“I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration — friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians — than Muslims. That’s the result of the surge from the Arab states,” said the former Prime Minister of Singapore.

“I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam. I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate,” he added.

Well at risk of making any generalization, allow me to bring up one counter example. I have great Muslim friends in my work place. We have worked together, went on several field trips, took part in cooking competition, cried together, did high five and basically doing what friends would do to help each other.

In the course of my working with them, I have learn to accommodate our activities so that they are free to worship and practice their religion. For example, during overseas field trips, I ensure that all the food are Halal, that Muslim teachers and students are given time to pray at the required time and every possible effort is made to ensure that they can worship in a mosque on Friday.

Once, when I was organizing the opening of a school, the Guest of Honour requested some private time for him to pray. Although we have to make some changes to the programme, we took it as an opportunity to learn to respect each other cultural and religious values.

Yes my Muslim friends are distinct and separate yet these distinctions do not prevent them from integrating with us. All it takes is for us to find space in our heart to welcome them.

After all I am sure that as human being, our hearts are big enough to accommodate all human being regardless of race language or religion.

Or have our heart began to shrink as we grow older?