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Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's a Boy!

It was confirmed! We were going to have a boy! Mark has always wanted to be a Daddy to a son, someone whom he could do all the "Daddy-ish" things with - go trekking, camping, play chess, play ball, the list goes on. He was overjoyed. I, however, have always been deeply petrified at the thought of having a son. I have always wanted a girl, someone to giggle and play masak masak with.

However, God in His infinite wisdom chose for our firstborn to be a boy, and not just any boy, but a real "boy's boy". Our son never ceases to surprise us in all the ways he lives up to his true boyish nature. He never walks but runs. He doesn't just eat but gobbles down his food. When we go for a walk along the canal, he insists on walking along the full-length of the iron grating beside the path. If there is a puddle, he insists on stepping in it. If there is a leaf, he has to either pick it up or kick it. Last week, he even tried to eat one. He leaps down stairs, two at a time. He has succeeded in scaring away quite a few of our friends' daughters with his biting and hair-pulling tendencies, all of which we have been trying actively to curb.

When I look at him, I can see in all the rawness of my little one's behaviour, the true heart of a boy - the wild abandon and the boundless energy and passion which He has given our son, and which He has given us as parents as gifts which we must tame and nurture so that Z grows up to be a man after His own heart. As his parents, we are enjoying every moment of it.

Never in my wildest imagination would I have been able to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. In my comfortable, sheltered girl-only existence (till the time I got married and actually had to live with one!), boys were generally messier, more odorous, hyperactive, had violent tendencies and unfathomable in terms of their strange behaviour. The oldest of three sisters, I had been in a girls' school for ten years and subsequently taught in the same school. I knew girls well - all the delicate nuances, the reasons for their temperamental tendencies, the intricacies of their friendship issues - and I would definitely know how to parent one more than I would a boy.

But having a boy has been fun! God has definitely chosen to throw me into unfamiliar territory - and it's been exciting. Out with the familiar dolls and stuffed toys and pink clothes I have known all my life, and in with the trains, planes, automobiles and basically anything that moves or makes sufficient noise. I watch in wonderment (and trepidation!) as our little one tears his way around the house, curious about everything in sight. I am amazed at how he lifts his face skyward during our walks, to examine the branches above and to look at the vast expanse of sky. The world has gained a fresh, new perspective as I see it through his eyes.

And yet I worry. Literature is not positive when it comes to raising boys. Research consistently shows that they walk and talk slower, get stressed more easily, have more difficulty socialising, and tend to exhibit more learning and behavioural issues than girls. As a counsellor, I see many more boys than girls referred in school. I know that the classroom can be a difficult place for a boy who needs space to explore his surroundings and who learns by touch and not just by sitting in a lecture. How can we help Z to realise his full potential as a boy, and later as a man, becoming all God has intended him to be?

I know that we must first let him realise his true identity as a boy, and help him to be secure in it. It is easy for me to do otherwise when his reckless behaviour causes me to worry, or when his seemingly defiant tantrums cause my temper to rise.

I realised this last week when we were on a walk at West Coast Park, just me and Z. He was once again being himself - refusing to walk along the path, stepping into every puddle there was, wandering off into the muddy grass and playing with the soil even though there was plenty of sand to play with in the playground... I soon became exhausted with worry, trying to ensure he did not slip on the wet ground or hurt himself on the metal grating, when suddenly, for a brief moment, I looked up at the branches which my son was inspecting, and realised that there was so much to be thankful for - my little one with his inquisitive nature and his general zest for life, the fact that I had the luxury of spending these precious moments with him.

Yet, while we give our son the space and time to be himself, we also know that he needs us as parents to give him the structure and loving boundaries that he needs. One of the books that has been very helpful to us is "Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys" by Stephen James and David Thomas (Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Illinois, 2009). In the book, they describe boys from the ages of 2 to 4 as being in "The Explorer" stage - active, aggressive, curious and self-determined. The authors say that what boys need most from their parents at this stage are loving boundaries which help him feel safe and build bonds with his caregivers, open space to explore and release aggression, consistency, to bring order to the chaos, and most of all understanding, that they are uniquely wired and different from girls.

We also intend to show our son as much affection and warmth as we can and give him the tools to express his emotions and learn how to show empathy for others. My mother shared from a book she was reading that especially since boys have more difficulty socialising than girls, that it was all the more important that they received lots of affection, cuddling, kisses and hugs from the adults in their lives.

"Wild Things" also talks about "The Mind of a Boy", and how boys are wired very differently from girls. Findings show that boys tend to be "spatial instead of relational, aware of objects instead of faces, and action-oriented, as opposed to process-oriented". This basically means that even from infancy, boys prefer looking at objects instead of people, and are more interested in things that move rather than things that are still. This means parents of boys have more work to do in the emotional spheres of parenting. This goes against traditional views of gender - that big boys don't cry, that they must be strong. Instead, we must teach our son that emotions are normal, and give him the emotional vocabulary he needs so that he will find alternative ways of expressing his feelings.

To put it in simple terms, we have to love him so much that he will know how to show love to others in return; We have to give him so many cuddles and hugs that he will know he is unconditionally loved, and thus be able to love others in the same way. We need to teach him empathy by showing empathy to others. Recently, Z's response to his pet cat Whiskers has shown me that at an early age, children already know how to show love and affection. Whiskers is a battery-operated cat which meows and moves his paws when stroked. Z has developed a great fondness for his new pet, and looks for him first thing in the morning and showers the kitten with hugs and kisses throughout the day. I hope that our son is developing a love for animals through this make believe play, but I hope more than that, that he will ultimately learn how to show love and care for his fellow human beings.

We are only at the start of our journey. One day, our son will become a man, and there is so much more that we must teach him before then. Recently, the prospect of a second child has come up, that we would like to have a sibling for Z. Both grandmothers have explicitly indicated their desire for a granddaughter - they can't wait to dress her up and both feel that one boy is more than enough to manage! I surprised myself by entertaining the thought of a second son, a brother whom Z will be able to roll around and have adventures with. Well, who knows? Just as much as I am hoping to raise a sensitive, caring boy, I suppose a spunky, self-confident girl would be lots of fun too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Time to Rest

It's been exactly one week since our family took a brief respite from everyday life in Singapore for a five-day holiday. Just one day before our trip to Tioman, we sent an SMS to our neighbour to help us collect the newspapers and to help keep an eye on our home. To that, she keenly observed, "Wow, your family goes overseas very often!" Her comment is true; afterall that was our fifth trip overseas this year. Don't get us wrong - we are not among the most affluent families in Singapore; and this post is not meant to brag about how many times we go overseas. On the contrary, this post is meant to convey the importance that we place on taking time off from our work. As such, of the five trips this year, three were to Malaysia (by car), one to Indonesia, and only one "big trip" to Australia.

Sue and I love to travel. We are exhilarated by the sights and sounds of a different land. We enjoy the natural beauty of a country's scenery. We love to imbibe the culture of a place, and understand the history of its people. And the educator in me always looks out for things to share with my students - one favourite being about how the Hollocaust affected the people in Dachau, Germany, and another about how fragile tensions are between North and South Korea. Travelling does that to us - it provides a fresh perspective on situations and mindsets. I believe I have been greatly enriched by the numerous places I have visited - and that's why I love to travel.

Travelling is also important for three other reasons - rest, renewal, and reconnection.

The few months before our trip were among the most tiring in a long while. Sue and our son Z were down with Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD), and it was physically and emotionally draining taking care of them. In addition, I was busy with Poly Forum 2011, as well as serving the country just like all able-bodied men in Singapore - serving my yearly National Service commitments. And that was just what I had to do during the so-called "holidays". It did not include the time spent just before - marking and completing the exam processes, a period dreaded by most educators. I truly needed to rest.

Sue was also drained. She had just completed a whole season of counselling, and her tuition classes were building up to the crescendo of the year-end exams. That did not include taking care of Z during the times when I was working. Coupled with the physical and emotional tiredness from HFMD, she too needed a break.

When we got to Tioman, it was as if we had arrived in a different world. There was no need to mark scripts, there was no need to think about crafting new student assignments, there was no need to counsel students. All we had around us was the sun and the sea, as well as the delectable seafood meals each night at the lovely Chinese restaurant by the beach. While we received news from Sue's parents that mainland Singapore was experiencing thunder storms everyday, the weather in Tioman was instead characterised by hot sunshine with almost no clouds in the skies. That was truly a metaphor of the different world we were in.

The change was evident in our son. He had just begun the journey of walking unaided a few days before our trip. In Tioman it seemed as though his feet were injected with a breath of new life. Z began walking all the time - along the paths, on the grass, on the sand, in the sea... Our son thrived in the fresh independence that walking brought. And because of his love for nature, he was now able to stop any time he pleased to enjoy the things around him; occassionally picking up an interesting leaf or two, and stopping at the bridge to admire the lovely little river that meandered to the sea. To the casual onlooker it was probably a strange sight - two adults clapping their hands and gesturing to a tottering little infant. "Z, over here!" One of the curious parents might have exclaimed. "This way, Baby," could have been the call of the other equally strange adult. I cannot fathom why I ever worried that our son would be a slow walker.

Tioman was also lovely because it cost too much to use the Internet. Sue and I do not like to be "connected" when on holiday. We don't like to watch the TV or to surf the net. We do, however, love to read. One of our most animated discussions is always about how many books to pack for a trip. "Dear, do you really think you'll have the time to read this book as well?" I would ask. "Of course," she would reply, adding the book to the 20 others she had already packed. I exaggerate of course. To set the record straight - Sue does not bring 20 books for a 5-day holiday!

Reading, therefore, has become one of the staples for our holidays. Through these books, we have learnt many new things about parenting and about life. We have also been provided with fresh perspectives which help us to recharge and to renew our emotional and mental fuel tank.

Equally important has been the act of reconnecting with each other. During our day-to-day lives in Singapore, so many other issues interfere with the connection we have as a family. Holidays are a great time for us to reconnect with each other - to play games and enjoy the precious moments spent with each other, to talk about the things that really matter, and to chart directions for the future. It is also important to reconnect with God - something that is not always easy during our busy everyday lives. Holidays facilitate such an interaction, as they provide us with a break from our mundane lives, allowing lots of time and space for reflection and reconnecting.

Only one week has past since our last holiday, but already the sights and sounds of Tioman seem to be of another world. I suppose that's how the children in C.S. Lewis's Narnia must have felt after they returned from a visit there. I am reminded of a request that Lucy made at the end of the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "Please Aslan, before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do, make it soon." Unlike Aslan's reply, which indicated that she and her brother Edmund would never return to Narnia, I am hopeful that I would be able to make another trip to my Narnia in the near future.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Steps

Our son took his first long walk last week. On that Friday afternoon, I received an SMS from my wife during the day that he had walked for a good distance along the canal where we lived. Jubilant on receiving the news, yet determined to see this for myself, I hurried home to take him again to the canal after work.

It was a lovely evening. The glowing sun had not yet bid farewell to the day. The leaves were rustling gently in the breeze. And the two of us were holding the hands of our son as we guided him to the canal to reprise his afternoon's performance. My wife held him steadily, before gently letting him go. Both of us proceeded a few steps in front of him, waving our hands madly and gesturing for him to come to us. "You can do it," we cried. "Come to Daddy and Mummy!"

Z stared blankly at us, his hands outstretched in a balancing position. Looking at us hesitantly as though we were strange creatures from a faraway galaxy, he gyrated awkwardly as though he was about to be blown over by the wind. Then he walked. One step at first. Then two. Then a few more. With every step he made, Z edged nearer and nearer to us. When he got within arms' length, we got up and moved slightly further away from him. We had expected him to protest; to make the familar complaining sounds that he was now accustomed to making. But he did not, and instead tottered onwards again towards us. We knew then there was then no more stopping our son; the child whose feet had awakened to the sensation of walking.

Z walked all the way to the bridge near our home, a good 300 metres away. When we carried him to allow him to rest, there was no indication of tiredness. Instead, he gestured that he again wanted to walk. And this he did so, for another 150 metres or so; pausing once in a while to step on an errant leaf or two that had escaped the broom of the hardworking cleaning crew. Z was clearly conscious of his accomplishments, putting his hands together at the end of the walk, in a sign that he wanted us to clap for him. This we did with enthusiasm.

There are two lessons that I have learnt from the entire process. The first relates to the education system in Singapore.

For two months now I had been anxious that Z had not yet begun walking. Yes, he had taken his first steps then, moving from the living room sofa to my wife, or from the dining room chair to me. However, all good parents know that normal children should begin walking by the age of 13 months. When Z took his first steps at 12 months, I was hopeful that our son might begin walking unaided at that age. This would have been one month before the normal age of walking, and it would have meant that Z would have been developmentally-advanced. But as the days went by, my hopes were dashed; and I was even gripped with the fear that my son could grow up as an developmentally-slow child. I know now that my fear was unfounded - not because Z finally walked, but because a child should not be judged by the developmental milestones in his life.

In today's world of super schools and super kids, many parents take on tuition for their children in order to provide them with the extra help needed to do well. Yet a significant number of children have tuition not because they are doing badly, but instead because their parents compare their grades with the children around them. Feeling that their children are not performing as well as their peers, these parents decide to spend the money on tuition so their kids would not be left out. Sue and I have decided we will not send our children for tuition. We will instead consider enrichment classes and other activities to help them develop holistically.

The second lesson relates to exploration and boundaries.

In the book Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas, the authors talk about the different stages of boys and how to nurture them. One idea that I gleamed is that young children are like explorers. They need the freedom to explore the world around them; but children must be given loving boundaries so that they will not get into trouble.

We feel that our son learnt to walk because we surrendered control of him. If my wife had not first let go of Z, he would have continued to cling on to us as he walked. By giving up control of him, we had allowed him the space he needed to explore. Yet we were always a few steps in front of him; during the later parts of the walk, Sue and I stationed ourselves to his left and right in order to guard against cyclists and joggers who were whizzing by the canal track. We needed to keep him safe and provide him with loving boundaries - even as he explored the world on his own terms.

In my course of work I have seen many children who were either too tightly controlled by their parents or given too much freedom. Both extremes led to negative consequences - the children either grew up extremely resentful of their parents and snapped under the pressure, or they were so unattended by their parents that they ended up commiting crimes and learning the consequences of their actions. My wife and I have decided we want to allow our son to explore as much as he wants to; and we have promised to be there for him. We will however not hesistate to discipline him if the situation warrants it. What remains for us is to decide how much is too much, and I know this is something we will be learning all our lives.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Curing the Epidemic of Ungratefulness

I have been feeling rather disturbed by a recent trend I've noticed among the children I work with. It started with a few of my tuition students demanding food and drink from me during our lesson - "I want a glass of water!" and "I'm hungry. Do you have anything to eat?" with no "please" to preface their demands, or even a  "thank you" after I had to rummage through my kitchen to find something to fill their stomachs with. Never mind the fact that I am their tuition teacher, and not running a restaurant out of my home.

Then it carried on with one of my counselling clients in school telling me that his parents did not love him, though they had rewarded him for doing well by letting him choose two gifts of his choice - because they had not bought him a Sony PlayStation 2.  The final straw was at the students' graduation ceremony this week, when a boy who had won the best award tore open his gift envelope while still on stage, and then ran off proclaiming that the $10 Popular gift voucher was too small in amount. 

It seems that the next generation in Singapore is being brought up with everything they want - and more. What I have observed among the children I work with is no surprise, and yet I am deeply troubled by the fact that we are raising a generation who never seems to be thankful for what they do have, and spends all their time hankering for what they have not yet acquired. 

This trend is particularly troubling for my husband and I as we try to raise our son, who, like it or not, is part of this very crowd of opinionated young people who may well grow up to be just as ungrateful too. We are concerned because he is surrounded by so much plenty - the best and most nutritious organic food, a multitude of toys in both grandparents' homes and our own, and the list goes on. We are fearful that he will develop an attitude of not just ungratefulness, but also demandingness, and not be able to cherish the small blessings that come across his way. 

So how can we as parents actively and intentionally help him to counter this disturbing trend, and replace it instead with an attitude of gratefulness, that he may develop an attitude of gratitude and contentment as he grows older? There are a few things I have though of:

Firstly, it is important that we as a family celebrate and cherish the little joys in life. Z (our son) has recently developed a passion for leaf-collecting. It started when he turned one. Whenever we go for a walk, he carefully selects the best and nicest leaf possible, and then turns and looks up at me with a sweet smile, waiting for me to praise him for his excellent choice of leaf. I hope that he will always be content with the little delights that nature brings our way - how he stares intently at the leaves rustling in the wind, or puts out his hands to ask me to scoop him up so that he can reach for branches high in the sky.

Secondly, children should be rewarded with the intangible more than the material. Far too many children are persuaded to study hard for their exams in order to gain some form of monetary or tangible reward. While some of these are necessary for children especially at a young age (think theories of reinforcement and classical conditioning!), I have seen as a counsellor and teacher that words still remain the most powerful. The same boy who demanded a PS2 from his parents told me in a later session that all he actually wished for was for his parents to tell him that they love him. Physical and verbal affection have been found to be crucial for a child's development.

Thirdly, we should teach our children the value of work. They need to understand the value of hard work, and work to earn the things that they desire. This could mean contributing half the sum of money needed to buy a new toy, or earning allowance through helping babysit or wash their neighbour's car. I will always remember this single parent I knew, who worked as a cleaner till late in the night. He was not ashamed of his job, and even brought his son to work a few times just to show him how hard Daddy worked, so that his son would understand why he could not be at home. He was a man to be admired for his wisdom in parenting his son.

Lastly, and most importantly, we ourselves as parents need to learn how to count our blessings and not complain so much. I am so often guilty of ingratitude myself - after a long day of work, housework and caring for my son, I find myself complaining about my lot in life. At these times, I have forgotten that both the work assignments I have, as well as my husband and son, are both gifts from God, and that I have been indeed blessed with much more than I could ever ask for and need. As parents, my husband and I are always grateful for the energetic bundle of joy in our lives. As spouses, we are thankful for our marriage in a world where so many marriages are broken and torn asunder. As Singaporeans, we are thankful for the safety and protection and freedom we have, where people in so many other countries face fear and uncertainty on a daily basis. 

My prayer is that Z will grow up to be a boy who is content and rejoices in the little things in life, that he will understand the value of immaterial more than the tangible, that he will value the work that he puts his hands to, and most of all that he will be grateful everyday for the life he has been given. I pray that he will always find beauty in a fallen leaf on a sunny day.