Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just a Few Steps Ahead - The Walk of a Mentor

"I really can't wait to eat Claire's delicious dinner. She has always prepared a sumptious meal all these years... But this crazy rain seems to get heavier by the minute, and the traffic is really crazy... I wish we had arranged another day for our mentoring session..."

That was my lament to Sue as we drove last Thursday to the home of Ben and Claire, the lovely couple who have been our relationship mentors even before we got married. The December monsoons had come a few weeks early, peak hour traffic was almost at a standstill, our son Z was getting a little cranky in his car seat, and we were very late - almost one hour to be precise.

But the moment we entered the house, all strain and tiredness seemed to evaporate like the springtime mist. Ben was all smiles as he greeted us. "There's no need to apologise," he voiced, as we articulated the long story behind why we were so late. "What's most important is that you're here," echoed Claire, her gentle disposition melting away all our discomfort. "Uncle, Aunty, would you like a drink?" R, the second daughter, graciously asked; to which the eldest child and daughter S added thoughtfully, "Would you like a straw in a cup for Z, so that he can drink as well?"

We knew at once that our "troubles" were all worthwhile.

We first asked Ben and Claire to be our relationship mentors almost five years ago, about a year or so before we got married. We had then just gotten attached officially, and were seeking a couple who were a few steps ahead of us to talk through important relationship issues, to pray for us, as well as to simply help us to learn more about what it takes to develop a strong and healthy relationship. Ben and Claire graciously agreed; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Through the years, Ben and Claire have been with us all the way. They were there during the happy moments, like during our wedding, when their third child D was one of our page boys. Claire helped us to take care of the children, and to make sure that all the page boys and flower girls appeared at the right timing during the bridal procession. Our mentors were also there after Z came into our life, both of them coming to our house to share in our joy, and to rejoice with us at the newest addition to our family.

Ben and Claire were there during the difficult moments in our lives; like when we've had to talk through some of the major issues affecting us as a couple. During these sessions, Ben would always be there to share his insights, and Claire would be there supporting him as he spoke. They also provided more than emotional encouragement; and I will always remember the time when Claire appeared at our house with a huge pot of chicken soup - Z had just come home from the hospital and the couple simply wanted to bless us with a physical gesture of their love and care, hoping that the chicken soup would help us tide through the sleepless nights caring for a newborn child.

We have learnt so much from Ben and Claire - and more often that not, it has been from what we have observed from their lives, rather than only about what they have spoken to us. For instance, we have learnt many principles of parenting just by observing how they parent their children. One incident I remember a few years back was when their third child D had an argument with their youngest child and son C. Ben not only reprimanded C for not sharing his toy with D, but also asked him to give the item to D. Oftentimes we tend to give in to the youngest child during arguments so as to placate him or her. Ben demonstrated otherwise, instead applying the principles of justice and fairness in his parenting.

The family also adopts these principles during mealtime, during which the older children would help to serve the food and wash the dishes, while the younger children help to set the table before the meal, and then to wipe the table afterwards once the food is cleared. Our recent visit saw the youngest, 5-year-old C, offering to clear the dishes after the meal and passing them to his oldest sister, 16-year-old S, to wash up.

Sue and I firmly believe in the concept of mentoring, a long-term process during which an individual would seek the advice and guiding direction of an older and respected person. We ourselves have been mentors to young people, both individually as well as together as a couple. As relationship mentors, we have assisted youth couples in their decision-making process, to help them better understand themselves before they even embark on a relationship, as well as to help them iron out salient issues in their relationships.

There have been a number of precious moments, one of which was when one of our youths shared passionately about why he liked the girl to her in person. While the two eventually did not get together then, we truly felt it was a special moment, and that it was a privilege for us to witness such an honest proclaimation of love. Then there have been the "double dates", during which youth couples would come over to our place to cook, and we would utilise the dining table as the platform to discuss important BGR (Boy-Girl Relationship) issues. There have of course been the difficult moments, when we have had to counsel couples who were going through a break-up. What it took during those instances was for us to listen to the hearts of those we were mentoring, as well as to share with them our own experiences; and to be just a few steps ahead of them in their life journeys.

As I remember the time we shared with Ben and Claire last week, I cannot help but be thankful for this lovely couple, as well as their four wonderful children. While Sue and I were talking to the parents, the children were enjoying a precious time with Z. Our son was running up and down the house, with four kor kors and jie jies, two big brothers and two big sisters, to care for him and play with him. We have learnt much from our mentors and their family, and we are truly grateful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do i Really Win?

i has taken the world by storm. Today there are few people who do not know what an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod is. And that does not preclude children under the age of eight. According to a recent US study, about half of children aged eight and below have access to a mobile device such as a smartphone, a video iPod, an iPad or other tablet. The October 2011 study of 1,384 parents by San Francisco-based Common Sense Media explained the findings, saying that the figures reflect the trend among adults, given that parents continually model such behaviour for their children.

This trend is not exclusive to online media. According to the survey, the television is still the main entertainer for a child. Results showed that children under the age of two tended to watch an average of 53 minutes a day of TV or DVDs, and about one-third of American children that age have TVs in their bedrooms.

When Sue and I first read the survey findings, it brought a certain feeling of dis-ease to us. In about one month, Z will be 17 months' old. And I cannot imagine my son watching TV for 53 minutes a day, nor can I imagine installing a TV in his bedroom!

Sue and I were also unsettled by the findings of another recent research study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The September 2011 qualitative study, of 60 four-year-olds, was published in the Pediatrics journal. It observed that watching fast-paced cartoons such as Spongebob Squarepants, even if for a few minutes, hinders abstract thinking, short-term memory and impulse control in pre-schoolers. While study authors say it's hard to conclude what aspects of the cartoon present such a negative impact, they suspect it could be due to the rapid pace of the show as well as its fantastical nature.

For the record, Z does watch TV. We sometimes screen various baby DVDs that have popular children's songs, Bible stories or educational elements. And our son does enjoy watching the colourful hand puppets that tell the Biblical story of David, as well as the animated children who sing about 'Old MacDonald's Farm". However, we make sure that he does not watch not more than 15 minutes of TV a day. Even then, Z does not watch TV everyday.

Some months back, our pediatrician actually recommended for Z to watch about 10 minutes of educational TV a day. We were then worried about Z's short attention span and his then lack of desire to read books. As a solution, our doctor shared that watching TV could help our son to improve his attention span. She made this suggestion in addition to asking us not to give up, and to persist in exposing Z to books. We subsequently decided to allow him to watch TV, while at the same time deciding that the television should not be Z's babysitter; nor he should not be among the 2-year-old TV addicts mentioned in the October survey!

It's a rather sad picture nowadays at restaurants; one that we are beginning to see more and more often. An entire family of four would be seated either waiting for the food or eating. The father would be surfing the Internet or checking email on his iPhone, the mother talking to friends on her smartphone, the teenage daughter listening to music on her iPod, and the little boy playing games on his iPad.

One could argue that the family has the best that technology could offer. Afterall, wasn't the iPad introduced worldwide only last year? And affluent Singaporeans should definitely buy the best for their children - especially since there is so much potential that the iPad could offer them academically and socially. Perhaps it might be more efficient to communicate with others using one's mobile devices - never mind that your family might be sitting next to you. Or maybe not, as one student shared with me during a recent student event. She said her family had gone for a group counselling session and one thing that she had requested was for her parents not to use their handphones during dinner. Elaborating, the student shared that her parents would always be talking about their business during dinner and that she had felt very alone. To her, quality family time is not just about eating dinner together, or even about spending a Sunday together in the living room with everyone doing their own thing. Quality time, she said, was a precious moment when all family members did things together and talked to each other about the things that mattered most.

Sue and I conduct seminars on cyber wellness and other aspects of Internet behaviour to various groups. Both of us have either together or separately facilitated workshops for educators, parents and students. I will discuss cyber wellness issues per se in another post as the topic is too huge to cover here. I however note that one recurrent theme emerging during our seminars is whether the Internet is more a positive or negative influence for us and our children. I am always ready to accept that the Internet has effected such a strongly positive change in the way we live our lives - especially in the way we now communicate globally and also how we conduct our educational and commercial activities. However, I am also cautious about the negative effects that hyper-connectivity can bring, and I am trying to implement measures to curb such influences.

One such measure that Sue and I have implemented in our home is the principle of "No Computer Day". We know that many households in Singapore have a schoolwork-oriented mindset. As such, parents instill a strict rule among their children that they are not allowed to use the computer on any day except Saturday or Sunday - with the exception of using the computer for schoolwork.

We can understand such a rationale, as it would mean that the children would only be allowed to play computer games over the weekends. This would allow the children to do their vital schoolwork on other days of the week. However, we firmly believe that the weekends should be spent with the family. As such, if we were to allow our children unlimited access to the computer during the weekends, this would be counter-effective towards our desire for them to spend quality family time with us. We therefore decided on the concept of not using the computer at all on Saturdays - except for important uses. This started about three months ago. When Z grows up and asks us why he cannot use the computer on Saturdays, we want to be able to tell him that his Daddy and Mummy have been doing so since he was a little baby, and that we hope he would also understand and choose to adopt such a principle for his life.

It has definitely not been easy to keep to the principle of "No Computer Day"; (and I have honestly not managed to spend every single Saturday disconnected from my computer,) but the results have been most noteworthy. Nowadays, I spend my Saturday mornings lying in bed beside my wife - both of us reading a book together. It's a precious moment that I would not trade for anything else in the world.

Another principle we have decided to adopt would be not to expose our son to the iPad and other such electronic devices until at least primary school. This adopts the recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics, which says that children under eight are spending too much time in front of their screens. One of my colleagues has lamented about his two-year-old grandnephew making gestures simulating the movement of the fingers on the iPad. Both of us have expressed concern that such an early exposure to technology could have a negative impact on the child, and I am determined that Z would not be influenced in such a manner.

Steve Jobs, the celebrated entrepreneur who introduced the iPad to millions of people worldwide, once said:

I have looked at myself in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ and whenever the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

For me, I know that I value the people closest to me most of all. If I were to ask the same question that Steve Jobs asked himself, I wouldn't want to say that I want to spend more time on my computer or on my latest i device. Instead, I would want to say that I want to spend the best day ever with my wife and son. To me that's all that matters.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Of Friends and Fellowship

We had a lovely weekend. Saturday was spent going for Z's swim class in the morning, followed by his usual nap before we headed off to spend the afternoon with one of Mark's very good friends, Edwin, and his wife Christine. They have three girls.

It was a time of rest and catching up. The fellowship was comfortable, our shared commonalities made for insightful conversation, the children played well together, and most of all, we once again felt refreshed in the presence of good friends. 

I have come to not take these moments for granted. Ten years ago, in my yet unmarried state, no housework or babies to tend to, these moments were far easier to obtain and I believe I must have taken them for granted. In my university days, or just starting work, there seemed to be so many more evenings which could be spent just hanging out with friends for dinner, or catching a show. There have also been friends who have come and gone through the years, and I have learnt to take friendship with an open hand, knowing that it is only God who chooses to bless and He can also take away, in His infinite wisdom and grace.

Indeed, Mark and I feel that our circle of friends has gradually shrunk over the years. Sometimes, I wonder if it was any fault of ours. There seem to be so few people we are genuinely comfortable with, or even have the time for - there are more whom we are in a ministering capacity with, and then there is always the great support from our families - but it is not the same as having mutual company, people who can understand our shared journeys, who celebrate and mourn with you and whose presence does not impose.

We are very grateful that God has allowed us to find such friends recently; it has been an answered prayer, for believe it or not, married and family life too can feel lonely at times! With so many of our friends going through similar life transitions, most of us can scarce afford the time to meet up, burdened as we are with work and family commitments. 

Two such examples came to mind this week. Last Tuesday, one of our friends, Jared, asked if he could come and share in our family meal. I was delighted when I heard that he wanted to visit - it had been several months since we had caught up, but more than that, I was so glad that he was comfortable enough with our family that he would ask to come over for dinner and fellowship with us. I wished more people would have the initiative to invite themselves over for dinner - to me, it indicates the level of comfort and familiarity of our friendship. Jared was our wedding photographer, and has since journeyed with us through several family photoshoots. Mark, Z and I all enjoyed the company, particularly Z, who refused to sleep till Uncle Jared went home, and even then tried to ask him to go for a walk so late at night!

Then there was the wonderful time we had with Edwin and Christine on Saturday. They blessed us with a wonderful meal of vongole made with the freshest clams, just bought from the market that morning, and a dessert of moist chocolate cake. Z played really well with their second daughter, D. It was wonderful to see our son's face light up with glee with the presence of a playmate. He does not often have a chance to play with other children, being surrounded by adults most of the time. I believe such interaction is crucial as he grows and learns to give and share with other children. Z is blessed by their presence, as they are a godly family and share very much the same values as we do. I see him being encouraged and affirmed for who he is, and that does wonders for his sense of self.

We ended the evening with a stroll down the new Punggol Waterway. It was a breezy night, and I was thrilled by the fact that the sea was just a stone's throw away and that there were fishermen lining the whole path beside the water, eager for a catch. One of them even showed us his bucket of crabs, intended for chili crab. The conversation was meaningful, and the kids were having a great time being piggy-backed by their daddies as the mummies looked on and smiled.

The most beautiful sight, however, was the scene of Z and D walking hand-in-hand down the pathway in front of us - a tiny toddler excited and raring to go, small hand clasped in the older girl's bigger one, the little girl twice his height trying to keep him from wandering off the path, and both of them giggling in delight. She sang Sunday School songs sweetly to him in her high-pitched voice, and he gave her his full attention. It was a precious moment, one that Mark and I will cherish. 

We need such friends on this journey of life. They are people who will not hesitate to tell you when they think that you are wandering off the path. They are people who affirm your strengths and forgive your weaknesses. They are people whom you can share a hearty laugh with, knowing you will not be judged. They are people who will speak spiritual lessons into your soul, and remind you of Who is in charge. We truly thank God for friends like these.

"A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." Proverbs 11:25

Monday, November 7, 2011

Of Parents and Grandparents: A Symphony of Love

We celebrated Amah's 91st Birthday yesterday. In just three days' time, my maternal grandmother would have taken her first year into the tenth decade of her life. The grand lady gripped the harmonica purposefully. With her hands tightly grasping the metallic instrument, she blew ernestly into the holes, and spun out the tune of the great hymn "Whispering Hope". At her side, Uncle Peter, who had flown in from the UK for the occasion, tuned his ears to identify what key to play, before joining in on the guitar to smoothen out the musical piece. The symphony was completed by the rest of Amah's children and grandchildren, who formed the choir in a most uncoordinated yet harmonious manner.

Our son, Z, gazed intently at his granduncle. He watched his granduncle's deft fingers strum expertly at the guitar. With an expression of complete amazement, Z turned to look at his great-grandmother, clearly in awe at the tenacity with which she was playing the harmonica. It was clear that our young son was savouring the moment, enjoying this make-shift orchestra assembled by people he was comfortble with. My grandmother is very fond of Z. During his visits to her house, she would often play with him in the most childlike of ways, often tickling his cheeks and making baby sounds such as "boo boo boo". This was in contrast to the practical Amah who would occasionally call me to ask me if I would like some of her glutinous rice, or if the garlic that she pounded and minced for me had run out.

I'm thankful that Z is fond of his great-grandmother; as is he fond of his grandparents from both sides. From the beginning we made a conscious decision that Z should spend lots of time with his grandparents. My wife Sue had already decided to quit her full-time work as a counsellor to care for Z at home. Many Singapore mothers struggle with this decision on whether to return to their full-time jobs or whether to stay at home as a full-time carer for their children. We made the decision that Sue should be the primary caregiver for Z as that would be the best for his developmental and emotional growth. However, there would still be instances when she would have to give tuition, or to work as a part-time counsellor. It would be during those times that we would send Z over to his grandparents' homes. We felt that we did not want to employ a full-time domestic worker to take care of him - a job such as the caring for our children is too important to be delegated to someone outside of the family.

A routine was established. Z would go over to my mum's house for at least one day a week, and he would go over to Sue's parents' home on another day each week. If either parent could not make it, they would agree among themselves which day to take care of Z. Although it has taken quite a bit of planning (especially in the initial months), the arrangment has worked well for more than one year, and both grandparents have been enjoying lots of precious time with him.

There were times when we had been concerned about such an arrangment. What if we missed out on some of Z's important milestones because he was at either grandparents' home? What if our son chose to say his first word or take his first steps in our absence? Indeed there were moments during the first weeks, when both sides reported to us about what our son had done at their homes. Back then, we had wished that these incidents could have taken place in our presence; afterall we are his parents and should be the ones to experience every little moment in our child's life. There were even times when we attempted to "compete" with Z's grandparents - to see who could feed him more milk, or who could make him sleep faster.

Looking back, I realise now that the so-called Singapore habit of being kiasu (defined as being afraid of losing) had crept into our psyche without us realising it. There should never be a need to compete on whether Z's parents or grandparents do a better job at taking care of him. As parents, we should have the primary responsibility of taking care of our son. We should be the ones who should set the tone on what food he can or cannot eat, or what time he should sleep, or what activities he should do. The grandparents' roles are to be the secondary caregivers. They should be allowed to do anything they want with Z as long as we are agreeable to it.

A general adage is that it is the role of the grandparent to spoil the grandchild. This has been a difficult concept for us to manage. Imagine both grandmothers asking if they could give ice cream to your son - and the look on their faces when you tell them firmly that your son cannot eat anything that has too much sugar or salt. Or when it comes to disciplining Z for pulling someone's hair or biting. I would hold him firmly and say "Oh Oh" while at the same time removing him from the object of his attention. Onlookers observing the faces of the grandparents would imagine that the sky had fallen - all because the precious grandchild had been admonished by his father.

It was equally trying during the earlier stages after Z was born. For instance, the grandparents insisted that cloth nappies were better than disposable ones - all because they had only used such nappies when we were young and they believed that disposable diapers give babies more rashes than cloth ones. It was difficult for us, but we had to tell the grandparents lovingly that while they had used such parenting methods with us when we were young, it is now a different world and that as Z's parents, we should be the ones who should decide on how to parent our kids - even if that's not the best way. (I must acknowledge that we decided to adopt some of the suggestions made by the grandparents because in the end we felt that these methods were better; but ultimately it was our decision and not theirs - that's important as we should have the final responsibility for the care of our children.)

That said, Z has had a wonderful time with his grandparents. Sue's parents enjoy taking him for a walk to the park each time he's over at their place. Sue's father has also been researching on the Internet about the merits of babies swimming, even as he has accompanied Z for his swimming lessons during the times when we were sick or unable to take him for class. Sue's mother has been enjoying cooking for Z and making different foods for him - the latest has been a special molasses oatmeal cookie that Z thoroughly enjoys. As for my mum and stepdad, they have been enjoying many special moments playing with Z during the times when he has been at their house. My mum would buy the freshest fish from the market and prepare the most delicious porridge for him, while my stepdad would enjoy taking him for walks - even during the times when Z would want to walk into the swimming pool and would have to be prevented from doing so. They even brought back an entire leaf collection for Z during their recent holiday to Italy (Z is a true-blue nature lover and enjoys collecting leaves during his walks).

We are truly blessed that Z has so much love and attention from his grandparents. It truly makes a difference to a child's sense of identity and self-worth. "Mummy and Daddy love me; Kong Kong and Mama love me; Ye Ye and Nai Nai love me. Everybody loves me." I wish more children is Singapore would be able to experience such love and care. Working among the at-risk youths in Singapore, I know this is not the case for most of them; they don't even have a stable father and mother to care for them - not to mention the presence of grandparents to dote on them and to love them from the depths of their hearts.

As I remembered Amah's joy last night at her celebration, I recalled all the precious moments that I had spent with my own grandparents - enjoying the mee siam prepared by Amah, massaging Ah Kong each time I visited him, playing board games with Mama, eating breakfast at coffee shops with Grandpa... I know that Z will have many more special moments with his grandparents; and I know that for me, that's all that matters.