Monday, December 26, 2011

Family Traditions & Rituals

The little boy squealed in delight as he ripped open the shiny foil-like wrapping paper. The reflective surface of the metallic sheet had a shimmering effect, which had apparently caught the attention of the little boy. Z , who was voraciously tearing at the paper, paid no attention to what was inside, his first Christmas gift of the year. He also seemed oblivious to the background voices of his granduncle and grandaunts, who were enthusiastically trying to get him to open his present.

It was Christmas Eve, and our family was gathered at Sue's aunts' home, where the extended family normally celebrates the festive occasion with a traditional feast of turkey, ham, and other delectable treats. We had just finished a rousing session of singing Christmas carols, and our son Z still did not display any signs of being tired. This despite him singing and lifting his hands throughout the session, obviously enjoying the melodious voices that were singing song after song about Christmas and the birth of Christ.

Christmas is a special time for our family. It is indeed the most important season for us, especially since almost the entire extended families on both sides share the Christian faith, and we celebrate this special day centuries ago, when humankind was given the ultimate present - the birth of the little boy Jesus, who would one day die for the sins of all humankind.

Given the importance of this occasion, Sue and I decided that we wanted to create a special tradition for our family each Christmas. We want Z and our future children to understand why we celebrate Christmas, and that the festivities are not only about feasting and merrymaking, but also to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Before the arrival of Z, we had already been celebrating Christmas Eve dinner with Sue's extended family and Christmas Day dinner with my extended family. These are traditions that we hold dear, especially since they give us an opportunity to spend time with the people we treasure in our lives.

Last year we celebrated Z's first Christmas with us. We decided then that we wanted Christmas morning to be a special time set aside for the family. One year ago, Z was just a day shy of his 5th month birthday, and he sat quietly on his little Bumbo seat as we opened his presents on his behalf. This year, Z was almost 17-months-old on Christmas Day. We decided that in addition to setting aside Christmas morning for the family, we also wanted to start a new tradition of teaching him about the meaning of Christmas. So I spent a few moments reading the Christmas story before letting Z open his presents. We then gave thanks to God for all He had done for our family, before enjoying a simple breakfast together. Of course the scene was far from the idyllic picture painted here. Z was more interested in running around than in opening his presents, and my wife Sue was also ill, so it was a tiring time for me. But I know at least we have established a tradition that we want to continue for years to come.

Contemporary studies have highlighted the importance of establishing family traditions and rituals. For instance, an article from the online parenting portal Parenting 24/7 by the US-based University of Illinois Extension noted that:

Family rituals and traditions are special ways of doing things that we repeat over and over again. When you use a muscle in your body over and over again in a certain way, it makes the muscle stronger. Likewise, sharing repeated experiences in a certain way strengthens the family.

The article emphasised that traditions give the family stability and provide its members with a sense of belonging. After all, our memories from childhood are peppered with the unique shared experiences of our families - like where we would normally go for our favourite foods, or where we would go for our birthday celebrations. When two single people from two different family backgrounds come together in marriage, they bring with them a myriad of experiences from their birth families. However, what's important is for the married couple to create new traditions for the new family they have created. Marriage books often cite difference in family background as a major reason for arguments and conflict, and it is therefore important for the couple to carve out new traditions unique to them.

Sue has been reading a book, On Becoming Toddlerwise, by Gary Ezzo and Dr Robert Bucknam. The book's basic philosophy is that children thrive on routine and structure; that the younger the child is, the more they need to be guided, protected and supervised by their parents. This is because children without supervision tend to choose what they want to do more than what they ought to do. Another argument for routines, as articulated in the article The Importance of Family Rituals by the US-based Ohio State University Extension, is that children enjoy repeating the same actions each day, and that they feel secure whenever they carry out actions according to a specific routine.

At home we have established somewhat of a routine each morning. Normally I would respond to Z when he first wakes up about 8.30 a.m. each day. I would carry him from his cot and greet him with a "Good Morning Baby! Daddy loves you!" I would then take him to our room, where Z would snuggle with Sue and roll around on our bed before getting down from the bed and taking a walk around the house. This morning I was a little tired from the past few days of caring for my sick wife. She instead took on the role of responding to Z. When they got into our room, Sue informed me that our son seemed disappointed that I was not the one who had carried him from his cot. I quickly snuggled close to him and greeted him, hugging him in the process and telling him that I love him. It was only then that our little boy got down from the bed to proceed with his morning ritual of walking around the house. I have realised how important it is to Z for me to be there for him each day; what more the bigger events of his life - his first day in school, his graduation from university, his wedding day...

It is my desire that our family's Christmas tradition will be something that will be remembered by our son for many years to come. As the years go by we hope to establish more family traditions - such as how we celebrate our birthdays, how we celebrate festive holidays such as Chinese New Year, and how we celebrate special occasions such as successes in school and in non-academic pursuits. Above all, we want our son to know that we love him, and will always love him.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Toddler Tantrums

It has been a long couple of weeks since the tantrums started.

It all began on a Monday morning three weeks ago, when Mark dropped Z and I off at a nearby library to return some books. It had been an exhausting weekend with my cousin getting married, and family in town from overseas as a result of the wedding. Our son, being pretty much like his parents, does not like crowds, nor does he relish too much attention, which is often the ill-effect of being a cute baby and having hordes of people poking and cooing at you in a large gathering. We were all mostly hung-over from the previous few days, but the library books had to be returned.

I was at the borrowing counter, about to scan in my books, when Z got grouchy because I did not want him pressing the buttons on the terminal. Soon, it escalated into a major tantrum, with my son rolling on the carpeted floor of the library next to the "Please Maintain Silence" sign, wailing at the top of his lungs and refusing to be consoled. The people at the Reading Section beside him were politely trying to avert their eyes, but I felt they must surely be thinking I was a bad mother who had either starved my son or was unable to control him sufficiently. I somehow managed to pay my fines, borrow my books, and lift him screaming out of the library, down the lift, and to the taxi stand, all the while with my little boy's back arched in defiance and desperation, tears rolling down his cheeks. He cried all the way home, till I managed to carry him and all my belongings beyond the threshold of our home, and plopped him into his cot where he wailed himself to sleep.

I was horrified enough to send a text message to Mark to ask him to pray while all this was happening, and he was concerned too about whether Z was not feeling well, which he thought might be causing the tantrum. Well, that was not the last of the tantrums. That week alone, he started throwing tantrums on a daily basis, sometimes twice or thrice a day. One morning, he sat on the floor of the Shop N Save near our house, and kicked up such a fuss that all my pears rolled out of the basket and down the aisle. He was in a tantrum the moment he woke each morning, and every night something or other would trigger an episode. We were starting to become deeply troubled, and extremely exhausted.

Z is only 16 months. In fact, he had just turned 16 months on the day of my cousin's wedding. Weren't tantrums only supposed to begin with the Terrible Twos? Or had the Terrible Twos turned into Onerous Ones for our family? It soon became almost ludicrous. Z was throwing tantrums because I could not hold him high enough to reach the tree branches right on top of the pine trees outside our house. Apparently, he thought his Mummy was that tall. He would throw a fit when he pointed to a strawberry or a plum in his Hungry Caterpillar board book, just because I could not produce the actual fruit for his consumption. (Our son currently thinks of his books as menus for ordering food, I am not sure how that notion came about...) 

In a fit of desperation, one night I sent a message to one of the friends in my Mothers' Group whose daughter had just gotten over a month of tantrums, and had only been 17 months at the time. I was hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel, and indeed, she gave us some solid advice and options, and most importantly, solace in the fact that Z's behaviour was not unique to him.

She said they tried three different methods - first, hold him firmly, and then talk calmly to assure him that everything is okay and you are with him. Secondly, look him in the eye and say "Stop, this is enough." Repeat this a few times. Thirdly, hold him firmly, also with eye contact, say "No tantrums", and put him into the playpen, first removing all the toys. This last method is recommended by Gary Ezzo, who wrote "Toddler Wise" and "Baby Wise", books we would strongly recommend. My friend said the main thing we want to communicate is that the behaviour is unacceptable, and once your child calms down, make him apologise (if he can't speak yet, teach him the sign for it) and then pick him up. Ultimately, she said that we had to find a method that best suited our son. What excellent and welcome advice for two weary parents!

I must admit it was hard to implement at first. I was not used to being so firm with Z and must confess I was feeling anxious about whether I could follow through. However, I really needed to be firm with him especially since I would be the one having to handle his tantrums for most of the day. Mark seemed to be able to cope with them better - I usually feel he is too firm with Z! 

Thankfully, we managed to figure a way out for ourselves. The third method seemed to work best for Z, although we use his cot and not his playpen as he really enjoys time in his playpen and we did not want to associate it with punishment. We let him cry as much as he wants till he's ready to stop, and then when he's done, we take him out of the cot and give him a hug. Z continued having intense tantrums for about one and a half weeks, and thankfully after that their frequency was reduced. Now he only has occasional tantrums, and mostly we are able to preempt their arrival and address the source or set the appropriate boundaries with Z before they escalate into full-blown tantrums. I also acknowledge the fact that he was feeling generally overwhelmed and tired from all the events we had been attending, and books also say that tiredness and changes in routine can also bring tantrums on. It all boils down to knowing your child.

I remember what one of the mothers in church casually said to us one day as she passed by, patting Z on the head. She has two children in their pre-teens She said wisely, "Enjoy each phase, because they grow up so fast - even those times when you feel like tearing your hair out! Each stage is precious." It is sometimes so hard to give thanks when your son is rolling around on the floor in a fit of frustration and anger! 

We have come to the point where we are glad that our son is gradually asserting his will - he has to learn he is a separate entity, apart from us his parents. We are also glad for the privilege and responsibility that God has given us to mould him into the person He wants him to become. We have been given the responsibility to teach him how to obey and respect authority, to submit his will to a higher will, that of his parents and ultimately to his Creator. We know this is crucial for his functioning as a child, a student, an adult and member of society in the future, and it's all the more important we handle this new phase with a concerted effort and in ways we both are consistent in. 

Z is now learning that not all branches can be reached - especially those on top of trees - and that not all story books are menus; although I must confess that I have temporarily "hidden" the book with pictures of strawberries and plums up high on the shelf, to avoid further incidents, at least for now.