Saturday, December 22, 2012

Of Flying Cows & Skipping Stones

The little boy stared in wide-eyed astonishment as the warm liquid gushed out from under the belly of the large creature. The two-year-old involuntarily twitched his eyebrows, as if to indicate a reaction of disbelief. All doubt was however completely dispelled when the action was repeated in front of him yet again. His eyes now registered a sense of amazement; although this was a look that also recorded some semblance of understanding. My older son Z had just witnessed his first cow-milking experience. And while he was not yet prepared to be personally engaged in the encounter itself, his actions were a far cry from his earlier response - which was to shy away from the herd of cows, and to cower away from the huge yet gentle creatures.

This incident took place no more than two weeks ago in the lovely land of Taiwan, in a place uniquely called the Flying Cow Ranch. Nestled in the luscious countryside county of Miaoli, the ranch is home to numerous cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and other gentle farm animals. It is considered "fashionable" for many Taiwanese city-dwellers to head to ranches in the territory to experience good old-fashioned country life. And I personally understood the draw of the countryside. Apart from its sweet polution-free fresh air and crisp fields of grasslands, there were the animals - creatures that city-dwellers from a not-so-faraway country like Singapore might never see in their entire life!

And it was also the first time that Z had seen the animals he had only previously read about in books or played with as toys. During our three-day farmstay, our son not only witnessed his first cow-milking experience, he also fed rabbits by throwing vegetable leaves to them, and even allowed goats to eat from his own hands! It was really wonderful to see how much the experience had changed him - although he had initially been afraid of the goats, by the second day he was actually allowing them to eat from his hands.

As an educator, it has thrilled me to see how much my son has been learning from his adventures in the great outdoors. I had written about renowned author Charlotte Mason and her ideas about outdoor experiential learning in my previous posts, and it suffices here to say that having personally applied her ideas, I am all the more convinced that outdoor learning is the way to go.
In addition to his learning about animals, my son Z also learnt another valuable lesson during our two-week trip in Taiwan. This took place at a lovely stream near the scenic Liyu Lake in the northeastern county of Hualien. I will always remember the mental picture of my two-year-old seated in the icy waters, splashing at his Daddy with wild abandonment; totally oblivious to the clumps of black sand that were all over his face and hair. This was indeed a stark contrast to my son's initial reluctance to even step foot into the water.

The owner of the minsu we were staying in had kindly taken us to a location off the beaten path in order for us to fish. Excited at being so close to nature, I immediately kicked off my shoes and waded into the icy waters of the stream. Z, who was watching my actions, held out his hand and I knew he also wanted to come with me. However, the moment I removed his shoes and socks and carried him in, my son jerked back violently and refused to enter. It was only about half an hour later, after I had carried him for a substantial distance along the stream, that he finally decided that it was safe to enter the water. And from then on there was no turning back; and we enjoyed a precious father-son moment splashing water at each other in a land so very different from the one we call home.

Our Taiwan trip has been especially special in these two ways. Firstly it has provided my son with valuable learning opportunities from the great outdoors, from a classroom that is far superior to any that the greatest technological advances can provide. Secondly it has provided many special moments for father-son bonding, from the experiences near Liyu Lake, to other equally special moments - such as the time when Z took my hand and led me for an almost one-hour walk up and down the hilly contours of the old Lintianshan logging village.

I remember a time almost ten years ago when I was not yet married. I had then travelled with a group of close friends to Fraser's Hill in Malaysia. Back then, the group of us guys sat near a waterfall and attempted the delicate art of skipping stones - to fling the stone at such an angle so as to allow it to hit the water surface more than once. I remember then that I did the job very poorly, and that most of my stones merely landed with a thud in the water instead of flying elegantly through the air. I had told myself then that I would perfect the art and one day teach my son how to skip stones like his father.

That day I again attempted to skip stones in the Hualien stream. Just like before, my stones landed with a clumsy thud in the water. I know now that I will probably never be skilled in this delicate art. But I know I will always want to be there for my two sons, to help them experience the things that I love; to teach them how to play like boys and how to live like men. I want to be there with my sons when they ascend the highest mountains in their lives; and I also want to be there for them when they descend into the deepest valleys.

The greatest honour and joy for a father is to have your son hold out his hand, and to ask you to guide him as he travels the long journey of life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Quiet Time

The little boy squealed in delight. Mirroring his Daddy and Mummy, he mouthed the words of a song so familar to him, all complete with corresponding hand actions. The 2-year-old then lifted his hands and launched a purposeful punch into the air. "Yeah!" he cried.

It was Sunday evening. The day was almost done, and little Z was in his cosy room, having an enjoyable time singing songs. Daddy and Mummy had initiated this special time because they wanted to create a new family ritual. The singing was the penultimate activity before bed. It was just before the nightly prayer time that they had always been spending with him as far back as they could remember. But that night was only the third such song session, and the first with the animated hand gestures. And judging from Z's exuberant response, Daddy and Mummy knew that they were indeed doing the right thing, that they were creating a special time to teach their son how to honour the most important person in their lives - their God.

For the past few months we have been trying to make sense of the "new" person our son seemed to have become. He seemed to be more opinionated, more sensitive, and more short-fused. Of course most people generally attribute his behaviour to that of a toddler entering the "terrible-twos" phase, during which everything is prefaced with a "No!" This could be anything as physical as eating his food to something more behavioural like keeping his toys. One qualification to this, as highlighted by our good friends Edwin and Christine some time back, was that no matter how much Z objected to something we wanted him to do, that he still ultimately obeyed us. And for that we are thankful. What remained difficult, however, was to deal with the temper tantrums that he manifested during those moments of protests.

A couple of weeks back, we were reminded during church service that "[God] will rejoice over [us] with gladness; [that] He will quiet [us] by His love". This particular passage of the Bible was poignant for us as the first part described our older son very well. It was easy to create a mental illustration of God dancing and rejoicing over Z - especially given our child's exuberence and intense personality. What was more difficult was understanding how God could quiet him with His love. I can think of many words to describe my son, but the word "quiet" just seems in complete dissonance with all I know him to be.
This week I finally understood how the love of God could quiet my son.

It was during our regular Sunday church service. Just before our Senior Pastor George Butron shared his teaching, he expressed his joy that there are now more babies and children in the church. He then stressed the important role that parents play in cultivating an environment for our children to experience God. Opening a page from his past, Pastor George shared how he had carried his son in his arms, even as he sang songs of love to God. This, he said, had helped his son to learn from him how to cultivate a heart attuned to God.

I realised that songs can be lyrical expressions of love, and by teaching our son to sing songs of love to God, that we can cultivate an environment to allow God to quiet his heart.

Z has always been immensely fond of music. From as far back as we can remember, our son has always responded positively to all kinds of music - from children's songs such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to the Chinese songs played by the radio station of my adolescence, Yes 93.3 FM. We have therefore capitalised on his love for music by introducing him to DVDs which present Christian songs in a manner that children can appreciate. But we also did not want him to watch too much TV, and as such limited his viewing to at most an hour each time. As a result of this decision, Z now loves watching DVDs such as the Baby Faith series, the Praise Baby series, and also the children's versions of the 赞美之泉 (Streams of Praise) collections. We feel that watching such DVDs is definitely more wholesome than some of the contemporary cartoons or children's programmes. Moreover, as parents, we are able to control what our sons view, and we feel that is really important to us.
Imagine our surprise one day when we were enjoying a lovely time at a park, and we had then decided to take photos of our sons. Z noticed the presence of the camera, and started to pose for us. We realised these were the same actions that he had watched on his 赞美之泉 DVD! That incident really helped us to realise how much influence his TV watching habits had on him. I realised then that I could use music and hand actions as a medium of instruction for him in his day-to-day learning.

This Sunday's church service reminded me about the importance of imparting strong values to our children. I am convinced that fathers play a critical role in moulding the future of our children. And that night, I was determined to start a new family ritual for Z.

We began with a time of reading Bible stories to our son. Given our 2-year-old's tendancy to be distracted, I had a brainwave, and started illustrating the stories with exaggerated hand actions. I know our son responds well to such movement, and he indeed listened to every word I said, without trying to turn the page, which was his normal practice. After the reading, Sue and I started a lovely time of singing songs to God, adding hand illustrations at every opportunity. It was truly beautiful to witness first hand how Z chose to follow our actions, and to clap at the end of every song. We then ended our evening with a prayer, before tucking him to bed with our usual nightly "I love you" greeting.

My wife described the evening so beautifully in her Facebook status update:

Precious family praise and worship time before bed, led by Daddy. It is a joy to hear our son say, "God is so good!" and "Alleluia!" while clapping joyously and spontaneously to the Lord. Our little boy truly responds to worship, and we pray he will be like David, dancing with abandon in His presence. 

In the Bible, King David was known to be a "man after God's Heart", a man who chose to honour God without any inhibitions during those intimate moments with Him.

It is the heart of a parent that his or her children grow up to believe in his or her values, and to subscribe to the same convictions that he or she firmly treasures. I love God. And it is my deepest desire that my sons grow up to love Him just as I do, or even more than me. 

I believe that God quiets the hearts of our children, and He has appointed us as parents to be His instruments in the process.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Present of Presence

2012 has been a year of numerous transitions; two of the most momentous being the arrival of our second son E as well as my new job in a different part of the education sector. The arrival of E just over three months ago threw our life back into a tempest just as we were beginning to learn how to negotiate the storms associated with a two-year-old and his tantrums. Back then, we had just returned from a restful trip with our first son Z to Phuket, and had resolved some of the issues of miscommunication and misunderstanding between us and him. Before the trip there were so many instances when we were frustrated with him because of his tantrums (and I'm sure he probably felt the same way about us). But all that changed after the two-week trip; Sue and I believe it was because we gave him undivided attention, and that we had become more sensitive to his needs, understanding more and more the non-verbal signals that he was sending.

Then E came and life has never been the same again. For a start we had to contend with the three-hourly feeds and the dreaded milk runs each night. The initial days were tough and I would often go to work all bleary-eyed and quite in a daze. We are however thankful that those days are now over and E now mostly sleeps through the night, from 12 am to 6.30 am and a few times all the way from 9 pm to dawn!

With the advent of a second child, we also realised that our laundry load had doubled. We not only had to wash the clothes of our older child, but our younger son also contributed significantly to the laundry pile - especially given the regurgitation of milk and the little "accidents" both big and small. And all that in addition to our own regular clothes. We have now resorted to a laundry load every other day; but despite this, our laundry pile still appears to be as high as ever.

What seemed to be the most difficult change for us was Z's reaction to his younger brother's arrival. We have heard of instances of sibling rivalry, but we did not know this phenomenon also occurred at the toddler age. In fact, I'm certain that our older son's difficulty in communicating verbally probably compounded the matter, and he likely reacted because he was not able to convey his frustrations. In such instances he would react by hitting his younger brother, or clinging tightly to his mother, refusing to allow her time with E. That said, we knew he still loved his brother, as he would often pat E fondly on the cheeks, or gesture towards him and say "Didi. Nice!" We were also comforted by our pediatrician, who shared that children take an average of three months to get used to the arrival of their younger sibling. 

Concurrent to the arrival of E was my change of job just last month. My new job requires me to wake up at 6.30 each morning but it mostly also allows me to end work by 2 in the afternoon. I must say that I have been enjoying every aspect of the job except the early wake-ups. And this mainly because I used to be able to carry Z from his cot each morning and greet him - something I'm no longer able to do as I am now at work when he awakes. That aside, it has also been a wonderful thing to get back from work early, as I am now able to spend so much more time with my family.

The first word I often hear when I get back (after Z's afternoon nap), is the word "arbles". That's how Z pronounces the word "marbles" and I know he means that he wants me to play with his wooden architecture block set - I would be required to build the blocks in such a way that it allows marbles to roll down from the top of the ramps all the way down past contraptions like bell towers and musical chime obstacles. This activity is completely not within my comfort zone, but I know it would thrill him tremendously when the marbles hit the bells and musical chimes, and I immerse myself completely in the task as it always brings a squeal of joy from him.

And the day is never complete without the words "walk walk". During these moments, I allow Sue time to cook dinner while I take Z downstairs for a walk around the housing estate. Our time together is always eventful; whether we are playing ball in the grass (this mostly involves him throwing the ball into the drain or into the bushes), or whether we wander to the exercise area and when he climbs onto the railings and attempts a horizontal pull-up or two.

These are the "good" days - the moments when I feel that parenting is all worth it, and that I can have another bunch of children running around the house. But there are also the "other" days when Z refuses to have me carry him, insisting on his Mummy for the entire time we are out. On those days, I contemplate what our lives would have been like if we didn't have any children.

I have been reflecting on what constitutes a "good" day, and the answer was glaring at me in the face. On the days when I spent lots of time with Z, those were the days when he seemed to respond the most. Conversely, the times when I was too tired from work or too tired from just being tired - those corresponded to the moments when I chose not to spend so much time with Z. It was no surprise that he then responded by ignoring me and choosing to spend more time with his Mummy. 

I reflected that being present means so much to my son - more than what he can understand or articulate.

Being present has helped my son cope with the arrival of his brother. It has indicated to him tangibly that Daddy and Mummy still love him, and that we will not ignore him even though there is another person in the house. It will hopefully convey to him that we will always love him, rain or shine, in good times or bad.

Being present has helped me to be more attuned to my son's non-verbal cues and to be more sensitive to his needs. When I spend more time with Z I get to understand when he is tired and when does not want to play anymore. I get to understand when he needs his milk or when he wants his food. And I also get to understand when he just needs a Daddy's cuddle and a big hug to help him feel accepted and loved.

For I know that being present for Z is the best present that I can ever give him.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

"'Ummy" & What It Means: The Mystery of Motherhood

Recently, our home has been filled with cries for "'Ummy! 'Ummy!" It's what I hear first thing in the morning from Z's room as he stirs, and one of the last things I hear before bedtime. Each time, it melts my heart. 

He started out by calling me "Mine" - "Mummy" is harder to pronounce as it is two syllables long. I also thought it was kind of sweet, a sort of claiming and proclaiming that I belonged to him... he then moved on to "My Mee", an abbreviation of "My Mummy". I thought that was endearing too. Perhaps "'Ummy" will finally evolve to the proper word "Mummy", but till then, I shall enjoy this current phase.

My beginnings as a mother were rocky. We waited a long time to become parents. It was something I always dreamed of and imagined, but when the day finally came, in truth, it felt rather strange - almost as if someone had come along and taken over my old identity. I remember the first time I went out with Z to the playground downstairs. I recall wondering, how are others seeing me now, with this little one in my arms? Certainly, others would pay more attention now that I had a cute little baby with me, whether it was to congratulate me, ask questions or to give advice. I was not used to all the attention and felt rather self-conscious.

I think it has taken two years for me to really own the title of "Mummy". Contrary to what people think, I do not think it happens overnight, the moment you look at the newborn baby in your arms. 

I was encouraged by a precious sister Ming Ming to read "The Mission of Motherhood" by Sally Clarkson. As we shared our struggles as stay-at-home-mums, she said that reading the book really helped her to define her role as a mum and to find meaning in the mundane things that she does from day-to-day. I must say, it is one of those rare life-changing books that have really helped me to understand my role better and given me renewed hope and purpose for what I do with our two boys.

What it has really reminded me of: the importance of an undivided heart, the role of a discipling mother in teaching, training and guarding our children, and the enjoyable task of a mother in being a gardener of our children's souls.

Our hearts are so easily divided, scattered due to the many things that occupy each day. I have felt particularly torn in the times I go to work and leave my babies in the care of their loving grandparents. I have found myself sitting in the taxi which takes me further and further away from them, anxious for their well-being, seeing their forlorn faces as they said goodbye in the morning. I am learning this important truth, shared by someone wise. She said, "When you spend time with the kids, give thanks... and when you are at work, also give thanks." 

A heart that is divided is useful to no one, but a heart that learns to be thankful and rested no matter the circumstance is one that will be strong and effective in tending to those in its care. It also helps me to see motherhood as one of the most important roles that I have been given, far outweighing career prospects and what I can achieve outside the home. Some may disagree, but I believe that if I have failed as a wife and mother, then I have not been a good steward of the precious gifts God has given to me. Everything else is secondary. This does not mean that mothers should not work, but our key responsibility is to be there for our children.  

What does this mean for our role as mothers? After all, we take on so many responsibilities in our children's lives: we are our children's teachers, nurses, nannies, paramedics, cleaners, mentors and so much more. Sally Clarkson talks about the servant mother, the discipling mother, the teaching mother, the mother as a strong friend, gardener of souls, keeper of the domain, and the creative, ministering and faithful mother. Phew!

One of the roles that really struck me was that of the discipling mother. We have a role to "be with" our children as Jesus did with his apostles, spending time with them and teaching them righteousness. For those of us who are Christians, we have a role in teaching them values and how to understand the Word of God. We are also trainers - "Training is the practical application of a learned truth to actual life." (The Mission of Motherhood, 2003: 90) How difficult discipline is! It certainly has not come naturally to me. There are many times I'd rather cave in, it seems easier to let Z get his own way. However, the eventual fruits of discipline are sweet to the taste! The sense of pride we feel when Z packs up every single block on the floor without being told to; when he finally decided to eat with a spoon after months of preferring to feel the food with his hands; when he decides to give his brother a big kiss instead of a poke, then I know we should continue to persevere on.

The other role I really enjoyed reading about was the mother's role in cultivating and enriching our children's lives. She encourages us to teach them real skills, be it cooking, hospitality, sports or finance, whatever legacy of skills each family possesses. She also encourages a variety of enriching life experiences. My heart leapt when I read of the road trips her family went on and the value of time spent together in family travel. We are already planning our first trip with our second son E in December to Taiwan, and have cherished each opportunity to take Z to see the world thus far. Family trips are rare opportunities for bonding and discipling our children in the areas we feel they need to work on! 

I grew excited when she talked about grooming our children to be polite and gracious individuals, something both Mark and I feel strongly about. Also to expose them to whatever is excellent, be it in the fields of music, literature, art or even quality toys, within our means, so that our children develop a sense of good taste and a good work ethic. Z recently got excited about a 15th Anniversary CD by Music for Little People and has been bopping to the tune of "Yellow Submarine"! We are rather amused.

It is a rare Saturday morning. A cool drizzle has arrived, serving to dissipate the relentless heat of the past few months. I lie cuddled with my 2-month-old, observing the pitter-patter of the falling rain. He chuckles in delight as a broad smile spreads across his chubby face. Outside, I can hear Daddy and son bantering as they read a book together. Our 2-year-old is delighted to spend precious time together with his Daddy. 

I realise once again how blessed I am. Above all, being a mother is a privilege and an honour, and my children are God's precious gifts to me. Despite all our imperfections, we must realise that we are the people whom God has decided would be the best mothers for each of our children. With that calling in mind, motherhood seems somewhat less mysterious and more of an essential core of our identity, who He has made us to be.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


My Uncle Ann passed away last week. He was 63. If you were a casual visitor to his wake, and listened to all the eulogies by his mother, siblings, children and friends, one word would echo about Joe Tan Kim Ann - "generous". A man of very few words, Uncle Ann went out of his way to help others, quite often at his own personal expense. Many a story was told of how Uncle Ann would take in a person on the street and invited him to work at his cleaning company - "just because". And there were the times when he loaned out money to those in need, sometimes without them ever returning him the cash.

I was a recepient of this generosity as well - many a time I would ask him for help to move furniture from one location to another, and he would always comply, offering his men and his van to help me transport the items. And when I asked how much I should pay, all he said was, "Just give the men coffee money - that's enough." On the last occassion almost five years ago, he showed up at my in-laws' place to supervise the moving of my wife's items to our marital home. "When Uncle Ann wants to do something, he will make sure he gets it right." That was his explanation to justify his personal appearance at the site.

And then there was that difficult time in my life during my parents' separation. Uncle Ann's home was a shelter for us in our moment of need. Even then I hardly remember speaking much to him, but his actions spoke far more than anything he could ever say.

In the minutes just after Uncle Ann left us at the hospital, my grandma was in tears as she said the final prayer. At first Amah lamented why God allowed her son to be taken away before her eyes; but as she continued her prayer, she expressed relief that he was now in a better place and no longer had to suffer. She then thanked God for providing him with a wonderful wife and three children who loved him dearly.

That was his greatest legacy.

The deep bond between my cousins and their father is something I never had. Having lived with them for a while, I saw the day-to-day goings on of a family closely knitted by the love of the father. It was not the loud type of love - my uncle hardly spoke much - but it was a quiet and special kind of love; he spent many weekends taking them swimming and eating at the club, and they spent many holidays together in locations as exotic as New Zealand and Alaska.

I'm thinking about what kind of legacy I will leave behind for my children.

It's not easy being the parent of two young children. Since the arrival of E slightly more than a month ago, our life has been turned upside down. We had a nice routine going before E arrived, with both our parents taking care of Z during the two days that Sue works, a play group for Z, as well as somewhat of a home school curriculum for him during his other days with Sue. But all that went out of the window the moment E arrived - with 3-hour night feeds and pre-dawn nappy changes the least of the transition. 

What has been trying has been how Z has been reacting to the arrival of his younger brother. To date we cannot count the number of times he has hit E, nor the number of scratches he has inflicted on E. We know that Z's response is a classic case of sibling rivalry; although knowing the facts don't always help us to feel better about the situation. We were, however, comforted when we visited our friends and we observed that their children were also engaged in intense physical sibling rivalry - even among sisters! In addition, our pediatrician has been a source of encouragement. She characterised the behaviour as normal and shared that older children can sometimes take up to three months to adjust to their new sibling's arrival. It's so far only been about one month, so I suppose our case can be classified as "normal".

Another difficult realisation is that we have not been bonding with E as much as we did when we first had Z. Perhaps it could be characterised as a "second child syndrome" in that the needs of the younger child tend to be neglected in favour of the older toddler, the elder generally being more vocal about what he or she wants. In that respect we have not been spending as much time bonding with E in the manner with which we bonded with Z; focussing more on our older son's tangibly louder demands instead of the younger's silent needs. There just didn't seem to be that many hours in a day - especially given the other constraints such as my work commitments and the need to support my uncle's family during their time of grief.

We have, however, been learning how to cope in small ways. For instance, an elder lady from church, whom we greatly respect, shared with Sue that when her second child was born, she too experienced a similar situation. Her solution was to spend an exclusive one hour a day with the older child so he would feel special. Sue has since been creating special intentional moments with Z, and he seems to be responding well to them.

With regards to E, I have been learning to respond to his emotional and social needs more. It is easy to feed him and simply put him down in his cot to sleep. But I remembered the times when Z was still a baby, when I used to sing to him and hold him close to comfort him. I have since resumed a similar posture with E, singing to him during the times when he is fretful and letting him rest snugly on my chest; and that instead of simply stuffing the soother into his mouth and hoping he would sleep.

Despite the difficulties, parenting does have its precious moments. For instance there are times in the morning when Z comes to our room and goes straight to E's cot, gently stroking him and gesturing, "Didi... Nice!". Then there are the moments when Z tries to hold E's milk bottle and positions it near his mouth in an attempt to feed him. These moments remind us that our older child is still young, and that in time his bond with his brother will be a close and deep one.

The last stanza of the poem New Beginnings by author Gertrude B. McClain reads:
Although the cares of life are great
And hands are bowed so low
The storms of life will leave behind
The wonder of a rainbow.

Uncle Ann's life truly reminds me of a rainbow - the myriad of colours glimmering in the wake of a storm. What I remember most about my uncle was his deep devotion to God. He would wake up about 4 each morning to pray, and spend many waking hours reading the Bible. Towards the end of his life, he opted for surgery despite the 30% odds that he would survive. "What's the use if my quality of life is so low," he said, "I rather go back to meet my maker."
In echoing the words of a great man so many years ago, "To live is Christ and to die is gain," my uncle left behind his greatest legacy - his deep love and longing for God. That's what I want to share with my children. It doesn't matter what I may do in the community and in the world; but if what I do directs them towards an intimate relationship with God, that's enough for me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

National Dreams, Childhood Aspirations

It's difficult not to contemplate the meaning of life when you're 47 years of age. You consider the birth pangs, the moment of anguish when you were expelled from the womb into a harsh and cruel world. Things were different then - no Facebook, no iPhone, not even the ubiquitous medium we now call the Internet. Listening to the voices of yesteryear, you were conditioned to recall a childhood fraught with difficulty - of how you were surrounded by a host of hostile foes eager to bully you and tear you down. Yet you were presented with numerous accounts of how you survived against all odds. And you smile as you look back at your personal accomplishments; still a little red dot in a sea of lines and curves, but a dot nonetheless in the big wide world.

This National Day seemed to have gone by for me without much fanfare. The glitzy parade and all its military and societal exhibitions, the thrills and controversies surrounding Singapore's 3rd and 4th Olympic medals, even the rumours that a great man's journey on earth had come to an end. Then again, I suppose I could be forgiven, considering that most of my attentions have been directed towards the newborn baby boy who had found his way into our lives and into our hearts just three weeks ago.

What has been on my mind has been what I desire for my little son E. And as Singapore turns 47, it's truly a time to reflect and dream about what the future would be like for one of the country's newest citizens. I am not the only one taking stock. No less than the Singapore Prime Minister has announced the formation of a ministerial committee to take a hard look at current government policies. That such a committee would be headed by the Education Minister is significant; as is one of the focal points of the review - Singapore's pre-school education.

The early childhood education sector has recently been the subject of much criticism. Following a report by the Lien Foundation, which in June this year ranked Singapore 29 out of 45 developed and emerging countries, suggestions have been rife about how to improve the quality of Singapore's pre-schools. This especially following the research findings that Singapore has fared poorly in three areas - the availability, affordability and quality of its pre-school services.

I was not surprised at the findings of the report. Consider the availability of early childhood education. I have heard personal stories of how Singapore parents proceed speedily from the hospital to the immigration office and then directly to the registration offices of the branded kindergartens. And all this to ensure that their child gets a place of choice some 3 years later. In terms of affordability, Singapore parents spend a significant percentage of their income on enrichment classes and other educational niceties; just to ensure that their children get a supposed head-start in life. Quality. There is a prevalent argument that pre-school teachers do not get paid as much as mainsteam educators. I believe the roots of the issue are deeper than that; I have met children from childcare centres, and many of them seem to be products of a rote-learning system which emphasises conformity more than creativity.

In stark comparison, the Lien report named Finland, Sweden and Norway as the countries with the best early childhood education. At a symposium in 2011 by the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Dr Judith Wagner provided some reasons for the success of the Nordic system. The American Charter President of the World Organization For Early Childhood Education (OMEP-USA) observed that Nordic countries place great importance on what they call en god barndom, translated loosely as "the good childhood", a childhood in which play and exploration are at the centre of the learning experience. Dr Wagner cited the case of Finland; where she noted that school does not begin until the age of seven, that there are no standardised tests, that homework is minimal, and where children spend more time at school playing outside than inside even in the depths of winter. 

Dr Wagner's perspectives concur with my favourite educationalist Charlotte Mason. In her book Home Education, the 19th Century writer emphasised that children learn best through the exploration of nature via their five senses. I elaborated more on this in my previous blog entry on childhood. Charlotte however took the issue to a deeper level, insisting that a "very full scheme of school work may be carried through in the morning hours". She was of the firm conviction that homework should not be given to children under the age of 14, lest it disrupt the family life of the child.

What I desire most for E is for him to develop to his fullest potential on his own terms. I don't mean that my son should be allowed to do as he pleases, running in whatever direction the wind blows; what I do mean is for him to be guided towards his chosen goals - that Sue and I play a primary role in helping him achieve this objective. And what I desire for E, I too wish for my older son Z.

My good friend Galvin recently wrote the melody for a song that went viral on Youtube. The catchy tune, "I Still Love You", has become somewhat of an unofficial National Day song. It encapsulates a deep-felt love for the country despite the struggles faced by Singaporeans on a day-to-day basis. It is my hope that the new measures in early childhood education and in other sectors will be able to address some of the issues faced by Singaporeans.

As for me, my desire is to see my two children sprinting towards the horizon, persevering as far as the eye can see. There need be no limits imposed for the children of the next generation; only the constant encouragement and support from their parents, the firm yet gentle hand of guidance and direction; and an unwavering belief in them - one that will steer them through the deepest of valleys, and inspire them to ascend the highest of mountains.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Building a Community of Love

The little boy appeared tentative. There were so many of them, and all of them seemed somewhat scary. Yet he detected a certain friendliness about them; as if they didn't really care about how he looked or how he behaved - only that he was a child just like them - a special and unique individual - just like each one of them. Slightly hesitant at first, but with a gradual aura of confidence, he took his first step towards them - he had decided to join the community of grace.

Just a few months back, my family decided to join a new small group community in our church. As newcomers in a strange environment, we were unsure of what the group would be like. This was especially since we did not know anyone in the group. There were naturally fears that we would not be able to "click" with this new group; or worse - that we would ease into a group which discussed superficial matters more than deep personal concerns. All our fears melted away on the day of the first meeting, when we saw our son settle in comfortably with the rest of the children. He was so happy that he had a group of kor kors and jie jies to play with; so much so that he cried when we had to leave that day - he wanted to stay on and play more with them...

It has been one of our top priorities for our son to find a community where he is accepted and loved. Indeed Z has been blessed with grandparents who love him so much, and with our close friends, whose children have been Z's playmates during our family gatherings and play-date sessions. Yet his recent experiences in play group have been worrying for us; especially since he has been choosing not to join in the group activities, instead deciding to stand in a corner and observe the rest of the children. It was therefore really important for us that he could join a community of children who would welcome him and accept him - just as he is.

Our small group has been one such community. At a recent birthday celebration, one of the children fell ill, and the rest immediately gathered around him to pray for him and to help him. It really warms your heart when you see a child go to another just to pray for him - what an example of child-like faith; a trait much lacking in a self-oriented, self-centred world.

Our small group leader Lawrence shared his heart for the group - he and his wife Regina have a desire to build a community of parents, one whose children become good friends over the years. And when the time comes for the children to weather the tumultuous teenage years, they would turn to their good friends within the group for answers, and not to the negative external influences that permeate the adolescent world. In our short time with the group we are already observing the fruits of Lawrence's labour - the teenagers are good friends who serve together in youth ministry. As for the children, they learn and play together during their own separate session conducted as part of the weekly small group meetings. They even sit and play together during the post-session meals, at a separate table from their parents; which enables the adults to interact and enjoy their food in relative peace.

As parents, we want the best for our children. And so often we strive to provide what we feel would be best for them - better schools, better enrichment classes - all to provide them with as much opportunity as possible for them to succeed in life. Desiring such an environment for our children is certainly not wrong, but I strongly believe that we need to do more to build for the future of our children; we need to build deeply into their personal values and convictions, so that they would not be blown away by the winds of compromise when things get tough. We therefore need to build into our children's support network - not that we get obsessive and dictate the friends they choose, but instead that they get influenced by the strong positive environment surrounding them, and choose the close friendships that matter. 

We need to build a strong and loving community for our children - one that accepts them for who they are; that our children would be able to develop holistically, and to realise their full potential as "little persons", individuals who will make a difference in society and love others more than they love themselves. And of course as Christians, we strongly desire that our children will have a deep intimacy with God - to know Him and to make His name known.

A good friend of ours, Charmaine, was inspired to bring together a small group of parents who have young children. She felt that in busy Singapore, it's not often that young families spend time together to share their joys and struggles. Indeed we had a meaningful time of sharing, and we have learnt much from each other. Charmaine's initiative has inspired me to gather other young families - those who share similar parenting principles and believe in similar life values. It is my hope that Z will interact and play more with these other children who have had a strongly positive parental influence in their lives. Our desire is that they will eventually grow up together and become good friends; that he too would be influenced favourably by them, and choose to live a life that realises his full potential.

For our deepest desire is that Z will develop a deep and intimate relationship with God; to love others, and to make a difference whatever he chooses to do.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Picture of Childhood: What Lies Unseen

I had been puzzled by this issue for the past few years. During this time, I frequently allowed the sequence of events to run through my mind. What did I do? How was it like for me? All questions drew a blank for me, as if my mind had blocked out that stage of my life. And it did not help when my wife shared her own experiences and asked if I had encountered a similar occurrence. I felt like a character from The Bourne Identity, one without a past, a man without a childhood.

Things started about two years ago, when Z came into our lives. As new parents, we began asking questions about how we should parent our child. And we began to look into our past for the answers. My wife would start by sharing details about what her room looked like when she was a child, all the little toys that she had, and all the games she used to play - even when she was as young as 3 or 4. I remember listening to her, trying to recall what things were like for me when I was her age. And I could not remember. I don't remember the room I used to stay in when I was a toddler; just that it had a huge cupboard and a wooden bed. I don't remember the toys I used to play when still a baby, nor the games that I played. While I do have fond memories of the later years of my childhood - the room full of board games, the Mask and Masters of the Universe action figures, but I couldn't understand why I did not have any recollection of my early childhood.

This week, my questions were finally answered. I was astonished to realise that a 19th Century British author had the solution all along! In her revolutionary book Home Education, Charlotte M. Mason wrote -

"The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen."

I realised that my childhood memories were never fully seen!

In her book, Charlotte Mason was writing about the importance of "sight-seeing", about how a mother can teach her child to observe the sights around him or her. Her words are best described in actuality:

"By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition - Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson."

Reading Charlotte Mason, I realised that I was not presented with similar opportunities of "sight-seeing" as was described above. In fact, that period of my childhood (when I was 3-years-old), was a difficult period for my mum and I, and we were going through a personal crisis-of-sorts. I can therefore understand why I do not remember the period as much as my later childhood.

How is one expected to remember what he has not seen? 

In contrast I remember fondly the later years of my childhood. Vivid images remain of me sitting under a tree at the then picturesque Pandan Reservoir, churning out a fresh poem while my mum spent her time jogging. Then there were the times when I used to climb Mt Faber with my mum and a few childhood friends, imbibing the fresh evening air and watching the resplendent glow of the sun in all its evening glory. Those were the precious moments when my mum provided me with the opportunity to see, and I embraced it with the eagerness of a child.

I am falling in love with Charlotte Mason. The more I read her, the more I am convinced how much children should be allowed to experience life in all its glory. I want the best for my son, and I know that I want him more than anything to see, to experience the childhood he is meant to have, not one that most children in Singapore trudge through. 

There are two things I have applied from my reading. Firstly, I've come to appreciate that children need to spend lots of time outdoors. Charlotte elaborates, "And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day... I venture to suggest, not what is practical in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children." 

I don't deny that it's so much easier to come home after a long day at work, and to just watch my son play at home, sitting comfortably at the sofa as he fiddles with his building blocks on the floor. That was probably the me before I read the book. Now, I am determined to take Z for a walk outdoors even if I am physically tired. The past few days have been really precious in this aspect; and we've shared so many special memories - like the time when he started drumming madly at the fitness playground, using the circular fitness steps as a drum-of-sorts. As his father, I did the only respectable thing I could do - and onlookers saw a mad father and his son drumming in wild abandonment, oblivious to the world around.

The second thing I've learnt is how to help children appreciate nature as unadulterated as possible. Charlotte says it best, "Let us suppose mother and children arrived at some breezy open... In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people; there should be no story-books, no telling of tales.. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or a pantomime?" 

Z's god-sister April wrote an email response to one of our posts. She described Z in her note as a "person-in-training"; and I've come to appreciate the depth of that description. In helping my son develop to his fullest potential, I'm learning not to belittle his own attempts at discovery and exploration. My Facebook status update yesterday illustrates the richness of a child's self-learning efforts:

What a precious moment to see the young boy pull apart the husk of the little fruit on the grass... He had just discovered there was something white and soft inside.... With a squeal of delight, he persisted in his exploration of the fruit, ripping apart the aged husk, and revealing bit by bit the seed inside. All in a day's work for the 2-year-old. He had just completed his first dissection. 

As society progresses, a person's childhood years are being shortened. This statement was true during Charlotte Mason's time, when the Industrial Revolution ushered younger and younger people into the working world. The statement remains true today, with children expected to take on more and more "adult" roles and responsibilities at a tender age. I know it will especially difficult for Z, who was born into this world as a millennial. But I also know that I will do everything in my power to help him remain as a child as long as possible; to help him see the world of his childhood, and in the process drink deep from the well of rich experiences. I want him to live the most meaningful life he can possibly lead.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Phuket Experiment: More Than Just a Holiday

It started out at first as a sense of anticipation - I was busy packing for our upcoming trip to the Southern islands of Phuket and Krabi in Thailand last month, when it suddenly dawned on me how precious the time was going to be and just how much I was looking forward to spending two whole weeks with my husband and son, just the three of us, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. 

I had been waiting for the break from housework and the everyday routines of life, but as I thought about all our previous trips, I realised that our holidays have been more than that. They have been times of building into one another's lives and having the luxury of space and personal moments to make invaluable deposits into one another's love tanks. Holidays have also been a time to work on areas of growth we have been wanting to see at a particular stage in time, in our marital and familial lives collectively. Moreover, we have noticed that our son seems to blossom the most during the times of pure, unadulterated attention from the both of us. These have seemed to be the times he has chosen to cross significant developmental milestones and to achieve a greater awareness of himself and others.

So I thought, why not then make it a much more intentional exercise, an experiment of sorts? Why not dare ourselves to think bigger and build deeper, and try our best to make the precious time count for much more in the longer term? It was somewhat of a scary thought as I did not know if it would work, and so I decided to call it an experiment. I  immediately shared the idea with my husband, who enthusiastically agreed. We would call it the Phuket Experiment. The objective: to select an area that we have been wanting to work on, either in our marriage or in our parenting journey, and to implement that idea as a goal for a day of our holiday. At the end of each day, we would review how it went, and hopefully some of these short goals would become longer term ones for our family. It was not meant to be anything too ambitious. We just wanted to try out some of the ideas that had been on our minds but that we did not have time to experiment with in the busyness of our everyday life.

We decided to take turns setting the goals for each day. The first day, we started with something small - to eat healthy and try to improve the general health of our family. Z had been having a bout of stomach flu just before the trip, and we wanted to consciously choose meals that day which would help to nourish and nurse him back to good health. As for the parents, we decided to eat all the salad on our plates that day and for the rest of the trip, including the garnishing!

We moved on to other goals. There was the day we decided not to say anything critical about other people. It was liberating to approach the day with a grateful spirit and not a complaining spirit. Then there was the day we decided to help Z to be more polite, and another day when we decided to try not to use "good/ bad boy" in our speech but instead to affirm him more specifically for aspects of his behaviour. We also had a day of learning to be grateful for the little things, and a day of learning how to play make-believe with Z, after reading the work of Stanley Greenspan. Yet another day was spent with the goal of learning to be more conscious of one another's needs. Mark wanted to be more attuned to Z's needs and I wanted to be more attuned to Mark's - he was used to taking care of me and for me, of Zeph, so it was a nice role reversal! 

It was exciting to embark on a new goal each day, although some of the goals were spread over the course of two days when we felt we needed to work on them further. Most of the time, we found ourselves not only trying out a new goal, but also continuing to practise the ones we had previously set in motion. Then there were goals we decided to take home with us and continue working on, and are still continuing to pursue even now, a week after the trip! The effects have been priceless. We have seen Z blooming under our watchful attention. His smiles lit up each day, content in the conscious presence of his Daddy and Mummy. He surprised us with new words and empathetic behaviour, and even with slowly lengthening attention. One night, he sat in bed listening to me read him a whole chapter from The Little House on the Prairie!

Most significant to me was the goal of adopting a worshipful attitude throughout the day, culminating in a time of family worship. I had truthfully been rather disappointed as we had not been able to achieve the goal the day we had set out to work on it, due to Z being very tired that evening and falling asleep before our time of worship. We decided to carry the goal forward to the next day, and I decided to stop worrying about it. Mark reminded me that these things were not to be rushed and were divinely appointed.

It happened when we least expected it. I will never forget the scene on a beach far away from the maddening crowds. The neon-lit sky above was slowly dimming on the horizon, vast waters still sparkling like a sea of diamonds; the soft sand spreading out beneath our feet.  Our little son raised his hands to the sky, praising our Creator with all of his little being. He was learning what it meant to worship the God of the universe, newly conscious of what we had been singing to him throughout the trip - songs about the Lord of the sunshine and rain, of good times and pain, of the mountains and sea. Z was witnessing the beauty of creation for himself at the tender age of two, when it seems like you're seeing everything as if for the first time. That day, we sang our final song for the day as the sky dimmed. We thanked God for His work in our lives. Our Phuket Experiment was only beginning.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Building Blocks

It has become a morning ritual. The little boy would run over to the huge toy chest and purposefully attempt to pry it open. Finally achieving his objective, he would excitedly select a piece from the colourful block set, and intentionally place it on the floor next to him. Reaching back into the chest, he would repeat the process with another block, and position it on top of the first piece. Suddenly, in the midst of his activity, he would look frantically around the room. Glancing to and fro, his eyes would fall on an older man, who at this moment, would either be having breakfast or preparing to go to work. In a dramatic display of affection, the boy would run to the man, and drag him to the pile of building blocks on the floor. He wanted his Daddy to join him in this special time of father-son bonding.

We decided to buy the large chest of MEGA Bloks for Z ahead of his second birthday next month. Our son had been enjoying his building blocks while at his grandparents' place for quite some time, and we felt that we also wanted him to enjoy this activity while at home. So we waited for a sale, and brought back the building blocks in eager anticipation of what this might mean for him. And we were not disappointed. Our son gave a squeal of delight the first day he saw the blocks. Then he turned to us, and made the "thank you" sign with his hands. Indeed he took to them like a fish in water, conscienciously building the blocks upwards one by one, creating a Babel-like tower that reached far above his head.

It seemed natural for me to build the blocks with Z from the first day since we got the set. Our ever-enthusiastic son would always want to build as high as he can go. In fact my wife observes that boys and girls approach building blocks differently. She notes that while girls carefully create pretty structures with their blocks, boys would however go for higher yet more unstable structures. Z is no exception. I have therefore elected to help him stabilise his structures, by adding a strong base to them. That could have been the reason I first decided to spend time with him in this manner.

Building blocks with your son is a restful process. You don't have to run around picking up the balls that he throws and misses. You don't have to be continually on your feet as he runs around the house in a wild and uninhibited manner. You don't have to pick up the CDs and DVDs that he systematically and intentionally throws to get your attention. You don't have to pick up the milk bottles which he arranges on the kitchen floor only to knock them down like bowling pins. In contrast, you can just sit peacefully next to him; each of you watching the other fit a new block on the structure, and occasionally exchanging words of encouragement and affirmation. Of course switching on the TV and playing a DVD for him would be a less tiring activity since that would free you to go and play computer games; but such an activity is never a consideration for us given our intentional decision not to let the TV serve as his babysitter.

I have been learning much about creativity and the importance of play since we sent Z to playschool. In a recent seminar that I organised in conjunction with International Day of the Family - "Never Let You Go" - Changing Trends in Love, Marriage & the Family, one of the speakers, Ms Su-Lin Ditcham, stressed that play is an important part of a child's life. Su-Lin, who is the founder of PlayDays PlaySchool, screened a video illustrating the effect of education on the values and behaviour of a child, and how this could have a lasting impact on the individual when he or she grew up. The video contrasted three different teaching styles - laissez-faire, authoritarian and guided democracy - and their long-term impact on children. While the laissez-faire teaching led to a riot in the classroom, the kids under the authoritarian teacher were content to only create products that were exactly like the sample piece. It was, however, the children under the "guided democracy" who thrived; creating different products, all special and unique, and yet adhering to a certain quality standard.

For children to thrive, they need to be given choices in their various interactions and play situations. The presence of choices allows for creativity and jump-starts the learning process. Moreover, when adults respect the choices made by kids, this provides them with the confidence and security that they need. However children need to be guided in their decision-making process, as they still do not have the full knowledge and skill-sets that adults have. It is truly a delicate balance of allowing children the space to develop creatively, but yet equipping them with the guidance that only someone older and wiser can provide.

I have attempted to apply Su-Lin's principles to the act of building blocks with my son. On one hand you need to stabilise the structure so that it does not topple over so often that it frustrates him. On the other hand you also need to be mindful that you do not want to stifle his creativity by always "fixing" the structure such that it conforms to your own standards of aesthetic beauty and architectural stability. You therefore end up helping him create a structure that has some aspects of architectural rigour, but is at the same time allowed to topple when it eventually gets too high and too unstable. You hope that he will one day learn about concepts such as "centre of gravity", but you also know that the time is not now - at least not when he is only 2-years-old. What is more important is that you hope he will learn skills such as creative play and fine motor coordination, and in the process build up his confidence in building and in life.

It's truly been priceless the time I spend with Z building blocks. I had been lamenting previously about my son not seeming to want me as his father. While he still tangibly clings to his mother at most times, there is a moment when he sits with me and gives me his undivided attention - and it's all when we are both on the floor, happily building blocks together. Physiologically I know there will always be a significant difference between the mother-son relationship and the father-son bond, however I know it is sufficient for me just to know that I can connect with him in such a simple manner. I know that ultimately the father-son bond can only be strengthened if I continue to spend time with him moment by moment, metaphorically building the blocks of our relationship in the most day-to-day and ordinary instances. I know it will all be meaningful one day when he turns to his friends and proudly proclaims," This is MY Daddy."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Honour Thy Child

Sunday was Mothers' Day. If one had walked around parts of Singapore, he or she would have seen women with their families in tow, carrying flowers and other cutesy items, evidently presented to them by their loving children. Restaurants across the country have also cashed in on this trend, many of them offering Mothers' Day menus at less than "motherly" prices, hoping to attract the filial children who choose to celebrate their mothers' love on this special day. However, when Fathers' Day comes around next month, I have doubts if the same phenomenon would be repeated.

My musings arose from a seminar I attended last month at my church. The speaker, Dan Sneed, is a renown author whose works include The Power of a New Identity, a book which addresses issues of self rejection and addiction among other issues. Dan shared the story of how a certain card company in America had wanted to bless the prison community, and gave them free cards for them to write to their mums on Mothers' Day. More than 90% responded, and the cards were sent to their mothers in the spirit of celebrating the role these women had played in their lives. Given the success of the endeavour, the card company repeated the activity ahead of Fathers' Day, intending to also recognise the role of dads in the lives of the prisoners. Sadly, less than 25% took the cards. Dan went on to share that one reason for the poor take-up rate was that most of the inmates did not have fathers who were present in their lives. In fact, he said many young people end up behind bars because they have absent fathers. As such, the presence of a father is a major protective factor for young children.

In present day society, it is a growing trend that many fathers tend to absent themselves from the day-to-day lives of their children. This could be either due to the length of the working day, or because of a general perception that they should only be responsible for the finances of the family; all this in contrast to the belief that the wife should be responsible for the domestic aspects of the home - including the care of the children. Such a trend has resulted in the grown up children becoming more distant from their elderly fathers.

To address a gap in the relationship between fathers and their children, Dan suggested for fathers to expand on the biblical concept of honour. In the Bible, it was written for children to "honour thy father and mother". This principle is definitely the cornerstone of the familial relationship. After all, it is only when children honour their parents that they can experience the fullness of the love given to them by their parents. What Dan suggested, was however significantly different. He called for parents to honour their children.

Dan observed that if one was to study child developmental theory, he or she would realise that the self image of a child is fully developed by the age of 5. As such, children derive their self image mostly from the authority figures in their childhood - and at the age of 5, these would most likely be their parents. Children learn who they are and what they are like from us, their parents. Applying this concept, it would be evident that if we want our children to honour us, we would have to model how to honour them.

And how to honour our children? Dan provided 7 "A"s - Acceptance, Affirmation, Attention, Appreciation, Approval, Admiration and Acknowledgement.

I have reflected that in my interaction with my son Z, I do accept him for who he is. I also affirm, appreciate and express admiration for the things that he does. I am, however, still lacking in the other areas.

Attention - this is an area I know I need to work on. I have always admired my devoted wife Sue for being able to provide Z with her undivided attention. On the days when she is alone with him for the whole day, Sue would spend the entire morning engaging Z in a mother-son time of craft work or some other activity. Then, during his afternoon nap time, she would be busy preparing what to cook for his dinner. She would then attempt to take an afternoon nap herself, but often this would be disrupted as Z would have rested by then and would have woken up. She would have given Z her undivided attention during all his waking moments.

In contrast, I spend the evenings with him tired out from work. So instead of eagerly taking him for a walk everyday (which was our initial plan), I sometimes choose to instead read the newspapers while he is beside me, or to spend time playing some computer games. There have been times when he has come up to bite me (which is his way of getting my attention), but I have instead chosen to neglect him.

Approval and Acknowledgement - I know I am the stricter parent when it comes to disciplining Z. As I shared in the previous post on discipline, I can sometimes be very firm and fierce when enforcing punishment. I can already sense that Z tends to turn to his mother instead of me when he is scared. Moreover, he sometimes does things to "win" my approval like putting his toys back in their box when I ask him to; and he also tries to gain my acknowledgement through little gestures such as clapping his hands and hoping that I will do the same. I am learning how to enforce discipline in a more nurturing manner; in a way that would not erode his self image - disciplining him while still expressing my approval for his actions and still acknowledging his needs.

I know that the concept of honour is a difficult one for us to grasp. It is indeed easier to pay money to buy gifts for others instead of "honouring" them through words or deeds. In my own experience of working with young people. I have seen far too many parents "buying" over their children with expensive items such as the latest electronic gadgets and toys. I aspire to be a different parent, and to instead spend more of my time with my son - to assure him that his Daddy loves him, and will always love him.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore

The little boy shrieked at the top of his voice. Glancing around the room, he all but ignored the frustrated man trying in vain to comfort him. His eyes raced furiously to the boxes of toys arrayed around the room; he paused if only to give them a cursory glance, before dashing out of the room. Still in tears, the child wandered from room to room to no avail. Then suddenly he stopped - and sprinted into the waiting arms of a familiar figure - his mother.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks. I'm not sure exactly when, but I think it all began not long after our recent trip to Vietnam. My wife and I have pinpointed our Vietnam trip as the time when our son Z's temper tantrums became more frequent and more acute. Upon reflection, I have also ascertained that the period immediately after the trip was the start of Z's "clingy" behaviour.

I have been involved in the care of my son since his birth, participating in his night feeds, changing him, bathing him, feeding him, playing with him etc. And all this while relations with my son have been good. For the past 21 months I had prided myself on being able to comfort him when he cried, whether it was because he needed milk, or whether he needed to be changed. It is a father's heart - to be there for your son whenever he needs you. But in the past few weeks, the reverse has been true. It has seemed that everything I do makes upsets him.  When I bathe him, he starts screaming; when I try to read to him, he brushes me off. Even after a nice one-hour father-son walk with him, he would dash to his mother the minute we arrive home. And I seem not to be able to comfort him whenever he's crying.

Turning desperately to the collective wisdom of parenting advice on the Internet, I realised that Z's behaviour is part of a developmental phase for toddlers around the age of 2. An article by the Dads for Life movement, Dads of Toddlers: My Toddler Wants Mum More Than Dad, for example, quoted experts who explained that such behaviour is a result of the separation anxiety exhibited by toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 2/1/2 years. During this period the children are supposed to have formed strong attachment bonds with their primary caregivers, and are therefore more "clingy" to them. While I can understand the reason for such clingy behaviour given that Sue is a stay-at-home-mum, and that Z spends most of his waking hours with her, I was however still sad, as the "Internet experts" did not seem to present a viable solution for me - the article advocated among other activities, spending more quality time with my son, something which I feel I am already doing.

Moreover, there was a conversation last week with my wife, and she suggested that perhaps Z is behaving this way because I have been too strict with him and disciplining him far too much and far too often. I was rather worried by that comment. It was true. Looking back at the past couple of weeks, I realised that I had been especially strong in my disciplining of Z - especially since this recent clingy behaviour phase also paralleled his tantrum-throwing phase.

A discussion with my sister-in-law Andrea helped to frame the situation from a different perspective. Andrea recently graduated as a doctor and she shared that according to the development milestone guide published by the KK Women's and Children's Hospital, a 2-year-old can sometimes demonstrate "possessive", "egocentric" behaviour, and that he or she "constantly demands attention" and "clings to [the] mother".

I also turned to my good friend Edwin, a seasoned father of 3, for his advice. Over a meal of nasi lemak, my wise friend reassured me that Z was probably not clinging to his mother because of my firm disciplinary approach. He shared that for himself, he had learnt the importance of love deposits in his daughters' lives. Edwin likened the relationship with each of his children to a bank. While he said he did discipline his children when the situation called for it, however this had to be done in an atmosphere of love. He stressed that his children had to know that he loved them, even while he was disciplining them.

My good friend noted that he would never be able to spend as much as time with his children as his wife Christine, since she is a stay-at-home-mum; nor did he want to - as that would mean quitting his current job to do so, a move that would cast doubt on the family's financial situation. He had, however, learnt how to meet the needs of his kids even though he might not always be able to spend so much time with them. This, Edwin shared, was all because he has a wise wife who "coaches" him on what the girls need most during the times when they are upset with him. For instance, there was a time when Christine disclosed that the oldest daughter was extremely excited over an art project she had done. And when Edwin asked her about the project, the little girl's gushing response to her father confirmed that all was well again. It was his wife, Edwin declared, who helped him to be the good father he was to his children.

I know that I have been depositing dollops of love into the relationship bank with my son throughout his life. And I know this has matured into tangible dividends for us - for instance just over the past few days Z has been asking me to carry him after we return home after a family outing. He has also recently demonstrated a certain sadness in his eyes each morning when I go to work. Sue recounted that only yesterday our son was very insistent in attempting to come to work with me as I waved goodbye to him at the carpark.

I am learning many things from my wise wife. Just a few days ago, she reflected on our son's personality, and shared that the more she spent time with him, the more she realised that he is a person who loves physical touch among other sensory needs. Her realisation has helped me to pursue a more physical interaction with him - by tickling him, massaging him, and just doing the more "Daddy" things with him. I can tell that he is responding well to this manner of interaction, and I know I am doing something right for the first time in a long while. These precious moments seem to serve as an imaginary pen that is re-writing the sad script of "My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore", and is instead articulating a story of "My Son is Very Attached to His Mother, but also Loves His Father Very Much."