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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Home or School?

Three Thursdays ago, my little one started school. Thanks to a recommendation from one of my fellow stay-at-home mums, we booked a trial class for Z at a playgroup near our home. I already liked the name of the centre as it certainly did not sound too academic. Furthermore, it seemed to be in line with our philosophy of learning through play, especially at this stage of Z's life where he learns best this way. We just wanted him to know that learning is good plain fun!

I was honestly quite apprehensive about the whole affair, as it has just been Z and me at home all this while, and our son tends to be very clingy. He therefore takes a long while to warm up to strangers. We had however decided that the time was ripe. Recently, I have noticed the look of longing on his face every time a child from the neighbourhood came by to say hello and eventually bade goodbye. Z would stand there and look mournful as his new friend walked away. Mark says that was how he often felt as an only child. I could therefore sense Z's longing to play with companions around his age.

And so it was that we signed him up for the class, and Mark took leave to come along; the proud parents that we were, armed with camera and lots of hope that he would enjoy his first time in school. And thankfully, he enjoyed it immensely! He quickly warmed up and was soon participating happily in the buzz of activity.

Z took awhile to adjust to the new environment; but before long our little boy was sitting by himself on the mat, back ramrod straight, all ears, in complete awe and giving his fullest attention to the teacher. I think he was particularly impressed by all the singing that was going on. As I told Z's grandparents' later, it seemed like a non-stop musical from start to finish - the teachers even sang aloud their instructions, and were very well-versed in the songs they played on the electric organ! Mark and I were impressed too , and were having a great deal of fun along with our son! The sight of my son sitting in rapt attention, all grown-up and pleased with himself, made me feel like a mother who has just sent her son off to Primary One. My little baby was all grown-up!

Since then, Z has had two more classes and has grown in confidence and sociability over the weeks. We have seen the changes in him. Right after his class, he could not stop wriggling his body and gesticulating wildly the whole day long, while humming a little tune to himself. We figured he must have been trying to reprise the songs his teachers had sung in class! We were mildly amused. Following that, we also noticed positive changes in him during the Chinese New Year period. He had actually been upset during the Christmas season with all the parties and strangers talking to him, so we were not looking forward to yet another festive season with another series of tantrums from him. However, this time round he quickly warmed up to the company, and was soon himself again with all his funny antics and jokes! We were most pleased.

It has been a long journey of decision-making for us as a family. I had always wanted to stay home to look after the kids, but was not sure of what it entailed as I had always been working. We knew for sure we did not want domestic help, or to send him to infant care, and though it would mean tightening our belts, we decided I should work part-time from home and be Z's main caregiver. 

As a result, this has also meant decisions for us in the area of Z' schooling. While many parents reserved a place early in a kindergarten, some even before delivery, our desire for him so far has been that we should be the main imparters of knowledge and values in his life, especially at this early stage. We have even considered the possibility of homeschooling him, something I think requires a great deal of love, patience and bravery to do, as evidenced by one of my friends, who is currently homeschooling her toddler!

It is not easy to make the best decisions for him and to know when to go with the flow and when to be different. A case in point was the decision we recently had to make about whether to put our son in the childcare where Mark works. It is a reputable centre, and when we heard last week that a vacancy had opened up for Z, we were actually very excited as the fees were much lower for staff. It also seemed a tempting option for us to put him there for half a day, while I sought part-time employment in the mornings, which would certainly free us up more financially and give me some time to myself!

We decided to pay a visit before we made the decision. The centre was a beautiful one, plenty of space for the children to run about and play outside. The teacher we met seemed well-informed and knowledgeable about children's developmental stages, and the atmosphere seemed to be an open and welcoming one. However, as the tour progressed, I found my anxiety levels rising, and I could not imagine my little 18-month-old being away from me for so long, learning how to eat and to take care of his daily needs himself! My heart was uneasy, and Mark's was too, as it turned out.

As attractive an option as it was, after discussion we decided to perhaps forego the place for now and hopefully we will be able to put Z there when he is at least 2. We also consulted other mothers, who said that if they did have the opportunity to, they would choose to look after their children themselves, while the kids are still at such a young age. It was not an easy decision to make.

To stay home or to go to school? It is a question we will have to ask ourselves again, perhaps another six months down the road. For now, I have chosen the option which seems to be the harder one for me - being reminded that I am the one who should be primarily in charge of bringing my son up, though on days when he is difficult and I am tired, I really feel it would be easier to pass on the responsibility to someone else. 

It's been a time of soul searching. For now, I am glad for his one session of playgroup a week, and look forward to seeing him grow in new ways during that time. That will more than suffice for now, the sight of my little boy madly flinging flour about during Flour Play, of him swaying to the music and enthusiastically showing off the actions he has learnt to the songs, and looking up in amazement at the bubbles which are blown at the end of each session, these are the things I look forward to once again  as I wonder what he will learn in his next class.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fathering: The Most Important Job in the World

A brand new year. A brand new experience. That's what school children across Singapore went through last week, the start of a brand new school year. Anxious parents across the country accompanied their children to their new schools, hopeful that their little ones would adjust to the biggest change in their lives as yet. My good friend Edwin remarked sadly that he was not able to join his oldest daughter, A, who is entering Primary One this year. For my step-sister Priscilla, her son, E, has been eagerly anticipating school even before the year began, and he enjoyed his first day in Primary School.

Also present in school was the Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat. Addressing the parents, Mr Heng stressed that fathers should take a more active role in raising their children. He noted that involved fathers have a postive influence on their children, a role that should be shared with the mothers.

Research studies concur with Minister Heng's comments. For instance, an article in the US-based journal Child Development observed that fatherly involvement tended to have a protective effect which helped to keep their children out of delinquent activities such as stealing and drug use. The longitudanal study of more than 600 adolescents, published in 2007 by Rebekah Coley and Bethany Medeiros, explained that such a phenomenon was due to fathers having more regular contact and conversations with their children, and who took greater responsibility for their children's care.

Another study, written by Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr. and published in a White House Paper in 1984, noted that an emotionally or physcially absent father contributes to a child's (1) low motivation for achievement; (2) inability to delay immediate gratification; (3) low self-esteem; and (4) susceptibility to group influence and juvenile delinquency.

These studies have emphasised the importance of the father's role in a child's life. It is no wonder that the writer Josh McDowell, in his book The Father Connection, describes fathering as the "most important job in the world". He concurrently describes it as the "most frightening job in the world", as well as the "most rewarding job in the world". Josh elaborates that unless fathers are present, pay attention and are close to their children, the father influence would become a distant third when compared to other influences such as peer pressure and the media. He stressed that it's so important for fathers to provide their children with unconditional love and acceptance.

Fathering is especially important for me personally due to my family background. Since my parents' divorce years ago, I did not have a strong fatherly involvement in my life. While I am thankful that I still meet my dad occasionally, it is not the same as having an active father play a daily role in my life; and that was what I really missed in my growing up years. I saw that in my good friend Edwin's father, who would get up early each morning to pray for the family, as well as to take time to bring his children out for breakfast on a regular basis. Since then I have told myself that I would like to be such a father to my son.

John Eldredge, the author of Wild At Heart, shared stories of how he would take his sons on special nature expeditions to spend quality father-son time. That is the type of father I would like to be. Of course my son Z is still young, barely 17-months-old; but I treasure the special evening walks with him. Just over the weekend I took Z alone to walk along the canal near our home; Sue was busy baking and I thought the walk would give her some space alone. It was such a meaningful time to tell him Bible stories, to sing with him, and to teach him scientific facts about plants and nature. I'm glad for this special "Daddy Time" that we have set aside each evening for him; it complements the "Mummy Time" that Sue has with him in the mornings. In fact I believe the time spent with him has already borne fruit. Just this evening he said his first complete sentence, "Where did Daddy go?" To which my wife replied, "To the computer room." And the little boy promptly made his way from the dining room to the computer room to look for me. What a precious moment which highlighted how important his daddy's presence is to Z!

I'm glad that the Education Minister is taking time to share his concerns on fathering. Minister Heng's comments echo the societal trend in Singapore for a greater emphasis on the role of the father in the family. Already, we are beginning to see increased media exposure for organsations such as the Centre for Fathering; and the Dads for Life movement is beginning to make splashes locally. It is truly my desire to see more fathers take on the mantle of leadership in the household. In a frightening world where peer pressure and media influences can take precedence over familial influence, it is all the more important for us fathers to rise up to the challenge. We need to give our children the unconditional love and acceptance they need - so that they can become the men and women they were meant to be.