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.