Friday, January 24, 2014

Life in the Mirror

"Swallow your food!"

An authoritative voice boomed from the living room. 

"Children, swallow your food otherwise you can't go out!"

I turned to the source of the voice. It was a 3-year-old boy, seated on the sofa with his three favourite soft toy "children" - Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird.

Rather amused at the proceedings, I inquired, "Did Elmo swallow his food?"

The young boy turned to the brick red creature. "Elmo, open your mouth." 

"Elmo, you have to listen to your Daddy Z and swallow your food. Otherwise you can't go out.

The little boy nodded his head. "Elmo [has] swallowed his food."

"Good job, Elmo," I said.

A tender moment. Z & E with their "children".

We have always encouraged our older son to take on various roles during his playtime. One of his favourite activities has been to play with a toy cash register and receive money from us when we buy various food items from his "supermarket". Then there has been his recent fascination with dentists after my in-laws got a model of a mouth all complete with a set of black teeth for him to extract with his dentist "drill" and "forceps". This act of role-playing real life scenarios is intended for him to learn about various aspects of social life, helping him to understand about how things work in a fun yet educational context. The roles are also meant to mirror actual life experiences for him to both increase his creativity as well as to prepare him for the "real world". We were therefore not surprised when he decided to "adopt" his favourite soft toys as his "children", often taking them to bed and sleeping with them, as well as seating them at the dining table to eat their lunch.

What's for sale at the "supermarket"?

I was, however surprised when our 3-year-old decided to act out the scenario described above. The truth of the matter is that a similar incident happened about one month ago. Our two sons were supposed to go on a play-date with our regular homeschooling group at the Botanic Gardens. Just before the outing, we realised that our older child was still chewing on his breakfast, refusing to swallow it. We then insisted that if he did not swallow his food, he would not be able to go on the play-date. Despite our numerous attempts, Z refused to obey. What we have learnt during our parenting journey is that once we have issued an instruction, that we have to follow through with it. If we do not do so, our children will learn that disobedience has no consequences. It was with that principle in mind that we made the difficult decision that Z could not join his brother for the outing. 

We solemnly announced our decision to Z on arrival at the Botanics, giving him one final chance to swallow his food and open his mouth to prove that the food had gone down. When this did not come to pass, I waved goodbye to Sue and E, and drove Z home with me in the car. It was a somber Z who walked home with me that day. "Z [is] so very sad," he told me, as I put him to bed in his room. I asked him why he was sad, and he told me this was because he couldn't play with his good friends. 

One week later, it was Elmo's turn to swallow his food. Our son had obviously been thinking about the incident for the entire week, choosing to re-enact it with his "children".

An interesting phenomenon is that Z has not only been using his "children" as the conduits of his learning experience. Our younger son E has been the other recipient of his Kor Kor's learning journey. For instance we overheard this interesting conversation the other day from the living room where the kids were playing alone by themselves:

"E, say thank you! Kor Kor is sharing with you."


"You're welcome."

And then there was the incident involving a slice of chocolate cake. I shared this previously via a Facebook status update:

Scene: Sunday afternoon. Z enjoying chocolate cake in the living room.

Mummy: Is there any more chocolate cake?
Daddy: Nope. That's the last bite. (Turns to Z) There's only one last piece of cake. Can we give it to Mummy?
Z: Z's cake.
Daddy: I know. But can we give it to Mummy? It's the last piece and Mummy hasn't had any.

Z nods his head. Daddy hands Mummy the cake.

Z (in tears): No more chocolate cake. Mummy eating the last piece.
Daddy: Z, you've eaten quite a lot. Let Mummy have the cake?

Still in tears, Z nods his head soulfully.

Mummy: Although you gave the last piece of cake to me, I'm giving it back to you because I love you.

Mummy hands the cake back to Z whose eyes are now shining with joy.

There are moments when you know that being a parent is all worth it...

About a cake...

Scenes like these can only bring a smile to our faces. At such a young age, children are like mirrors that reflect their parents' words and actions. As someone working with young people for more than 10 years, I have met youths from all walks of life. There are the well-adjusted and secure individuals who pursue life with a clear sense of purpose and priorities. And then there are the insecure and ill-adjusted youths, those who do not have a plan for their lives, bouncing from one thrill to the next and falling into despair at every crisis both big and small. I then meet their parents; and I know why these young people turn out the way they are...

I must admit that we are not the best parents. There are many times when we have heard our older son say things that make us cringe; and we can almost hear ourselves saying those very same words. During those times, we make a mental note to use kinder words and gentler tones in our communication with him and with each other. Then there are also moments when we witness kind or loving words and actions - like how Z lifted E up from the floor yesterday after the littler one had fallen, subsequently hugging and patting him. These precious occasions provide the encouragement that perhaps we are doing something right as parents after all. 

When we look in the mirror of our lives, what reflection do we want our children to see in us? For Sue and I, our hope is for our children to reflect the love that we have from God. Our lives may be an imperfect reflection of the love that we have experienced from God, but our children must at least be able to see and know that we love God and are trying our best to share this love with them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Social Factor

It often starts with a courteous smile followed by raised eyebrows and a slight alteration in the tone of the voice. This follows by a surprised "Wow!" or a curious "Really?" or even the unintended but clearly indicative "Oh." The conversation then launches into queries on why we have decided to homeschool our children and how different this is from mainstream education. And then comes the question that almost always escapes the lips of the other party: "Aren't you concerned that your child will lack social skills if you homeschool him?"

The general public has a rather hazy picture of homeschooling. They imagine a tired mother conducting lesson after lesson for her child. This could either take the form of rigid classes and the regurgitation of facts. But more often than not, there is a general perception that homeschooling is unstructured and that the lessons are mostly unplanned and whimsical. There is also the perception that homeschooling lacks the academic rigour of mainstream education.

Z at 21 months. Using the dot marker to
learn the alphabet.
In one scenario, the poor homeschooled child would be sitting at his or her desk from dawn to dusk, with hardly time to do "homework". An alternative scenario paints the image of the child playing from morning to evening, with the mother adopting a laissez-faire approach towards studying.

Both these scenarios presume that all learning is done in isolation; with the mother as the sole educator of the child. Even when there is a presumption of outdoor activities, this is imagined to be a one-to-one visit to the local library or science centre, where the child is pictured scribbling notes to be re-examined once he or she returns home.

Learning Journey at the Essential Eames
Exhibition (Arts & Science Museum Singapore)

Thankfully for us, the homeschooling experience is in complete contrast to the situations described above. A typical school day begins after breakfast, with my wife embarking on a prepared curriculum. This could take the form of reading a book, a paper-and-pencil activity, or even engaging in painting or other craft work. This would take us to the late morning, when my son would then watch a short educational/music video while my wife prepares lunch.

After lunch would be nap time, and by the time both boys wake up, it would be almost late afternoon. Daddy would normally be back by then, and the boys would spent some time playing at home before going for an evening walk at a nearby park or other nature spot. There would then be a short window after dinner, when the family spends time just sitting at the sofa and chilling out. Bedtime is usually at 8 or 9 pm. The children are sent to bed one by one, after completing their personal nightly rituals. It's then lights out after a Bible story and prayer. 

A precious nature study lesson at the nearby canal.
At 3 years and 5 months, Z was asking why the tree was
standing firmly in the ground. Daddy responded by teaching
him that strong roots under the ground keep it upright.

I can understand why such a schedule might cause critics to express their concerns about the social life of a homeschooler. There is however more to this than meets the eye.

When I was conducting research on the relationship between socialisation and homeschooling for this article, I discovered a wide body of studies co-relating the strong positive link between homeschooling and socialisation. The link to one such article can be found here. These studies discussed the negative impact of social ties in mainstream schools, with instances of bullying and ostracism accounting for low self-esteem among children. There is also the notion that many students in mainstream schools are saddled with a large amount of work, and that other than the time spent in non-academic activities, that students ironically do not have much time to socialise. 

Conversely, these studies revealed that homeschoolers are not as easily susceptible to peer pressure, given that they do not have as many peers to compare with. They are therefore more secure and have a higher sense of self-esteem. There is also the research that shows that while homeschooled children may have fewer friends, that these friends tend to share similar perspectives; children therefore form stronger friendships among their homeschooling peers.

This is the case for us, as both our children have formed very firm friendships with their homeschooling friends. We are part of a community that meets once a fortnight at locations around the island. Comprising four families, we have exactly five boys and five girls in this group, with ages ranging from 1 year to 8 years. Meetings have been very eventful, and we mostly go to places such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Singapore Zoo and also the Singapore Science Centre. We recently also joined another homeschooling play group near our home, and we plan to go for activities on the other available fortnight. And then there are the regular meetings on Saturdays (when we have fellowship group meetings in church) and Sundays (when the kids go for Sunday school in church). This does not include the planned play date sessions with various children among our relatives and friends. All in all, I must say it's been rather full for us on our social calendar!

Picnic at the Singapore Botanic Gardens with our
regular homeschooling group. 

I could write so much more on this topic. But pictures paint a thousand words, and I'm certain moving pictures multiply the effect. This is the TED talk of a young boy, Logan Laplante, who was taken out of the mainstream education system to be homeschooled at the age of 13. We also watched an interesting movie today, Come What May, which we learnt was produced by a group of 40 homeschooled children with assistance from professional filmmakers. A trailer of the movie, which discusses the issue of abortion from a legal perspective, can be found here.

Back to the question there is so often asked: "Aren't you concerned that your child will lack social skills if you homeschool him?"

Well, it's precisely because our children are homeschooled that I am certain they will develop the necessary social skills to succeed in life. More than that; I believe our children will gain a deeper and richer education than if they were sent to a mainstream school. I would like them to grow up to not only desire happiness and health, but also to love God and make a difference in the lives of others.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sowing Seeds of Love

Motherhood is a perplexing thing. In the pure exhaustion of the daily business of handling two young boys I find myself looking forward to my two work days each week when the boys go to their grandparents' homes and I have a few precious hours of time away, not necessarily time to myself as there are chores to do and other children to teach, but sufficient for regrouping and a little rest and reflection.

And yet, in that moment of parting when I see their little solemn faces through the car window as Nai Nai drives them off, it is somehow still hard to let them go. I confuse myself sometimes!
Reflecting on our parenting are an important part of the process.
Yesterday morning was no different.  We had had a gruelling weekend of three family gatherings in a row which had left a rather grouchy older boy and a clingy toddler.  The older one was sensing the impending separation and acting up the whole morning.

Finally bundled up in their grandma's car, I waved goodbye to them in the parking lot with a slight tinge of irrational 'mummy-guilt', knowing they would have a lovely time with Ye Ye and Nai Nai and yet feeling sorry to see them go.

From the back of the car I heard a little voice saying, "Mummy, you take Elmo along," in a matter-of-fact voice.  I looked in through the car window and saw his little hands holding his beloved stuffed toy, thrusting the furry red creature out to me. I was touched.  It was an act of kindness and his way of ensuring that I would take along a little piece of him as I went through my day, something precious of his and close to his heart.       

Z is almost three-and-a half, his brother E going on one-and-a-half. The early years of parenthood are gruelling ones, full of unconditional giving, bottles of milk, diaper changes and sleepless nights when babies are sick and teething. Then the toddler years greet you in full force with tantrums and strong wills, and the tricky part of parenting begins when you truly need to rely on a greater wisdom apart from yourself to help your children to grow in maturity, hopefully bearing good fruit of love,  patience and kindness along the way.

These are times when my husband has joked that we sound like a broken record - "Please be gentle to your brother", "Wait patiently for your turn", "No pushing or hitting! " have been our constant refrains. And we carry on with the hope that someday all this will actually sink in. And how amazing it is when it finally does! How rewarding it has felt when the seeds that are sown finally begin bearing fruit and your little one begins learning to put others' needs before his own.   

A precious moment with the boys...
He offers you his beloved stuffed toy,  or lets you have the last piece of his favourite chocolate cake.  You witness him wiping his little brother's runny nose with a tissue. He leaves a room and pops his head back in to say, "Love you Daddy!" And suddenly the endless repetitions all seem worthwhile.  

May the seeds of love, gentleness and kindness in our children's lives bear fruit for a lifetime to come... and hopefully, may I also learn to let go and enjoy these moments away; to recharge that tape recorder of ours, so that it can carry on playing its imperfect tunes, and hopefully one day produce a beautiful melody.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Korea 2013 - Jeju Chapter 7

Hallim Park

We awoke with a certain sense of sadness; for it was our last full day in Jeju and we had grown fond of this picturesque and charming island. We quickly packed our things and headed out - we wanted to make the best of what we had left.

Destination: Hallim Park. When we did the research for the trip, Hallim Park was described as one of the most kid-friendly places on the island. And we found this assessment to be very accurate. We were fascinated that the park was created from scratch in the 1970s by a farsighted individual. He literally transformed 100 thousand square metres of barren land into the garden paradise it is today. 

The park's official website presents this tribute to its founder:

With luscious vegetation all around, the park was clearly one of our most favourite sites in the whole of Jeju!

Beautiful flowers line the pathways of the park. These are
changed periodically from season to season.

Just a stroll in the park.

Z enjoying the numerous miniature
windmills sprinkled throughout the park.

The lovely water garden comes alive with its beautiful
nesting swans, ducks and other feathered creatures. 

Z was clearly in his element at the walk-in aviary. Here he is
with the white peacocks.

The traditional hut where we had lunch. If you look closely you
will see workers re-thatching the hut. Apparently they do  this
now and then to preserve the authenticity of the environment.

Are those pumpkins in the trees? Only in Korea! 

Who said you shouldn't play with your food?

The famous Jeju black pork. I can say it was the best pork meal
I have ever eaten in my life! Succulent meat marinated in a
special sauce and grilled to perfection. When you wrap it in a
lettuce leaf with the other side dishes, that's a moment of bliss!
Not quite Los Angeles, but it certainly
felt that way!

The wild grass and flower garden. Picturesque.

Lava caves that were far easier to navigate than the
famed grottos in Manjangul.

A much-deserved rest after a long day's
walk. A double scoop of rosemary and
wild cactus ice cream. 

When we began the final drive back to our hotel, we were sad that we would be leaving one of the most beautiful places in the world. We now knew why Jeju Island was selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And we knew that we would be back one day. 

Jeju in 10 days - that hardly does justice to this island paradise...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Korea 2013 - Jeju Chapter 6

Saryeoni Forest

Sue had been reading about a special theme park for kids - the Cocomong Eco Park. We therefore packed our things and prepared to drive to the park, located in the south of the island. As there is only one major road artery leading to the south, we had to pass through the island's interior. During the drive there, I was lamenting on how I missed going on a forest trek and how much the boys enjoy walking. This especially since we were driving through luscious forests all around. It was then that we made the spontaneous decision to go for a forest trek.

This alluring sign caused us to alter our
itinerary for a lovely trek through the forest. 
The air was pristine; peppered with the fresh scent of crisp leaves. The chirping of birds resounded through the air; almost like a choreographed orchestra. And we almost felt like we were walking in the scene from a Korean drama.

Our son Z sets off on foot as eager as
always. So proud that he walked on his
own for most of the 2 hour hike.

The vast expense of forest was truly a feast for the senses.

A picture of adversity in the midst of peace.

Daddy's Boy!

The Love of My Life

Almost like a scene from Winter Sonata;
only that it felt like autumn.

Our adventurer Z without a care in the world!

Bridge over quiet waters...

Do you see what I see?

The most interesting aspect of our walk was that it was totally unplanned; and we thoroughly enjoyed both the spontaneity of the moment, as well as the serenity of the location. Till this day our older son Z remembers his walk in the forest in Jeju, and I can totally understand why it brought such lovely memories for him.

Cocomong Eco Park

We were all hungry by the time we arrived at the Cocomong Eco Park. While the food at the theme park was rather tasty, the price of the items did not satisfy. That rather summed up the rest of the experience at the theme park; for while our children did enjoy themselves, we felt that the admission fees were too pricey - especially since there were very few attractions to visit. If we could have turned back the clock, we would not have made the trip there in the first place.

Our younger son E enjoying himself in a
house made up of plastic wrap.

Z at the outdoor treehouse.

Ever the climber - E makes his way
across the "spider webs".

Our son definitely has a thing for horses.

Comfy chair anyone?

The kids were exhausted by closing time, and there was little left to do but to make our way back to the hotel, clocking in a 1/1/2-hour sunset drive along the way.

Korea 2013 - Jeju Chapter 5

Eco Land Theme Park

After sending my in-laws to the airport, we headed off to the charming Eco Land Theme Park. But not before spending an extra amount of time getting the kids ready. During the one week that my in-laws were with us, we would whisk both children to their room early in the morning to be changed. But now, it was taking significantly longer to get ready (especially since both children attempted to look for their grandparents in their now vacant room).

The charm of Eco Land is that it was built in a large primeval forest. And you get to sit on a steam-powered train all through the theme park. As a parent of two young boys, I could hardly wait to get there!

This is what the official tourism website has to say:

Eco Land Theme Park is built in the 1km² Gotjawal primeval forest. Visitors can explore around in a train that looks like 1800s’ steam powered Baldwin train. The five Baldwin train look-alike operated in the park were specially ordered and manually manufactured in UK. In the large Gotjawal forest with railway trails, visitors can see a variety of plants, animals, and insects living in the mysterious Gotjawal forests, while touring around by the special train. It also has a lake for visitors to experience the ecosystem of the forest, take a walk, and enjoy picnic. Besides, there are many things to enjoy including Eco Bridge, Hovercraft, Eco Windmill, Picnic Garden, Kid’s Town, Eco Road, Bare Foot on Scoria, Floating Café, and topiary art works. 

We were immediately thrilled when we arrived and got on board the train.

Daddy & Z posing with the Eco Land train. All boys love trains
and what a happy boy we had with us that day!

Z taking in the sights. He was only 9-months-old when he
boarded his first steam-powered train in Australia. Looking
back, it's amazing how our 3/1/2-old has grown!

The train arrives by the shore of a charming lake. Surrounded by trees, the luscious scenery almost causes you to forget that you're in the midst of a giant theme park.

With waters as clear as a mirror, we enjoyed a lovely walk
around the Eco Land lake.

A life-size ship awaits those eager to explore the high seas!

And there were the lovely streams which Z enjoyed.

As we travel to the fringe of the lake, our younger son E was quick to jump up. He was eager to exercise his restless leg muscles.

Here goes E wandering around the land of make-believe Holland,
complete with a large windmill and its coloured companions.

Not quite Don Quixote, but E almost looks the part. 

Z is naturally thrilled to explore the large
playground at the fairgrounds of the theme park.
The park is immersed in large open spaces and vegetation,
and Z thoroughly enjoyed exploring the grounds.

The rain grew heavier as we made our way around the park. And with temperatures dipping towards the end of the afternoon, we decided to call it a day and make our way back to Jeju City. There, it was another night of shopping at the Jungang Underground Shopping Mall, somewhere that we could escape the cold and have a nice warm dinner.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Korea 2013 - Jeju Chapter 4

Hallasan National Park

We started our day planning to drive to the spectacular Jeongbang Falls, located south of Jeju Island. Little did we know that our journey would involve travelling through the island's interior. We were therefore pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon large open meadows painted with snow. We excitedly hopped out of the car for some photo moments, and our older son Z was thrilled to explore the snow with his Daddy.

A view from the road.

Z and Daddy take a walk.

A splash of snow.
As we drove on, we realised that we were climbing up mountainous terrain. And before we knew it, we saw the parking lot for Hallasan National Park, the very place that my mother-in-law had been hoping to avoid given that it was supposed to be very cold around the area. But our adventurous spirit got the better of us, and it was not long before we were parked alongside the other cars, for there were many who were there to experience the scenic treks across the snow. 

The sun peeking out from behind the trees.
Our older son Z enjoyed his experience with the
snow and was raring to go all the way.
Although we did not go on any of the long treks, it was
enjoyable just to walk near the park entrance.

Our younger son E proves he can also
be as brave as his brother.

Z couldn't resist another snowball attack on his Kong Kong.

My sister-in-law Andrea enjoying the snow.

My in-laws. True love endures all.

Jeongbang Falls

Energised by our short walk in the snow, we continue our drive southwards to the majestic Jeongbang Falls. The official Korean website presents this interesting story:

Jeongbang Falls (정방폭포) is only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean. On the wall of the waterfall, there is an inscription written “Seobulgwacha”, referring to Seobul passing by this place. Seobul was a servant of the Chinese Emperor Jin (BC 259~210) who was ordered by the Emperor to find the substance that would make him immortal. 

We easily made our way down the steps to the falls. On the way down, our attention was diverted to a group of people seated on the rocks. Drawing nearer, we realised that they had all bought fresh seafood from a make-shift stall set up just by the ocean. The delectable selection of octopus, geoduck clam and another unidentifiable shellfish were apparently caught fresh by the famous Hanyeo women divers of Jeju, said to be about 60 to 75 years old, and who can apparently hold their breath for up to 3 minutes. The seafood looked so fresh and irresistible that we just had to try it.

All ready to tuck into delectable seafood
caught just moments ago...

Our littler son E wanted some of the action,
but he had to be content with milk. We did however
give some octopus to our older son Z...

A whole new meaning to al fresco dining!
With our tummies satisfied, we made our way the bottom of the waterfall. For the record I must register my compliments to Z, who decided to make his way on foot all the way despite the difficult rocky terrain!

Z making his way to the falls with the help
of his beloved Kong Kong.

A view of the sea...

Z contemplating life. He was mesmerised by
the magnificent streams of flowing water.

E had his own way of reflecting about life...

Family shot at the foot of Jeongbang Falls

A view of the falls from above.

Lifelong travel companions...

Stunning beauty in Jeju

Z and his grandparents. We realised we were
actually along one of the famous Olle hiking trails.

Tired by our adventures, we headed back to the city, to the Jungang Underground Shopping Mall. There we spent the night with a quick round of shopping, as well as a farewell meal for my in-laws, who were leaving early the next morning.

Next: A peaceful day at the scenic Eco Land Theme Park. Click here to follow the adventures of young Z and E.

Previously: Click here to read how we were snowed in while enjoying butterflies at the delightful Psyche World. Also, a dive deep into the ocean at the spectacular Aqua Planet.