Monday, December 26, 2011

Family Traditions & Rituals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Toddler Tantrums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just a Few Steps Ahead - The Walk of a Mentor

"I really can't wait to eat Claire's delicious dinner. She has always prepared a sumptious meal all these years... But this crazy rain seems to get heavier by the minute, and the traffic is really crazy... I wish we had arranged another day for our mentoring session..."

That was my lament to Sue as we drove last Thursday to the home of Ben and Claire, the lovely couple who have been our relationship mentors even before we got married. The December monsoons had come a few weeks early, peak hour traffic was almost at a standstill, our son Z was getting a little cranky in his car seat, and we were very late - almost one hour to be precise.

But the moment we entered the house, all strain and tiredness seemed to evaporate like the springtime mist. Ben was all smiles as he greeted us. "There's no need to apologise," he voiced, as we articulated the long story behind why we were so late. "What's most important is that you're here," echoed Claire, her gentle disposition melting away all our discomfort. "Uncle, Aunty, would you like a drink?" R, the second daughter, graciously asked; to which the eldest child and daughter S added thoughtfully, "Would you like a straw in a cup for Z, so that he can drink as well?"

We knew at once that our "troubles" were all worthwhile.

We first asked Ben and Claire to be our relationship mentors almost five years ago, about a year or so before we got married. We had then just gotten attached officially, and were seeking a couple who were a few steps ahead of us to talk through important relationship issues, to pray for us, as well as to simply help us to learn more about what it takes to develop a strong and healthy relationship. Ben and Claire graciously agreed; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Through the years, Ben and Claire have been with us all the way. They were there during the happy moments, like during our wedding, when their third child D was one of our page boys. Claire helped us to take care of the children, and to make sure that all the page boys and flower girls appeared at the right timing during the bridal procession. Our mentors were also there after Z came into our life, both of them coming to our house to share in our joy, and to rejoice with us at the newest addition to our family.

Ben and Claire were there during the difficult moments in our lives; like when we've had to talk through some of the major issues affecting us as a couple. During these sessions, Ben would always be there to share his insights, and Claire would be there supporting him as he spoke. They also provided more than emotional encouragement; and I will always remember the time when Claire appeared at our house with a huge pot of chicken soup - Z had just come home from the hospital and the couple simply wanted to bless us with a physical gesture of their love and care, hoping that the chicken soup would help us tide through the sleepless nights caring for a newborn child.

We have learnt so much from Ben and Claire - and more often that not, it has been from what we have observed from their lives, rather than only about what they have spoken to us. For instance, we have learnt many principles of parenting just by observing how they parent their children. One incident I remember a few years back was when their third child D had an argument with their youngest child and son C. Ben not only reprimanded C for not sharing his toy with D, but also asked him to give the item to D. Oftentimes we tend to give in to the youngest child during arguments so as to placate him or her. Ben demonstrated otherwise, instead applying the principles of justice and fairness in his parenting.

The family also adopts these principles during mealtime, during which the older children would help to serve the food and wash the dishes, while the younger children help to set the table before the meal, and then to wipe the table afterwards once the food is cleared. Our recent visit saw the youngest, 5-year-old C, offering to clear the dishes after the meal and passing them to his oldest sister, 16-year-old S, to wash up.

Sue and I firmly believe in the concept of mentoring, a long-term process during which an individual would seek the advice and guiding direction of an older and respected person. We ourselves have been mentors to young people, both individually as well as together as a couple. As relationship mentors, we have assisted youth couples in their decision-making process, to help them better understand themselves before they even embark on a relationship, as well as to help them iron out salient issues in their relationships.

There have been a number of precious moments, one of which was when one of our youths shared passionately about why he liked the girl to her in person. While the two eventually did not get together then, we truly felt it was a special moment, and that it was a privilege for us to witness such an honest proclaimation of love. Then there have been the "double dates", during which youth couples would come over to our place to cook, and we would utilise the dining table as the platform to discuss important BGR (Boy-Girl Relationship) issues. There have of course been the difficult moments, when we have had to counsel couples who were going through a break-up. What it took during those instances was for us to listen to the hearts of those we were mentoring, as well as to share with them our own experiences; and to be just a few steps ahead of them in their life journeys.

As I remember the time we shared with Ben and Claire last week, I cannot help but be thankful for this lovely couple, as well as their four wonderful children. While Sue and I were talking to the parents, the children were enjoying a precious time with Z. Our son was running up and down the house, with four kor kors and jie jies, two big brothers and two big sisters, to care for him and play with him. We have learnt much from our mentors and their family, and we are truly grateful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do i Really Win?

i has taken the world by storm. Today there are few people who do not know what an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod is. And that does not preclude children under the age of eight. According to a recent US study, about half of children aged eight and below have access to a mobile device such as a smartphone, a video iPod, an iPad or other tablet. The October 2011 study of 1,384 parents by San Francisco-based Common Sense Media explained the findings, saying that the figures reflect the trend among adults, given that parents continually model such behaviour for their children.

This trend is not exclusive to online media. According to the survey, the television is still the main entertainer for a child. Results showed that children under the age of two tended to watch an average of 53 minutes a day of TV or DVDs, and about one-third of American children that age have TVs in their bedrooms.

When Sue and I first read the survey findings, it brought a certain feeling of dis-ease to us. In about one month, Z will be 17 months' old. And I cannot imagine my son watching TV for 53 minutes a day, nor can I imagine installing a TV in his bedroom!

Sue and I were also unsettled by the findings of another recent research study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The September 2011 qualitative study, of 60 four-year-olds, was published in the Pediatrics journal. It observed that watching fast-paced cartoons such as Spongebob Squarepants, even if for a few minutes, hinders abstract thinking, short-term memory and impulse control in pre-schoolers. While study authors say it's hard to conclude what aspects of the cartoon present such a negative impact, they suspect it could be due to the rapid pace of the show as well as its fantastical nature.

For the record, Z does watch TV. We sometimes screen various baby DVDs that have popular children's songs, Bible stories or educational elements. And our son does enjoy watching the colourful hand puppets that tell the Biblical story of David, as well as the animated children who sing about 'Old MacDonald's Farm". However, we make sure that he does not watch not more than 15 minutes of TV a day. Even then, Z does not watch TV everyday.

Some months back, our pediatrician actually recommended for Z to watch about 10 minutes of educational TV a day. We were then worried about Z's short attention span and his then lack of desire to read books. As a solution, our doctor shared that watching TV could help our son to improve his attention span. She made this suggestion in addition to asking us not to give up, and to persist in exposing Z to books. We subsequently decided to allow him to watch TV, while at the same time deciding that the television should not be Z's babysitter; nor he should not be among the 2-year-old TV addicts mentioned in the October survey!

It's a rather sad picture nowadays at restaurants; one that we are beginning to see more and more often. An entire family of four would be seated either waiting for the food or eating. The father would be surfing the Internet or checking email on his iPhone, the mother talking to friends on her smartphone, the teenage daughter listening to music on her iPod, and the little boy playing games on his iPad.

One could argue that the family has the best that technology could offer. Afterall, wasn't the iPad introduced worldwide only last year? And affluent Singaporeans should definitely buy the best for their children - especially since there is so much potential that the iPad could offer them academically and socially. Perhaps it might be more efficient to communicate with others using one's mobile devices - never mind that your family might be sitting next to you. Or maybe not, as one student shared with me during a recent student event. She said her family had gone for a group counselling session and one thing that she had requested was for her parents not to use their handphones during dinner. Elaborating, the student shared that her parents would always be talking about their business during dinner and that she had felt very alone. To her, quality family time is not just about eating dinner together, or even about spending a Sunday together in the living room with everyone doing their own thing. Quality time, she said, was a precious moment when all family members did things together and talked to each other about the things that mattered most.

Sue and I conduct seminars on cyber wellness and other aspects of Internet behaviour to various groups. Both of us have either together or separately facilitated workshops for educators, parents and students. I will discuss cyber wellness issues per se in another post as the topic is too huge to cover here. I however note that one recurrent theme emerging during our seminars is whether the Internet is more a positive or negative influence for us and our children. I am always ready to accept that the Internet has effected such a strongly positive change in the way we live our lives - especially in the way we now communicate globally and also how we conduct our educational and commercial activities. However, I am also cautious about the negative effects that hyper-connectivity can bring, and I am trying to implement measures to curb such influences.

One such measure that Sue and I have implemented in our home is the principle of "No Computer Day". We know that many households in Singapore have a schoolwork-oriented mindset. As such, parents instill a strict rule among their children that they are not allowed to use the computer on any day except Saturday or Sunday - with the exception of using the computer for schoolwork.

We can understand such a rationale, as it would mean that the children would only be allowed to play computer games over the weekends. This would allow the children to do their vital schoolwork on other days of the week. However, we firmly believe that the weekends should be spent with the family. As such, if we were to allow our children unlimited access to the computer during the weekends, this would be counter-effective towards our desire for them to spend quality family time with us. We therefore decided on the concept of not using the computer at all on Saturdays - except for important uses. This started about three months ago. When Z grows up and asks us why he cannot use the computer on Saturdays, we want to be able to tell him that his Daddy and Mummy have been doing so since he was a little baby, and that we hope he would also understand and choose to adopt such a principle for his life.

It has definitely not been easy to keep to the principle of "No Computer Day"; (and I have honestly not managed to spend every single Saturday disconnected from my computer,) but the results have been most noteworthy. Nowadays, I spend my Saturday mornings lying in bed beside my wife - both of us reading a book together. It's a precious moment that I would not trade for anything else in the world.

Another principle we have decided to adopt would be not to expose our son to the iPad and other such electronic devices until at least primary school. This adopts the recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics, which says that children under eight are spending too much time in front of their screens. One of my colleagues has lamented about his two-year-old grandnephew making gestures simulating the movement of the fingers on the iPad. Both of us have expressed concern that such an early exposure to technology could have a negative impact on the child, and I am determined that Z would not be influenced in such a manner.

Steve Jobs, the celebrated entrepreneur who introduced the iPad to millions of people worldwide, once said:

I have looked at myself in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ and whenever the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

For me, I know that I value the people closest to me most of all. If I were to ask the same question that Steve Jobs asked himself, I wouldn't want to say that I want to spend more time on my computer or on my latest i device. Instead, I would want to say that I want to spend the best day ever with my wife and son. To me that's all that matters.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Of Friends and Fellowship

We had a lovely weekend. Saturday was spent going for Z's swim class in the morning, followed by his usual nap before we headed off to spend the afternoon with one of Mark's very good friends, Edwin, and his wife Christine. They have three girls.

It was a time of rest and catching up. The fellowship was comfortable, our shared commonalities made for insightful conversation, the children played well together, and most of all, we once again felt refreshed in the presence of good friends. 

I have come to not take these moments for granted. Ten years ago, in my yet unmarried state, no housework or babies to tend to, these moments were far easier to obtain and I believe I must have taken them for granted. In my university days, or just starting work, there seemed to be so many more evenings which could be spent just hanging out with friends for dinner, or catching a show. There have also been friends who have come and gone through the years, and I have learnt to take friendship with an open hand, knowing that it is only God who chooses to bless and He can also take away, in His infinite wisdom and grace.

Indeed, Mark and I feel that our circle of friends has gradually shrunk over the years. Sometimes, I wonder if it was any fault of ours. There seem to be so few people we are genuinely comfortable with, or even have the time for - there are more whom we are in a ministering capacity with, and then there is always the great support from our families - but it is not the same as having mutual company, people who can understand our shared journeys, who celebrate and mourn with you and whose presence does not impose.

We are very grateful that God has allowed us to find such friends recently; it has been an answered prayer, for believe it or not, married and family life too can feel lonely at times! With so many of our friends going through similar life transitions, most of us can scarce afford the time to meet up, burdened as we are with work and family commitments. 

Two such examples came to mind this week. Last Tuesday, one of our friends, Jared, asked if he could come and share in our family meal. I was delighted when I heard that he wanted to visit - it had been several months since we had caught up, but more than that, I was so glad that he was comfortable enough with our family that he would ask to come over for dinner and fellowship with us. I wished more people would have the initiative to invite themselves over for dinner - to me, it indicates the level of comfort and familiarity of our friendship. Jared was our wedding photographer, and has since journeyed with us through several family photoshoots. Mark, Z and I all enjoyed the company, particularly Z, who refused to sleep till Uncle Jared went home, and even then tried to ask him to go for a walk so late at night!

Then there was the wonderful time we had with Edwin and Christine on Saturday. They blessed us with a wonderful meal of vongole made with the freshest clams, just bought from the market that morning, and a dessert of moist chocolate cake. Z played really well with their second daughter, D. It was wonderful to see our son's face light up with glee with the presence of a playmate. He does not often have a chance to play with other children, being surrounded by adults most of the time. I believe such interaction is crucial as he grows and learns to give and share with other children. Z is blessed by their presence, as they are a godly family and share very much the same values as we do. I see him being encouraged and affirmed for who he is, and that does wonders for his sense of self.

We ended the evening with a stroll down the new Punggol Waterway. It was a breezy night, and I was thrilled by the fact that the sea was just a stone's throw away and that there were fishermen lining the whole path beside the water, eager for a catch. One of them even showed us his bucket of crabs, intended for chili crab. The conversation was meaningful, and the kids were having a great time being piggy-backed by their daddies as the mummies looked on and smiled.

The most beautiful sight, however, was the scene of Z and D walking hand-in-hand down the pathway in front of us - a tiny toddler excited and raring to go, small hand clasped in the older girl's bigger one, the little girl twice his height trying to keep him from wandering off the path, and both of them giggling in delight. She sang Sunday School songs sweetly to him in her high-pitched voice, and he gave her his full attention. It was a precious moment, one that Mark and I will cherish. 

We need such friends on this journey of life. They are people who will not hesitate to tell you when they think that you are wandering off the path. They are people who affirm your strengths and forgive your weaknesses. They are people whom you can share a hearty laugh with, knowing you will not be judged. They are people who will speak spiritual lessons into your soul, and remind you of Who is in charge. We truly thank God for friends like these.

"A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." Proverbs 11:25

Monday, November 7, 2011

Of Parents and Grandparents: A Symphony of Love

We celebrated Amah's 91st Birthday yesterday. In just three days' time, my maternal grandmother would have taken her first year into the tenth decade of her life. The grand lady gripped the harmonica purposefully. With her hands tightly grasping the metallic instrument, she blew ernestly into the holes, and spun out the tune of the great hymn "Whispering Hope". At her side, Uncle Peter, who had flown in from the UK for the occasion, tuned his ears to identify what key to play, before joining in on the guitar to smoothen out the musical piece. The symphony was completed by the rest of Amah's children and grandchildren, who formed the choir in a most uncoordinated yet harmonious manner.

Our son, Z, gazed intently at his granduncle. He watched his granduncle's deft fingers strum expertly at the guitar. With an expression of complete amazement, Z turned to look at his great-grandmother, clearly in awe at the tenacity with which she was playing the harmonica. It was clear that our young son was savouring the moment, enjoying this make-shift orchestra assembled by people he was comfortble with. My grandmother is very fond of Z. During his visits to her house, she would often play with him in the most childlike of ways, often tickling his cheeks and making baby sounds such as "boo boo boo". This was in contrast to the practical Amah who would occasionally call me to ask me if I would like some of her glutinous rice, or if the garlic that she pounded and minced for me had run out.

I'm thankful that Z is fond of his great-grandmother; as is he fond of his grandparents from both sides. From the beginning we made a conscious decision that Z should spend lots of time with his grandparents. My wife Sue had already decided to quit her full-time work as a counsellor to care for Z at home. Many Singapore mothers struggle with this decision on whether to return to their full-time jobs or whether to stay at home as a full-time carer for their children. We made the decision that Sue should be the primary caregiver for Z as that would be the best for his developmental and emotional growth. However, there would still be instances when she would have to give tuition, or to work as a part-time counsellor. It would be during those times that we would send Z over to his grandparents' homes. We felt that we did not want to employ a full-time domestic worker to take care of him - a job such as the caring for our children is too important to be delegated to someone outside of the family.

A routine was established. Z would go over to my mum's house for at least one day a week, and he would go over to Sue's parents' home on another day each week. If either parent could not make it, they would agree among themselves which day to take care of Z. Although it has taken quite a bit of planning (especially in the initial months), the arrangment has worked well for more than one year, and both grandparents have been enjoying lots of precious time with him.

There were times when we had been concerned about such an arrangment. What if we missed out on some of Z's important milestones because he was at either grandparents' home? What if our son chose to say his first word or take his first steps in our absence? Indeed there were moments during the first weeks, when both sides reported to us about what our son had done at their homes. Back then, we had wished that these incidents could have taken place in our presence; afterall we are his parents and should be the ones to experience every little moment in our child's life. There were even times when we attempted to "compete" with Z's grandparents - to see who could feed him more milk, or who could make him sleep faster.

Looking back, I realise now that the so-called Singapore habit of being kiasu (defined as being afraid of losing) had crept into our psyche without us realising it. There should never be a need to compete on whether Z's parents or grandparents do a better job at taking care of him. As parents, we should have the primary responsibility of taking care of our son. We should be the ones who should set the tone on what food he can or cannot eat, or what time he should sleep, or what activities he should do. The grandparents' roles are to be the secondary caregivers. They should be allowed to do anything they want with Z as long as we are agreeable to it.

A general adage is that it is the role of the grandparent to spoil the grandchild. This has been a difficult concept for us to manage. Imagine both grandmothers asking if they could give ice cream to your son - and the look on their faces when you tell them firmly that your son cannot eat anything that has too much sugar or salt. Or when it comes to disciplining Z for pulling someone's hair or biting. I would hold him firmly and say "Oh Oh" while at the same time removing him from the object of his attention. Onlookers observing the faces of the grandparents would imagine that the sky had fallen - all because the precious grandchild had been admonished by his father.

It was equally trying during the earlier stages after Z was born. For instance, the grandparents insisted that cloth nappies were better than disposable ones - all because they had only used such nappies when we were young and they believed that disposable diapers give babies more rashes than cloth ones. It was difficult for us, but we had to tell the grandparents lovingly that while they had used such parenting methods with us when we were young, it is now a different world and that as Z's parents, we should be the ones who should decide on how to parent our kids - even if that's not the best way. (I must acknowledge that we decided to adopt some of the suggestions made by the grandparents because in the end we felt that these methods were better; but ultimately it was our decision and not theirs - that's important as we should have the final responsibility for the care of our children.)

That said, Z has had a wonderful time with his grandparents. Sue's parents enjoy taking him for a walk to the park each time he's over at their place. Sue's father has also been researching on the Internet about the merits of babies swimming, even as he has accompanied Z for his swimming lessons during the times when we were sick or unable to take him for class. Sue's mother has been enjoying cooking for Z and making different foods for him - the latest has been a special molasses oatmeal cookie that Z thoroughly enjoys. As for my mum and stepdad, they have been enjoying many special moments playing with Z during the times when he has been at their house. My mum would buy the freshest fish from the market and prepare the most delicious porridge for him, while my stepdad would enjoy taking him for walks - even during the times when Z would want to walk into the swimming pool and would have to be prevented from doing so. They even brought back an entire leaf collection for Z during their recent holiday to Italy (Z is a true-blue nature lover and enjoys collecting leaves during his walks).

We are truly blessed that Z has so much love and attention from his grandparents. It truly makes a difference to a child's sense of identity and self-worth. "Mummy and Daddy love me; Kong Kong and Mama love me; Ye Ye and Nai Nai love me. Everybody loves me." I wish more children is Singapore would be able to experience such love and care. Working among the at-risk youths in Singapore, I know this is not the case for most of them; they don't even have a stable father and mother to care for them - not to mention the presence of grandparents to dote on them and to love them from the depths of their hearts.

As I remembered Amah's joy last night at her celebration, I recalled all the precious moments that I had spent with my own grandparents - enjoying the mee siam prepared by Amah, massaging Ah Kong each time I visited him, playing board games with Mama, eating breakfast at coffee shops with Grandpa... I know that Z will have many more special moments with his grandparents; and I know that for me, that's all that matters.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's a Boy!

It was confirmed! We were going to have a boy! Mark has always wanted to be a Daddy to a son, someone whom he could do all the "Daddy-ish" things with - go trekking, camping, play chess, play ball, the list goes on. He was overjoyed. I, however, have always been deeply petrified at the thought of having a son. I have always wanted a girl, someone to giggle and play masak masak with.

However, God in His infinite wisdom chose for our firstborn to be a boy, and not just any boy, but a real "boy's boy". Our son never ceases to surprise us in all the ways he lives up to his true boyish nature. He never walks but runs. He doesn't just eat but gobbles down his food. When we go for a walk along the canal, he insists on walking along the full-length of the iron grating beside the path. If there is a puddle, he insists on stepping in it. If there is a leaf, he has to either pick it up or kick it. Last week, he even tried to eat one. He leaps down stairs, two at a time. He has succeeded in scaring away quite a few of our friends' daughters with his biting and hair-pulling tendencies, all of which we have been trying actively to curb.

When I look at him, I can see in all the rawness of my little one's behaviour, the true heart of a boy - the wild abandon and the boundless energy and passion which He has given our son, and which He has given us as parents as gifts which we must tame and nurture so that Z grows up to be a man after His own heart. As his parents, we are enjoying every moment of it.

Never in my wildest imagination would I have been able to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. In my comfortable, sheltered girl-only existence (till the time I got married and actually had to live with one!), boys were generally messier, more odorous, hyperactive, had violent tendencies and unfathomable in terms of their strange behaviour. The oldest of three sisters, I had been in a girls' school for ten years and subsequently taught in the same school. I knew girls well - all the delicate nuances, the reasons for their temperamental tendencies, the intricacies of their friendship issues - and I would definitely know how to parent one more than I would a boy.

But having a boy has been fun! God has definitely chosen to throw me into unfamiliar territory - and it's been exciting. Out with the familiar dolls and stuffed toys and pink clothes I have known all my life, and in with the trains, planes, automobiles and basically anything that moves or makes sufficient noise. I watch in wonderment (and trepidation!) as our little one tears his way around the house, curious about everything in sight. I am amazed at how he lifts his face skyward during our walks, to examine the branches above and to look at the vast expanse of sky. The world has gained a fresh, new perspective as I see it through his eyes.

And yet I worry. Literature is not positive when it comes to raising boys. Research consistently shows that they walk and talk slower, get stressed more easily, have more difficulty socialising, and tend to exhibit more learning and behavioural issues than girls. As a counsellor, I see many more boys than girls referred in school. I know that the classroom can be a difficult place for a boy who needs space to explore his surroundings and who learns by touch and not just by sitting in a lecture. How can we help Z to realise his full potential as a boy, and later as a man, becoming all God has intended him to be?

I know that we must first let him realise his true identity as a boy, and help him to be secure in it. It is easy for me to do otherwise when his reckless behaviour causes me to worry, or when his seemingly defiant tantrums cause my temper to rise.

I realised this last week when we were on a walk at West Coast Park, just me and Z. He was once again being himself - refusing to walk along the path, stepping into every puddle there was, wandering off into the muddy grass and playing with the soil even though there was plenty of sand to play with in the playground... I soon became exhausted with worry, trying to ensure he did not slip on the wet ground or hurt himself on the metal grating, when suddenly, for a brief moment, I looked up at the branches which my son was inspecting, and realised that there was so much to be thankful for - my little one with his inquisitive nature and his general zest for life, the fact that I had the luxury of spending these precious moments with him.

Yet, while we give our son the space and time to be himself, we also know that he needs us as parents to give him the structure and loving boundaries that he needs. One of the books that has been very helpful to us is "Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys" by Stephen James and David Thomas (Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Illinois, 2009). In the book, they describe boys from the ages of 2 to 4 as being in "The Explorer" stage - active, aggressive, curious and self-determined. The authors say that what boys need most from their parents at this stage are loving boundaries which help him feel safe and build bonds with his caregivers, open space to explore and release aggression, consistency, to bring order to the chaos, and most of all understanding, that they are uniquely wired and different from girls.

We also intend to show our son as much affection and warmth as we can and give him the tools to express his emotions and learn how to show empathy for others. My mother shared from a book she was reading that especially since boys have more difficulty socialising than girls, that it was all the more important that they received lots of affection, cuddling, kisses and hugs from the adults in their lives.

"Wild Things" also talks about "The Mind of a Boy", and how boys are wired very differently from girls. Findings show that boys tend to be "spatial instead of relational, aware of objects instead of faces, and action-oriented, as opposed to process-oriented". This basically means that even from infancy, boys prefer looking at objects instead of people, and are more interested in things that move rather than things that are still. This means parents of boys have more work to do in the emotional spheres of parenting. This goes against traditional views of gender - that big boys don't cry, that they must be strong. Instead, we must teach our son that emotions are normal, and give him the emotional vocabulary he needs so that he will find alternative ways of expressing his feelings.

To put it in simple terms, we have to love him so much that he will know how to show love to others in return; We have to give him so many cuddles and hugs that he will know he is unconditionally loved, and thus be able to love others in the same way. We need to teach him empathy by showing empathy to others. Recently, Z's response to his pet cat Whiskers has shown me that at an early age, children already know how to show love and affection. Whiskers is a battery-operated cat which meows and moves his paws when stroked. Z has developed a great fondness for his new pet, and looks for him first thing in the morning and showers the kitten with hugs and kisses throughout the day. I hope that our son is developing a love for animals through this make believe play, but I hope more than that, that he will ultimately learn how to show love and care for his fellow human beings.

We are only at the start of our journey. One day, our son will become a man, and there is so much more that we must teach him before then. Recently, the prospect of a second child has come up, that we would like to have a sibling for Z. Both grandmothers have explicitly indicated their desire for a granddaughter - they can't wait to dress her up and both feel that one boy is more than enough to manage! I surprised myself by entertaining the thought of a second son, a brother whom Z will be able to roll around and have adventures with. Well, who knows? Just as much as I am hoping to raise a sensitive, caring boy, I suppose a spunky, self-confident girl would be lots of fun too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Time to Rest

It's been exactly one week since our family took a brief respite from everyday life in Singapore for a five-day holiday. Just one day before our trip to Tioman, we sent an SMS to our neighbour to help us collect the newspapers and to help keep an eye on our home. To that, she keenly observed, "Wow, your family goes overseas very often!" Her comment is true; afterall that was our fifth trip overseas this year. Don't get us wrong - we are not among the most affluent families in Singapore; and this post is not meant to brag about how many times we go overseas. On the contrary, this post is meant to convey the importance that we place on taking time off from our work. As such, of the five trips this year, three were to Malaysia (by car), one to Indonesia, and only one "big trip" to Australia.

Sue and I love to travel. We are exhilarated by the sights and sounds of a different land. We enjoy the natural beauty of a country's scenery. We love to imbibe the culture of a place, and understand the history of its people. And the educator in me always looks out for things to share with my students - one favourite being about how the Hollocaust affected the people in Dachau, Germany, and another about how fragile tensions are between North and South Korea. Travelling does that to us - it provides a fresh perspective on situations and mindsets. I believe I have been greatly enriched by the numerous places I have visited - and that's why I love to travel.

Travelling is also important for three other reasons - rest, renewal, and reconnection.

The few months before our trip were among the most tiring in a long while. Sue and our son Z were down with Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD), and it was physically and emotionally draining taking care of them. In addition, I was busy with Poly Forum 2011, as well as serving the country just like all able-bodied men in Singapore - serving my yearly National Service commitments. And that was just what I had to do during the so-called "holidays". It did not include the time spent just before - marking and completing the exam processes, a period dreaded by most educators. I truly needed to rest.

Sue was also drained. She had just completed a whole season of counselling, and her tuition classes were building up to the crescendo of the year-end exams. That did not include taking care of Z during the times when I was working. Coupled with the physical and emotional tiredness from HFMD, she too needed a break.

When we got to Tioman, it was as if we had arrived in a different world. There was no need to mark scripts, there was no need to think about crafting new student assignments, there was no need to counsel students. All we had around us was the sun and the sea, as well as the delectable seafood meals each night at the lovely Chinese restaurant by the beach. While we received news from Sue's parents that mainland Singapore was experiencing thunder storms everyday, the weather in Tioman was instead characterised by hot sunshine with almost no clouds in the skies. That was truly a metaphor of the different world we were in.

The change was evident in our son. He had just begun the journey of walking unaided a few days before our trip. In Tioman it seemed as though his feet were injected with a breath of new life. Z began walking all the time - along the paths, on the grass, on the sand, in the sea... Our son thrived in the fresh independence that walking brought. And because of his love for nature, he was now able to stop any time he pleased to enjoy the things around him; occassionally picking up an interesting leaf or two, and stopping at the bridge to admire the lovely little river that meandered to the sea. To the casual onlooker it was probably a strange sight - two adults clapping their hands and gesturing to a tottering little infant. "Z, over here!" One of the curious parents might have exclaimed. "This way, Baby," could have been the call of the other equally strange adult. I cannot fathom why I ever worried that our son would be a slow walker.

Tioman was also lovely because it cost too much to use the Internet. Sue and I do not like to be "connected" when on holiday. We don't like to watch the TV or to surf the net. We do, however, love to read. One of our most animated discussions is always about how many books to pack for a trip. "Dear, do you really think you'll have the time to read this book as well?" I would ask. "Of course," she would reply, adding the book to the 20 others she had already packed. I exaggerate of course. To set the record straight - Sue does not bring 20 books for a 5-day holiday!

Reading, therefore, has become one of the staples for our holidays. Through these books, we have learnt many new things about parenting and about life. We have also been provided with fresh perspectives which help us to recharge and to renew our emotional and mental fuel tank.

Equally important has been the act of reconnecting with each other. During our day-to-day lives in Singapore, so many other issues interfere with the connection we have as a family. Holidays are a great time for us to reconnect with each other - to play games and enjoy the precious moments spent with each other, to talk about the things that really matter, and to chart directions for the future. It is also important to reconnect with God - something that is not always easy during our busy everyday lives. Holidays facilitate such an interaction, as they provide us with a break from our mundane lives, allowing lots of time and space for reflection and reconnecting.

Only one week has past since our last holiday, but already the sights and sounds of Tioman seem to be of another world. I suppose that's how the children in C.S. Lewis's Narnia must have felt after they returned from a visit there. I am reminded of a request that Lucy made at the end of the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "Please Aslan, before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do, make it soon." Unlike Aslan's reply, which indicated that she and her brother Edmund would never return to Narnia, I am hopeful that I would be able to make another trip to my Narnia in the near future.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Steps

Our son took his first long walk last week. On that Friday afternoon, I received an SMS from my wife during the day that he had walked for a good distance along the canal where we lived. Jubilant on receiving the news, yet determined to see this for myself, I hurried home to take him again to the canal after work.

It was a lovely evening. The glowing sun had not yet bid farewell to the day. The leaves were rustling gently in the breeze. And the two of us were holding the hands of our son as we guided him to the canal to reprise his afternoon's performance. My wife held him steadily, before gently letting him go. Both of us proceeded a few steps in front of him, waving our hands madly and gesturing for him to come to us. "You can do it," we cried. "Come to Daddy and Mummy!"

Z stared blankly at us, his hands outstretched in a balancing position. Looking at us hesitantly as though we were strange creatures from a faraway galaxy, he gyrated awkwardly as though he was about to be blown over by the wind. Then he walked. One step at first. Then two. Then a few more. With every step he made, Z edged nearer and nearer to us. When he got within arms' length, we got up and moved slightly further away from him. We had expected him to protest; to make the familar complaining sounds that he was now accustomed to making. But he did not, and instead tottered onwards again towards us. We knew then there was then no more stopping our son; the child whose feet had awakened to the sensation of walking.

Z walked all the way to the bridge near our home, a good 300 metres away. When we carried him to allow him to rest, there was no indication of tiredness. Instead, he gestured that he again wanted to walk. And this he did so, for another 150 metres or so; pausing once in a while to step on an errant leaf or two that had escaped the broom of the hardworking cleaning crew. Z was clearly conscious of his accomplishments, putting his hands together at the end of the walk, in a sign that he wanted us to clap for him. This we did with enthusiasm.

There are two lessons that I have learnt from the entire process. The first relates to the education system in Singapore.

For two months now I had been anxious that Z had not yet begun walking. Yes, he had taken his first steps then, moving from the living room sofa to my wife, or from the dining room chair to me. However, all good parents know that normal children should begin walking by the age of 13 months. When Z took his first steps at 12 months, I was hopeful that our son might begin walking unaided at that age. This would have been one month before the normal age of walking, and it would have meant that Z would have been developmentally-advanced. But as the days went by, my hopes were dashed; and I was even gripped with the fear that my son could grow up as an developmentally-slow child. I know now that my fear was unfounded - not because Z finally walked, but because a child should not be judged by the developmental milestones in his life.

In today's world of super schools and super kids, many parents take on tuition for their children in order to provide them with the extra help needed to do well. Yet a significant number of children have tuition not because they are doing badly, but instead because their parents compare their grades with the children around them. Feeling that their children are not performing as well as their peers, these parents decide to spend the money on tuition so their kids would not be left out. Sue and I have decided we will not send our children for tuition. We will instead consider enrichment classes and other activities to help them develop holistically.

The second lesson relates to exploration and boundaries.

In the book Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas, the authors talk about the different stages of boys and how to nurture them. One idea that I gleamed is that young children are like explorers. They need the freedom to explore the world around them; but children must be given loving boundaries so that they will not get into trouble.

We feel that our son learnt to walk because we surrendered control of him. If my wife had not first let go of Z, he would have continued to cling on to us as he walked. By giving up control of him, we had allowed him the space he needed to explore. Yet we were always a few steps in front of him; during the later parts of the walk, Sue and I stationed ourselves to his left and right in order to guard against cyclists and joggers who were whizzing by the canal track. We needed to keep him safe and provide him with loving boundaries - even as he explored the world on his own terms.

In my course of work I have seen many children who were either too tightly controlled by their parents or given too much freedom. Both extremes led to negative consequences - the children either grew up extremely resentful of their parents and snapped under the pressure, or they were so unattended by their parents that they ended up commiting crimes and learning the consequences of their actions. My wife and I have decided we want to allow our son to explore as much as he wants to; and we have promised to be there for him. We will however not hesistate to discipline him if the situation warrants it. What remains for us is to decide how much is too much, and I know this is something we will be learning all our lives.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Curing the Epidemic of Ungratefulness

I have been feeling rather disturbed by a recent trend I've noticed among the children I work with. It started with a few of my tuition students demanding food and drink from me during our lesson - "I want a glass of water!" and "I'm hungry. Do you have anything to eat?" with no "please" to preface their demands, or even a  "thank you" after I had to rummage through my kitchen to find something to fill their stomachs with. Never mind the fact that I am their tuition teacher, and not running a restaurant out of my home.

Then it carried on with one of my counselling clients in school telling me that his parents did not love him, though they had rewarded him for doing well by letting him choose two gifts of his choice - because they had not bought him a Sony PlayStation 2.  The final straw was at the students' graduation ceremony this week, when a boy who had won the best award tore open his gift envelope while still on stage, and then ran off proclaiming that the $10 Popular gift voucher was too small in amount. 

It seems that the next generation in Singapore is being brought up with everything they want - and more. What I have observed among the children I work with is no surprise, and yet I am deeply troubled by the fact that we are raising a generation who never seems to be thankful for what they do have, and spends all their time hankering for what they have not yet acquired. 

This trend is particularly troubling for my husband and I as we try to raise our son, who, like it or not, is part of this very crowd of opinionated young people who may well grow up to be just as ungrateful too. We are concerned because he is surrounded by so much plenty - the best and most nutritious organic food, a multitude of toys in both grandparents' homes and our own, and the list goes on. We are fearful that he will develop an attitude of not just ungratefulness, but also demandingness, and not be able to cherish the small blessings that come across his way. 

So how can we as parents actively and intentionally help him to counter this disturbing trend, and replace it instead with an attitude of gratefulness, that he may develop an attitude of gratitude and contentment as he grows older? There are a few things I have though of:

Firstly, it is important that we as a family celebrate and cherish the little joys in life. Z (our son) has recently developed a passion for leaf-collecting. It started when he turned one. Whenever we go for a walk, he carefully selects the best and nicest leaf possible, and then turns and looks up at me with a sweet smile, waiting for me to praise him for his excellent choice of leaf. I hope that he will always be content with the little delights that nature brings our way - how he stares intently at the leaves rustling in the wind, or puts out his hands to ask me to scoop him up so that he can reach for branches high in the sky.

Secondly, children should be rewarded with the intangible more than the material. Far too many children are persuaded to study hard for their exams in order to gain some form of monetary or tangible reward. While some of these are necessary for children especially at a young age (think theories of reinforcement and classical conditioning!), I have seen as a counsellor and teacher that words still remain the most powerful. The same boy who demanded a PS2 from his parents told me in a later session that all he actually wished for was for his parents to tell him that they love him. Physical and verbal affection have been found to be crucial for a child's development.

Thirdly, we should teach our children the value of work. They need to understand the value of hard work, and work to earn the things that they desire. This could mean contributing half the sum of money needed to buy a new toy, or earning allowance through helping babysit or wash their neighbour's car. I will always remember this single parent I knew, who worked as a cleaner till late in the night. He was not ashamed of his job, and even brought his son to work a few times just to show him how hard Daddy worked, so that his son would understand why he could not be at home. He was a man to be admired for his wisdom in parenting his son.

Lastly, and most importantly, we ourselves as parents need to learn how to count our blessings and not complain so much. I am so often guilty of ingratitude myself - after a long day of work, housework and caring for my son, I find myself complaining about my lot in life. At these times, I have forgotten that both the work assignments I have, as well as my husband and son, are both gifts from God, and that I have been indeed blessed with much more than I could ever ask for and need. As parents, my husband and I are always grateful for the energetic bundle of joy in our lives. As spouses, we are thankful for our marriage in a world where so many marriages are broken and torn asunder. As Singaporeans, we are thankful for the safety and protection and freedom we have, where people in so many other countries face fear and uncertainty on a daily basis. 

My prayer is that Z will grow up to be a boy who is content and rejoices in the little things in life, that he will understand the value of immaterial more than the tangible, that he will value the work that he puts his hands to, and most of all that he will be grateful everyday for the life he has been given. I pray that he will always find beauty in a fallen leaf on a sunny day. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dream for the Future of Our Children

On the 26th of July 2010, a lovely boy entered the world. Today, 14 months later, this little baby has grown up to become a confident young boy; one who has a zest for life - a deep love for nature and the outdoors, a deep hunger for all kinds of food, and a deep love for the people in his life. For a long time since our son was born, we have been wanting to share our parenting journey, as well as the societal issues associated with parenting. This blog was written as a result of this desire.

For the last two weeks, I have been involved in the annual social-academic exercise otherwise known as the Polytechnic Forum. Every year, some 300 poly students in Singapore would gather to discuss a salient issue. Eminent speakers would be invited, qualitative discussions would be organised, and at the end of the event, the students would present their findings to a prominent government leader, in this case the newly-minted Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat.

The theme of this year's forum was "Our Singapore Dream", based on the re-invented 5Cs in Singapore - Career, Comfort, Children, Culture and Charity. Then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had coined the new 5Cs in response to changing trends in 21st Century Singapore, and they are supposed to replace the original 5Cs - Cash, Car, Credit Card, Condominium and Country Club - a popularised embodiment of Singaporeans' aspirations.

Being assigned to the "Children" sub-group, it was particularly meaningful for me to look at how my child would be able to thrive in today's complex world. Already, political commentators have hinted of a wind of change, a movement that has become apparent in the wake of two explosive elections. It is still unclear as to what the future holds, and I'm particular concerned about two issues that were raised during the forum.

Firstly, we considered whether the children of today can look forward to the "quantity of lives" or the "qualitity of lives". In today's fast-growing world, government leaders have called for an increased population to address declining fertility rates and avert the crisis of a greying generation. Definitely more people are required to fuel our economy and help the country to increase its economic growth year by year. However, how much is too much? Will there be a time when our land is so overcrowded that we can hardly find a place for our children to play? Already my wife and I find it difficult to find a place for our child to play. As a nature lover, our son loves wide open spaces. However, we have discovered that places such as East Coast Park are far too crowded. These were the places that we used to go to when we were younger. Today, it is difficult even to find a carpark lot on a weekend evening. And when we arrive at the park, we see more people than trees. I'm certain this is not the future that we want for our son; we want him to grow up in a country where he can play and learn uninhibitedly; and this seems to be a pipe dream if things continue the way they seem to be heading.

Secondly, we discussed at length the importance of building character in our children. The discussion was sparked by the Education Minister, who in a major speech, called for the education system to be re-examined. He is now pushing for values and character education to take centrestage in the education of our young. At the closing ceremony, Mr Heng shared passionately why civics and moral education should not be sidelined in favour of mathematics and other "core" subjects. He instead spelt out his own version of the 5Cs - Creativity, Collaboration, Conviction, Character and Contribution. The Minister's comments are indeed one of the most refreshing in recent times. I agree with him that values and character should constitute the bedrock of a child's education. Without such a firm foundation, the house of cards will crumble. So many of the youths-at-risk whom I've had the opportunity to meet fall under this category, young people who were brought up not by principles but by pragmatics. I truly hope Minister Heng's policy is implemented well. Often policies might be formulated coherently, but if they are not implemented well, all would come to nought.

It remains to be seen whether Our Singapore Dream for the children of today will come to pass. In the meantime, I know I will continue to parent my child purposefully. Too much is at stake and I truly want the best for him.