Friday, February 27, 2009

Driving Miss and Master Tan

Recently, Kenneth got into a fender bender with the car. When he called me to inform me of the unfortunate incident, my first thought shamefully, was not "was anybody hurt?" but "lucky not me".

You see, I am a nervous driver. After I earned my license, I drove only for about three years before I got pregnant and then I had the perfect excuse to give it up. Since then, I've managed to evade the issue using emotional blackmail - "do you want me to endanger our kids??", which worked especially since Kenneth was a willing chauffeur and I was more than willing to be chauffeured. When he was at work, I was perfectly happy taking the bus and the MRT.

But then things started getting complicated about two years ago. While Lesley-Anne and Andre take the school bus, they sometimes have after school activities which fell outside of school bus hours. Still not a problem, I would go and fetch them in a cab when that happened occasionally. Then Kenneth started working in the city where the parking and ERP fees are just atrocious. Added to that, petrol prices were rocketing like there was no tomorrow. He found a super private bus that charged a low flat rate for a trip right into town from a bus-stop just outside our estate, and that became his mode of transport to work.

That meant there was a perfectly functional car sitting pretty at home, while Kenneth took a bus to work and I took a taxi to fetch my kids to their CCAs. Even I had to admit my excuses were starting to sound lame and without conviction. So I grasped the bull by the horns (or rather, the car by its power steering) and started driving again.

There've been a few near misses (and once where a side concrete wall eluded my eyes and multiple mirrors when I was parking, but no need to get into that). I'm one of those drivers who will proceed at snail pace when filtering onto a crowded expressway, signaling madly and yelling at my kid behind "Don't talk to me now! I'm driving!" Once when I was attempting to parallel park next to a coffee shop, I saw a whole group of kopi uncles eyeing me with interest. I'm pretty sure they were taking bets as to whether I would hit the railing.

I have suggested to Kenneth that we wrap giant sponge around the car. Afterall, Singaporeans are just frightful drivers. When I'm driving, I'm constantly muttering to myself like an escaped lunatic: "What, your signal for decoration ah?" "Red light cannot see, colour blind izzit?" "Mad, park here like your grandfather's road like that."

My driving skills are much better now, after almost two years back on the road. But you know, I've come to the conclusion that driving is like exercise, ie:

1. You get better with practice but may never actually come to enjoy it.
2. Some people just have two left feet - disastrous for both activities.
3. Doesn't matter that you're perfectly coordinated, some idiot can always come crashing into you.

So as I drive my prince and princess around, I chalk it up to another sacrifice I'm making for them. Years later, they'd better be returning the favour and preferably not to the nursing home.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top 10 expenses other parents never warned you about

Time for another Top 10 list!

Everybody knows having children is an expensive endeavour. But most new or would-be parents naively believe that their hard-earned money will go to useful things like diapers or clothes or transport, and that they have to save up for a university education.

Wow, are they in for a surprise! Sure, these things cost quite a lot but in reality, the biggest chunk of your precious paycheck won’t be going to these necessities. Long after you’ve completed paying for your kid’s time at Montessori, you’ll be dishing out dough for other stuff, sometimes unwittingly, even willingly.

So what are these curious items? Here is my Top 10 list of where a parent’s money really goes to:

1. Cartoon merchandise

TV is bad for your kids and not just for the reason you think. After your sons become hooked on Ben 10, they will need to live and breathe Ben 10, which means they will need the Ben 10 water bottle, Ben 10 shoes, Ben 10 t-shirt, Ben 10 figurines, and of course the Omnitrix ($49.95! And it doesn’t turn you into monsters or even tell time). Likewise for girls, they must have the Winx Club mini skirt, Winx Club colouring book, Winx Club stationery set, Winx Club lunchbox. And you thought watching tv was free.

2. Tutors

This one is a no-brainer. If you live in Singapore and have kids studying in the Singapore education system, chances are you have caved in to the tuition culture. A Straits Times poll of 100 kids in primary school to JC found that only 3 had no tuition at all (maybe these kids had parents who were tutors). If you’re an English speaking family, lagi worse – sure kenah Chinese tutor. I think half the Chinese nationals here made a beeline for Singapore just to give tuition to our jiak kantang kids. It’s an attractive proposition - primary school fees are only $5.50 a month, tuition is $40 per hour.

3. Tissue

Along with their cousins, paper napkins and kitchen towels. Name a kid who’s not usually wet or dirty or has something in his hands that’s wet or dirty. And if your kid is a boy, chances are he’s a dirt magnet. We have a box of tissue in every room in the house, as well as two in the car and numerous packs in the outing bag. Half the world’s rainforest was probably felled so we could have something convenient to wipe runny noses, sticky mouths and grubby hands. I bet all the people who own shares in Kleenex are parents.

4. Handphones, ipods and other thingamajigs

If you want to spot the newest handphone model or the coolest ipod, just look to teenagers. They’re never the ones who pay for it, but they carry the latest trends while mum and dad hang on to their relic Nokia. (To be fair, it's probably because mum and dad can't figure out how to work that new-fangled thingy). IT is the new fashion icon and since technology dates faster than the speed of light, your kids will be clammering to own the newest gadgets and gidgets to hit the market. My kids are not there yet but it's a ticking time bomb... this is their world.

5. Dentist

I was recently told by Adeline that a full set of braces can cost something like $8,000. To straighten teeth, for Pete’s sake! Of course my kids have wayward teeth, darn it. I’ve suggested to Lesley-Anne and Andre that they learn to smile without showing their bottom teeth so I only need to pay half. And God forbid if you need extra work, like root canals. Dentists must be the only people where we willingly offer money for pain. I imagine dentists and orthodontists hold conventions just to celebrate the rise of the national birth rate. Afterall, their mortgages and fancy cars were probably paid by parents.

6. Little toy cars

Ok, this one generally only applies to boys but they more than make up for it for the other gender. Before I had a son, I never understood why toy stores sold a gazillion different types of miniature vehicles. I mean, a toy car is a toy car, right? Boy, was I off the mark and by a whole different planet. Every boy needs the entire collection of convertibles, sedans, 4-wheel drives, diggers, trucks, vans, buses, taxis and in EVERY SINGLE COLOUR. I would name more except I’m hampered by my limited transportation vocabulary. At the height of his craze, Andre had almost 150 little vehicles and he still complained he didn’t have “the Hong Kong taxi in blue”. By the way, the male species never outgrows this phase – the cars just get bigger.

7. Popular Bookstore

This one I’m naming specifically because it’s not just any bookshop. If studies are to be believed, bookstores in Singapore are a dying business because people are reading less and less. But Popular Bookstore sells books as an afterthought – they’re really all about assessment books and stationery, and that’s a clever business plan if I ever saw one. I have never seen parents so happy to part with their money as they cart off piles of assessment books with the hope that their blur kids will become geniuses overnight. Stationery? Another thing that requires constant replenishment. I’m convinced there’s a Bermuda Triangle somewhere in my living room where erasers, pencils and rulers inexplicable disappear.

8. Correction tape

You might think huh? Correction tape? Which probably means you don’t have in kid older than 8. When students first start using pens in school, usually at p3, they get all excited about leaving their babyish pencils behind. I used to think, good! No more hunting for erasers. Little did I know what Pandora's box I'd opened. Remember the old days when we had to colour on the white paint and wait for it to dry? Now, you just roll it on in a neat white strip, no drying needed. But naturally technology comes at a cost. I buy correction tape by the 6-pack and these last a month if I’m lucky, JUST FOR LESLEY-ANNE. I imagine correction tape companies must cheer when worksheets and test papers are difficult because the kids have to keep correcting their mistakes.

9. Batteries

You'd think it’s the toy that empties your wallet but you’re highly mistaken – it’s the 20,000 batteries you have to keep buying to keep that darn remote control car going. I think toy makers conspire with battery makers to produce toys that suck up battery fluid faster than Andre can polish off a chocolate milkshake. And it’s not just toys – it’s watches, calculators, e-dictionaries and anything else with moving parts. When my kids get Christmas or birthday presents, these three little words strike fear in my heart: Batteries Not Included.

10. Ikea

Another store I’m naming. They’re so clever, these folks at Ikea. Everything is bright and colourful and enticing and with an innocent looking price-tag. With a personal membership book for your little one, big playroom and even kids’ trolleys, you think this is kids heaven. A three-legged lime green stool? Sure! Finger puppets? Why not! Before you know it, you have signed for the delivery of a trundle bed because of its cute giraffe appliqués, along with the matching orange wardrobe that looks like it emerged from some psychedelic cartoon. And we can even have Swedish meatballs before we leave! You know their tagline “You don’t have to be rich to be clever”? They’re probably right because once we enter the store, our IQ drops about 50 points.

I’m as much a victim of these nefarious individuals and companies as the next parent. But it’s a free market and I can’t really complain. Nobody forced me to buy all that stuff right? I just think that the gahmen should get these parties to contribute to the Baby Bonus – afterall, when couples have more children, they’re the ones laughing all the way to the bank.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Are you a key? Part 2

This is a follow-up post on my earlier one, Are you a key? In that post, I spoke about how we shouldn't try to be keys, ie make ourselves so indispensable in our children's lives that they are unable to lead independent, meaningful lives.

I'm writing a part 2 because there's another common issue with parents who are keys. I've seen many keys in my extended family. They were keys to their kids and some of them are now keys to their grandchildren. I found that what many of them shared in common was the fact that they have defined themselves only in relation to the people around them. There is nothing wrong with being a mother, wife, daughter, sister - these are all great roles. But the danger of defining yourself only by others is that once these others are not around, you are nothing. This phenomenon is more prevalent in women than men. I think it has to do with the traditional roles that women have grown up with, that we somehow have a duty to serve others more than men do.

Society doesn't help at all, by putting mothers on a pedestal. Motherhood is widely regarded as the most important job for a woman. Once you're a mother, your status instantly goes up the hierarchy. The down side is that expectations are sky high. The pressure is on mothers to put her children as her number one priority, ahead of everything else, including herself (notice this is seldom the case for fathers). As a result, many women eventually come to define their role in a rather lopsided way, only as mother.

Here's what happens then: These women become keys - they do everything for their kids and their lives revolve around their kids. Then when their kids grow up, go away to school, get married or move out, they suddenly find that their lives are empty because the reason for their existence is gone. These are the women who are most likely to suffer from the Empty Nest Syndrome. And I know from looking at some of my relatives that the consequences are not always pleasant. Perhaps the more secure ones will look for something else to occupy their time, but others will desperately try to regain their dominance in their kids lives, using emotional blackmail, threats and tantrums - leading to what is often a stifling relationship.

But in a way, can you really blame them? If you have dedicated your life to just one thing, all your emotions and ambitions will be invested in only that thing. And if that "thing" doesn't need you anymore, there's bound to be resentment.

This tends to occur more with women who are SAHMs (Stay At Home Mums), not because they are "weaker" or in any way less intelligent but because the homefront tends to be defined only by family and that's where their domain lies. Women who go out to work live part of their lives in the work domain and so usually have another identity to call their own.

I write this NOT as a criticism of SAHMs, I have every respect for what I feel is one of the most underappreciated jobs in the world. I'm mentioning this only so that if you are a SAHM, you might pause to consider if you might be in danger of becoming a key, even without realising it. If you find that your daily activities and thoughts evolve only around your children's needs and wants, then WAKE UP NOW and do something for yourself. And I don't mean necessarily going out to get a job. Or buying yourself a nice handbag as a CNY present once a year or stopping to have a cup of coffee every now and then. I mean, find something you enjoy doing and find time to do it regularly. It can be anything, really. Eg. if someone asks me who I am, besides mum and wife, I can say "obsessive blogger", "writer", "logic puzzle solver", "reluctant exerciser", "entrepreneur" (if I'm feeling grand about myself). You get the drift.

I recently had a chat with a mum who home-schools her kids. She was enthusing about how great home-schooling was, how she could devote all the time to her kids, how she could make sure they get the best education possible. At the end of the conversation, I felt like I was a selfish mum to not want to home-school my kids and to subject them to a second-rate education. I will qualify that I know this mum and she's a fabulous person - it's not her intention to make me feel that way. Perhaps it's the fact that home-schoolers do come under a lot of fire (much of it unfair) so she felt the need to be extra fervent in justifying her choices.

But it goes to show that mums are so susceptible to feeling guilty, even if it's just the slightest implication that we are not doing the absolute utmost for our kids. And mothers already feel enough guilt (we internalise everything bad that happens to our kids), so we probably need to be careful not to add to it.

Being a good mum doesn't mean you have to have home-baked muffins waiting for them when they come home from school. It doesn't mean you have to be there to wipe every sniffle, kiss every bruised knee, sharpen every pencil. Shame on you if you think you're somehow a better mum than the next person because you do all that.

Having your own life and interests outside of your kids doesn't mean you love them less. It means you are a well-balanced individual who understands that a mum who takes care of herself is one who is more emotionally and physically prepared to take care of her kids. I'm pretty sure that in the long run, your kids will thank you for it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

25 random things about me

This is a post created out of sheer laziness. I was tagged on Facebook to write 25 random things about myself (something like my earlier MEME post), so I'm just reproducing it here.

1. I watch my kids and wonder how I could have produced 2 polar opposites.

2. If I want a good laugh, I just spend time with Andre.

3. I exercise but I hate it.

4. I shouldn't snack at night but I can't stop.

5. I'm terrified of lizards.

6. I'm terrified of cockroaches.

7. I have a recurring nightmare where I'm stuck in a little room teeming with lizards and cockroaches.

8. I watch Prison Break solely because of Wentworth Miller.

9. Habitual lateness irritates me.

10. I'll almost always opt to watch a tv series over a movie.

11. I think Coldplay is the most brilliant band to come along since the Beatles.

12. "Let's rough it out in the wild" is possibly the worst suggestion you can offer me.

13. I'm materially low maintenance but emotionally high maintenance.

14. I'm addicted to reality tv, especially Survivor, American Idol and Project Runway.

15. I'm addicted to Super 3-in-1 coffee.

16. I'm addicted to Scrabble on Facebook.

17. I'm not above self-promotion for my blog which has garnered almost 13,000 hits!

18. I despise men who marry bimbos and women who marry himbos.

19. I think some parents should be sterilised by the state.

20. I am the clumsiest person I know.

21. Bad grammar makes me cringe - occupational hazard.

22. I love sad books and happy endings.

23. I dislike confrontation, but I hate avoidance even more.

24. I'll take Ya Kun over Starbucks anytime.

25. I love my job - mum and writer.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"If you want us to raise your child, Press 6"

This is a hilarious true account and is a reminder that we sometimes expect teachers to do our jobs as parents.

The Pacific Palisades High School in California implemented a policy requiring students and parents to be responsible for their children's absences and missing homework. Following that, the school and teachers were sued by parents who wanted their children's failing grades changed to passing grades - even though those children were absent 15-30 times during the semester and did not complete enough schoolwork to pass their classes.

The school staff voted unanimously to record this message on their school telephone answering machine:

Hello! You have reached the automated answering service of your school. In order to assist you in connecting to the right staff member, please listen to all the options before making a selection:

To lie about why your child is absent - Press 1

To make excuses for why your child did not do his homework - Press 2

To complain about what we do - Press 3

To swear at staff members - Press 4

To ask why you didn't get information that we already enclosed in your newsletter and several flyers mailed to you - Press 5

If you want us to raise your child - Press 6

If you want to reach out and touch, slap or hit someone - Press 7

To request another teacher, for the third time this year - Press 8

To complain about bus transportation - Press 9

To complain about school lunches - Press 0

If you realise this IS the real world and your child must be accountable and responsible for his/her own behavior, class work, homework and that it's not the teachers' fault for your child’s lack of effort: Hang up and have a nice day!

If you want this in Spanish, you must be in the wrong country.

Too bad they never actually used it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Books for animal lovers

Lesley-Anne loves animals (she wants to be a vet when she grows up) so naturally, she's partial to books and movies about animals. I've put together some recommendations of what I feel are some terrific reads for kids who are animal lovers.

First, some wonderful classics:

1) Charlotte's Web by EB White

Who can forget the enigmatic Charlotte and her magical web-spinning abilities that saved her friend Wilbur, the pig? The movie starring the prodigious Dakota Fanning is delightful - one of the rare movies that I feel do justice to a book. But still, do encourage your child to read the book first.

2) Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Told in the first person by a horse, the story traces Black Beauty's life and his experiences with hardship and human cruelty (and kindness) to horses. The story was written based on Sewell's own concern for animal welfare and was published to rave reviews back in 1877 as the first book to portray the world from a horse's point of view.

3) Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of the great literary classics. The characters are animals but really, it's a social commentary about Stalinism. Probably more suitable for older kids but the message is so powerful that I'm sure most kids would be moved to tears over the treatment of Boxer the loyal donkey and indignant over Napolean the boar's corruption and ruthlessness.

4) 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

Also made into a movie which wasn't very good, in my opinion. The book has so much more character. In this book, animals are the main characters and humans are the "pets". The story is about two dalmatians, Pongo and Missis who set off to rescue their puppies after they were stolen by the malevolent Cruella de Vil (one of the most memorable villains ever!) Smith wrote a sequel to the book, The Starlight Barking, which is lesser known but kids might enjoy reading about how the dalmatians ended up saving the human race.

5) Watership Down by Richard Adams

Two different people mentioned this to me within the space of two days as one of the books that made a real impression on them growing up. It is about a group of rabbits who escape their warren which was being destroyed, to find a new home. The adventures, perils and social issues faced by the rabbits have been described as reflective of human struggles and the relationship between the individual and the state.

6) Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight

This book launched a movie and popular tv series that made Lassie a household name in the 1960s. Boy's dog is sold, dog braves rough terrain and long distance to return home to boy. It's a simple, touching story of faith and loyalty. Lesley-Anne says most of her friends love this book.

7) The All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot

I'm an animal lover too, but I prefer to read books about humans with animals rather than animals as the main characters. If you're like me, you'll love this series about the world's most famous vet. The escapades of Herriot as he traverses the Yorkshire countryside to tend to his animal patients are told in a charming and humorous style. One of my all-time favourite series. It comprises four books: All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.

The above are classic titles, but if you're looking for something more current, here are three I've come across that are pretty good.

8) A Dog's Life by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle is more well known for his books on the French countryside, but this one is a real gem for dog lovers. Seen from the eyes of Boy, a canine of mysterious lineage (aka mutt), the book follows this dog's hilarious wanderings and thoughts, such as the temptation of white bedspreads and humans' strange obsession with personal hygiene. The drawings are so fun and true to Boy's character. Lesley-Anne loves this book.

9) The Promised One by David Alric

This one is entirely Lesley-Anne's recommendation. I chanced upon it by accident and it turned out to be one of the books she's most enamoured with. It's about Lucy, a girl who discovers that she is the Promised One - the one who can communicate with all animals and whose destiny is to save the planet. There's a list at the end of the book entitled Lucy's Lexicon, which contains the character's very creative names for different animals, eg. the jaguar is called junglefang.

10) The Lionboy series by Zizou Corder

This trilogy is about a young boy named Charlie who can talk Cat, after his blood was accidentally swapped with a leopard cub. His parents are kidnapped by evil pharmaceutical company which wants to stop their cure for asthma and allergies. Charlie tries to find his parents and fight the evil. On the way, he finds himself having to help six lions return to the wild. Very imaginative writing. The three books in the series are Lionboy, Lionboy: The Chase and Lionboy: The Truth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Waxing lyrical about sports

Kenneth and I are strong believers in getting our kids to be physically active, for long-term health benefits. As described in an earlier post, I mentioned how our kids learned swimming and then progressed to taekwondo. They've since both stopped their taekwondo lessons, Lesley-Anne because she has attained her junior black belt and Andre because of his intensive badminton schedule.

Andre's natural affinity with sports is something I admire because I have two left feet. Unfortunately, Lesely-Anne has inherited my klutz genes. Both of us wear bruises like battle scars because we're constantly tripping over our own feet, stubbing our toes, whacking our elbows into walls and God knows what else. Ballet has not changed this for Lesley-Anne. Funny how grace and clumsiness can go hand in hand.

The contrast is most glaring when Lesley-Anne and Andre do the same physical activity. When we both started family badminton sessions, Andre picked up the sport much quicker, despite being so tiny then that the racket looked longer than him. Kenneth brought both of them for a run and he found it impossible to manage them together because Lesley-Anne was lagging behind while Andre was off like a rocket way ahead. We still encourage Lesley-Anne to go for a run regularly because that's the only exercise she gets these days but it's a real effort for her.

When I made both of them learn to ride a bike, Lesley-Anne's progress was slow and wobbly and even though she can do it now, she's still not entirely in control of the bike when she rides. Andre took just one session of 45 minutes and never looked back, maneouvering sharp turns and corners confidently like a pro. He loves it so much that he often takes the bike downstairs for a spin on afternoons that he doesn't have badminton training. I'm glad he has an outlet to release all his excess energy and I do find that he's more refreshed to focus on work after those sessions.

This finding is borne out in a recent Straits Times segment on how to help your kids through school. It listed 8 things parents can do but I will just highlight one. It says: "Get them involved in sports. Research shows that being physically active helps kids do better in their studies."

I don't really like that headline as it seems to imply that once again, studies are all that matter and sports is just another way of helping the kids get better at it. If parents think enrolling their children in sports will immediately raise their grades, then I think they will be disappointed. Much like parents who think starting their kids on music lessons is an instant formula for making them better at maths.

What the article is saying is that physical activity develops the part of our brain that helps us pay attention and be mentally alert, hence contributing to better academic scores (which is consistently higher across different age groups in fit kids than sedentary kids). It cites studies which show that young atheletes' school performance improves during the sporting season and drops during off-season. So if you're thinking of stopping your kids from participating in sports CCAs so they can focus on their studies, do reconsider, your plan may actually backfire.

I believe that sports, like music, should be encouraged for their intrinsic benefits, otherwise the pleasure you derive from such activities is lost. But if academic achievements improve as a result, that's such a great bonus, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Badminton training for my little dynamo

So far, 2009 has started well for Andre. After the initial disappointment on learning that his school badminton team was to be scrapped following budget re-allocation, we signed him up at a badminton academy as advised by his coach. Initially, training was quite senang as he was placed in a beginner's class and he rather enjoyed being one of the better ones, as was the case when he was training in school.

Then a couple of weeks ago, he was moved to an intermediate class and his ego was quickly deflated. That first week, there were only two other boys in that group, both his age. One has been training three times a week for the past two years, the other is occasionally brought to Malaysia by his father for training. These kids are serious man, I tell you! And the coach for this group was from China, get this - a former Thomas Cup champion. Wah, colour me intimidated. Just looking at him with his unsmiling demeanour and crew cut, I could imagine him demolishing his opponents one by one on the court.

But the difference in training was so obvious. By playing with (and losing to) better opponents, Andre's game quickly moved up a notch. And he learned that others are not playing to maintain a rally, they are playing to win points, so he has developed a killer instinct, especially with his smash. Which is bad news for me because I can no longer play a singles game with him (not that I was very good to begin with lah).

Then last week, even better news: the school teacher in charge of badminton managed to push for the school team to continue, probably reinforced by the excellent performance of the p6 school team in a recent tournament. So the school team and the coach are reinstated, at least for now. God has answered our prayers!

I brought Andre for the school trials and of course the coach already knew him from last year. He cuts such a funny figure on the court because he's so pint-sized, he's almost always the smallest one around. The school teacher doing the trials was Lesley-Anne's Chinese teacher in p3 so I went over to say hello. She asked me which boy Andre was (there were 20 kids at the court) and the coach piped up, "那小小只那个!" ("That small one!") The teacher then told me, "oh, that one cannot change CCA ok?"

I took it to mean that Andre shows promise and was very encouraged. Later, the coach also told me that Andre was pretty good and she could tell that his strokes, especially the high balls, were solid from the way they sounded. Here's a video clip of Andre practising his high balls with Kenneth.

I know I'm starting to sound like one of those boring mums who drone on and on about how good their kids are. Please indulge me a little, it's not often I get to say Andre is good at something! Badminton started out as a simple pasttime and it became something he has grown to be passionate about. I've been increasingly convinced that kids should pursue something they're really keen on (life is not just about school) and we're fortunate that he has identified his interest early, so we can nurture it. Especially since he has till now, lived in the shadow of his sister's academic achievements, this is something he can claim for himself.

I don't have any grand illusions about his sporting future - it's way too early to make any predictions and the fastest way to kill an interest is by being overly ambitious. Anyway, if you see some of the other kids at the academy, you will easily find many who are more skilled than him. His net skills especially, need lots of work. Plus he'll always have that height disadvantage, thanks to his two vertically-challenged parents.

But if he continues to enjoy the sport and can even make the school team, that would be a great boost to his self-esteem and identity. Added to that, it's healthy, it's wholesome and it builds all kinds of good values like sportsmanship and diligence, so there's no real downside (besides the time investment).

And here's a short clip of my little katek ayam having a game with his dad.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Grades are not everything - but don't just say it, mean it

American Idol is back and I don't know about you but I love watching all these ordinary people sing their way to stardom (yeah, David Cook!) In the early stage of each season, you have the mass auditions and I'm always fascinated by these deluded weirdos who seem to have crawled out of the woodwork by the thousands to have their shot at fame. What amazes me is that many of these people are not doing this as a joke, they actually believe they are the next Carrie Underwood. I mean, this is Season 8 and I assume they have watched past seasons, yet when Simon sends their dreams crashing down, they are truly shattered like they didn't even consider the possibility that they wouldn't make it to Hollywood.

And then comes the part the producers love: the now-raging, bitter contestant will scream obscenities at the judges, the camera, the show and say something like "The show is a joke! The judges are only interested in looks!" Didn't matter that the reject sounded like a frog with a sore throat.

This reminds me of the many parents I sometimes meet, who say things like "The Singapore system shouldn't just focus on paper qualifications" and "Grades are not everything". Which few will disagree with. And if the parent was someone whose child didn't do so well academically but was encouraged to be a budding artist or to shoot hoops or to build robots, then I'll whole-heartedly endorse that viewpoint.

But I find it difficult to empathise with parents who declare such statements not so much out of personal conviction but vested self-interest. While they slam the over-emphasis on academic pursuits, they ironically try to force the academic route down their kids' throats and every waking hour is spent on school, study and tuition. In the end, akin to the American Idol rejects, they're disgruntled only because their kids have not won the competition.

The danger is, at the end of the day, these parents can't really give an alternative as to what should be considered in place of grades because their kids have devoted so much their time to their studies that they have not developed any other skill or interest. So are these parents saying that schools or employers should take in their kids because... (well, no reason, they just should)? In place of some other child who may have had more success academically or in some other arena?

Here's my take: If you really believe that education should be all-rounded, then practise what you preach. Find ways to help your children identify their passions outside of their studies and help nurture these interests. It doesn't have to be a concrete skill like music or sports, it could even be something like leadership or community service (the desire to serve others is a GREAT gift). Obviously I'm not saying let your child fail exams, but create a healthy balance (our society is probably not as insular as you think, I believe there is room for everyone to make something of themselves). I'm very mindful of what Sir Ken Robinson said - the biggest tragedy that can happen is that in the process of education, our children's true talents are lost (I'm para-phrasing).

Grades are not everything. Of course they're not. But you should be prepared to offer something else in place of them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Andre's new teacher

About two weeks ago, I received a call from Andre's form teacher. She sounded very nice on the phone and said that Andre's work and conduct were fine... except that he has been handing in work that looked like kiam chye (her actual words). He has a file but for some reason, he had decided not to use it. Instead, he has been stuffing worksheets in his bag in any old manner so that by the time they reach his teacher, they're ripped and crumpled like some free-style paper mache project.

Arrrgghh, I was so embarrassed. Partly because I realised that I haven't been checking to see that he has filed his work properly. Bad mummy!

So, barely one month since the new school year started and I already received a call from his teacher. Feels like deja vu. That's not all. They have Chinese composition 作文 for p3 and when Andre received his very first assignment back, it had "I want neat handwriting!" written in red right across the top of the page. You see, he had inexplicably ignored the lined squares on the page and his characters floated, like unfettered butterflies, all over the page. (The comment was written in English - his Chinese teacher probably figured that he wouldn't understand it in Chinese.)

I hope that's not a sign of things to come. But if there's any consolation, it's the fact that Andre loves his form teacher this year, he's always telling me how nice she is.

This was the very first journal entry Andre wrote this year.

In case you can't read it, this is what he wrote:


Hi! I am eight years old. I am over twenty-five kilogram. That's because I like to eat food. I am wearing spectacles because I watch too much television and playing computer. I.... It is a secret, I grow about one cm a month. I like sports too and music. My favourite instrument is the piano. I have piano lessons every Wednesday. I like other subjects that I learn in school. School is very interesting!

I thought the writing was more like p1 standard - somehow when he writes for his journal, his spelling, grammar and sentence construction fly out of the window. Maybe because it's not marked, he just says whatever comes into his mind and he doesn't really put in any effort. I've told him he still has to be somewhat mindful of his English even though journal entries are not corrected, but I didn't harp on it since I didn't want to discourage his free expression.

Anyway, I shared this journal entry because the interesting part was not what he wrote but what his teacher commented at the bottom:

"Haha... Andre! You are so cute. Miss XX was very small size when I was young too. Don't worry, one day you'll be taller than me!"

When Lesley-Anne read that, she said in mock outrage, "Even his teacher thinks he's cute??" All I can say is, I'm very glad that after two years of having no rapport with his teacher, Andre has one this year who seems to get him. Hopefully, that will motivate him to work harder!

Friday, February 13, 2009

"It hurts!" - raising a sensitive child

A mum asked me how I dealt with Lesley-Anne's sensitivity as she has a very sensitive child as well. I'd previously mentioned that Lesley-Anne is extremely sensitive which sometimes drives me to despair, and I know a few other mothers who face the same issues with their sensitive children.

YY pointed me to this book "The Highly Sensitive Child" by Elain Aron and I found it at Borders (thanks YY!). The bad part first, Aron does tend to ramble and her writing style is not the most engaging. But the book's good points far outweigh the bad. While many things merely confirmed what I already knew, I also learned many new and interesting facts.

For instance, I did not realise that emotional and mental sensitivity is directly linked to physical sensitivity, ie an emotionally sensitive child is more likely to have heightened physical sensations as well. It explains why Lesley-Anne has a very low threshold for pain, and her skin cannot endure scratchy clothing, anything dirty and harsh soaps (I used to have to cut off all the labels from her clothes before she would wear them which drove me bananas). Sensitive children can be overwhelmed by things that hurt their senses like noise, strong light, smells or tastes. When we were in Beijing, Lesley-Anne refused to go for a foot massage with the rest of us because she said that she "didn't want strange hands touching her."

According to Aron, about 15-20% of children are born highly sensitive. These are children who seem to get easily hurt or upset, are picky and overreact to little things. The problem is that sensitivity tends to be viewed negatively, like it's some sort of disorder and many parents believe their kids should just be taught or trained to be less sensitive. Aron takes a different view. Her research found that sensitivity is an inborn trait. Rather than try to change or deny it, parents should accept it as part of their children's unique personality and work with it.

There is a wide spectrum of variance among what Aron coined the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) but it's too long to get into in this post, so I'll just summarise what she says are some of the common traits:

1) Aware of subtleties: the HSC notices little changes in the environment, not just physical but sometimes nuances like increased tension in the room. This may cause distress to the HSC even without the child knowing why. As such, the HSC is often described as intuitive.

2) More easily overstimulated: The body reacts to stimulation and because HSCs are more easily aroused, things or situations can be more frightening, more uncomfortable or more nerve-racking for them. HSCs frequently suffer from performance anxiety.

3) Deep inner reactions: HSCs feel emotions more keenly, internalise them more and remember them longer than other children. They are more disturbed by injustice and they worry more. On the flip side, they also feel more intense positive emotions, so you may find them overwhelmingly happy over a minor incident.

4) Aware of others' feelings: Because HSCs are more intuitive, they can also be more aware of others' emotions, without being told in words. Sometimes even when the other party is not aware of his/her own emotions! This doesn't necessarily mean they're more empathetic to others though.

5) Extreme caution: HSCs typically hate change and trying anything new and unfamiliar. They can obsess over every possible danger (real or imagined) and impose rigid restrictions and rules on themselves.

In her book, Aron goes into detail on how parents can help their HSCs at the different stages - infants, pre-schoolers, schoolers, teens and young adults. She also describes the different challenges facing parents who are not sensitive or sensitive themselves. Can't give you the whole hog here, so I'm just going to give a sprinkling of tips for parents that she provides:

- Believe your HSC and do something about it when he says something hurts or is uncomfortable. Try not to thrust your HSC into an environment with multiple, intensive stimuli.

- If your HSC suffers from performance anxiety, rehearse the skill many times with her, don't let her go into a test or performance underprepared. Try not to add to the pressure and make sure she has plenty of rest and breaks.

- Don't just quash your HSC's emotions, acknowledge and respect them. Talk to him about his emotions and how to handle them, especially in public.

- Be careful about sharing your own troubles or judgements of other with your young HSC because she is so understanding - she may be overwhelmed with the responsibility of having to provide emotional support for an adult.

- HSCs can feel bad saying no to others. Teach her how to stand up for her wishes and to express her own opinions (without trampling on others' toes, of course!)

- Encourage your HSC to try new things by taking it one step at a time and assuring him that you are there for support. Sometimes, HSCs need that gentle push.

- Don't belittle or dismiss your HSC's feelings and behaviours. Saying things like "you shouldn't care what other people think" is unhelpful because the HSC can't help feeling that way. It will only make him feel more distress.

- But don't overly slop on the praise or pity either. Being over-protective only reinforces the HSC's feeling that he is different and is deficient in some way.

- Positive encouragement rather than strong correction usually works better for HSCs when it comes to discipline and achievements. HSCs can take criticism much to heart and it paralyses them instead of spurring them on.

As a side note, Aron mentions that quite a high percentage of gifted children are HSCs. This is somewhat supported by Kazimierz Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities theory, where he found that gifted children react more strongly and for longer to a stimuli than non-gifted children in five areas: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. The intensity of each differs from individual to individual but Dabrowski claims that all gifted children have at least one of these traits. Important note though: just because a child is sensitive, doesn't mean she's necessarily gifted.

For parents of sensitive children, I hope this post is helpful (obviously you'll need to read more about it, this is just an appetiser). At the very least, I hope it will encourage you to embrace your child's sensitivity along with her other traits, instead of trying to change it. Afterall, it's part of what makes her unique.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The ballerina with the roundhouse kick

After almost four years of training, Lesley-Anne has earned her junior black belt in taekwondo. I still find it hard to believe that my demure little girl can pack a punch, but we're very proud of her perseverance.

Not that I think the black belt will enable her to eliminate any opponents in an actual assault but hopefully it has equipped her to defend herself adequately before running away (well, at least she won't just stand there shrieking like a guniang!) The taekwondo training has definitely boosted her confidence in the way she carries herself physically.

As part of the last grading test, she had to perform a fixed pattern, pattern kicks, then a pattern of one of the earlier belts as called out by the examiner. This was followed by three sparring sessions - two with her peers and one with a black belter. We videoed the whole test but it's a bit long (and shaky) so I've only included the last part of the sparring session (with a peer and a black belter).

Just for info, junior black belt is for under 16's. And here she is in her junior black belt gi!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mon's 3 Golden Rules for better writing

Doesn't the title sound like something from a Reader's Digest book? Anyway, ever so often, I get asked what makes for good writing, especially for school compositions. I'm sure there are 101 suggestions you can find online or in books but I thought I'd give my 2cts.

I have 3 self-imposed Golden Rules for writing that I try to follow, whether I'm writing for my clients or for my blog. (I'm starting to sound like a Methodist pastor - the 3-point sermon!) Of course this assumes that your child already understands the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. While these rules may not necessarily be valid for everything, especially across different fiction genres, they're general enough to apply to most types of writing (corporate included).

Golden Rule #1: Be clear

In my work, clarity is of utmost importance. I'm sure you've come across many company brochures that either waffle on and on or make you maneouver past through piles of irrelevant information. Both show that the company is terribly disorganised and/or have no idea what their target audience is looking for. Frankly, too many corporate writers out there pad their writing because they seem to equate the number of words with quality (and also they're probably paid based on the number of words!) On the other hand, I've been known to brutally slash entire paragraphs into one sentence. That has become somewhat of a calling card for me (and what my clients pay me for).

Who, when, where, what, how - the five standard questions to ask before you write. In business writing, it's important to always be succinct and to the point. Afterall, clients are not interested in fancy writing. For composition writing, descriptive prose is usually required but still, clarity is important - What is the scenario you wish to paint? How do you want the reader to feel? What is the impact you want to create?

I find that long, convoluted sentences are often the death knell of an essay. If a sentence is too long, break it into two. For composition writing, a good mixture of sentence lengths normally works best. After a few sentences of average length (10 to 25 words), throw in a short one for extra oomph. Like this.

Golden Rule #2: Be original

There are too many copycats in writing. Often, if you pick up corporate brochures of different companies in the same industry, you'll find that the writing style is very similar, sometimes down to the exact words. So much so that you can just substitute the name of the company with its rival and no one would be any wiser. In writing, like in everything else, originality is vital if you want to stand out.

Likewise for composition writing, cliches are used far too often. Schools frequently employ the strategy of learning "good phrases" for composition writing. I'm fine with this - I think it's helpful, especially as a teaching technique to show newbies how to express themselves. But once your child has more or less gotten the hang of it, do encourage him to think up his own phrases. For instance, if your kid has learned "He looked as if he had seen a ghost", a common phrase for fear, he can think about what he fears most and create a phrase like "He looked as if he had forgotten to study for a very important exam" (PSLE on my mind lah).

And please, please, never ask your child to memorise entire model compositions to be regurgitated word for word! You're killing creativity with one giant swoop.

Golden Rule #3: Be real

Most people can spot insincerity a mile away. What you're writing about must be meaningful, try not to write about something you know nothing about. I know many kids don't have a choice when it comes to composition topics, in which case they need to read more widely about different scenarios and situations in order to write realistically.

I remember in my Psychology class in NUS, a classmate didn't do any research for his essay topic but thought he could bluff his way through by using lots of jargon and fancy language. The lecturer gave him a big, red "F" and wrote, "This is gobbledegook."

Thankfully in this respect, schools are more forgiving than the working world. I've met too many wanna-be writers who think they are simply terrific because they have a good command of the written word. But once I read their writing, I can tell if they've had any real working experience (and a brain) because it shows in their writing. I had one ex-staff member who used to drive me crazy because he would blend business cliches and corporate speak in seemingly random sentence arrangements that communicated nothing (actually, nothing would be an improvement, his writing communicated nonsense). And he couldn't understand why I didn't appreciate his work.

So those are my 3 Golden Rules for writing well. At the end of the day, the ideas and the language are equally important in writing - do not over-emphasise one at the expense of the other. If you have all the ideas without a competent command of the language, your writing will be incoherent or boring. If you're all language and no ideas, all you have is a piece of empty, pretentious prose.

At the risk of controversy, I feel that many of the Booker and Man Booker award winners fall under the second category. Maybe after the judges have doggedly ploughed through 300 pages of dreary text and paper-thin plots, they figure the book must be really profound since they couldn't follow the half of it. I still feel indignant when I think about the time I wasted reading Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.

Anyway, that's just my opinion (Margaret Atwood fans, back off!) This is my blog and I'm entitled to it! Writing is to be read... and to be enjoyed. And as with everything, practice makes perfect (cliche be damned)!

Monday, February 9, 2009


The title of this post may be a little deceiving as it might lead you to think along the lines of precious jewelry or valuable antiques. The heirlooms I'm thinking of are much humbler in origin. They can, in fact, be anything.

In today's modern world with its disposable mentality, everything is use-and-throw. Any product lasting three years is usually outdated. Every CNY, homes go through spring cleaning and many items get discarded.

I am the same. This is made worse by the fact that as a child and into my adulthood, I moved so many times that the term "moving house" strikes horror in me. Everytime we moved, things got tossed. A few years ago, I suddenly realised that there was practically nothing left of my past save for a couple of photo albums.

I decided that I would keep a few items to pass on to my children, and hopefully, their children. These items have no intrinsic value in themselves but in terms of sentimental value, they're priceless. They cannot be bought and they represent a part of this family that my children belong to but do not know because they were born in a different age.

I managed to find just three items. The oldest is this Ladybird book that belonged to my mother when she was in p2 at Bedok Girls' School (I know this because there's a school chop in the book). It's called "Smoke and Fluff" and it's about two naughty kittens. The entire story is told in rhyme. This is the only thing I have that belonged to my mum and she has long passed on, so I'm very glad I have it. Unfortunately, the pages are riddled with pen marks, courtesy of my sister (she was monstrously destructive as a child!)

The next item is a teddy bear I had when I was a baby, so it's as old as I am (and I'm not revealing how old that is!) I marvel at how this bear never managed to get thrown out - it suffered tremendously as you can probably see from the pic. It's missing an eye (again thanks to my sister) and its fur is stiff and scruffy. I called him Benny and when my sister and I played with him, we always made him assume a grouchy, doleful persona because his mouth turned down at the sides. He's now just stuffed in the toy chest but I like imagining that I cuddled him when I was a wee tot. Isn't he sweet?

The last item is a patchwork blanket done by my paternal grandmother. She used to sew her own clothes and would save the scraps to make these blankets for her many grandchildren. Typical, we never appreciated them and treated them carelessly when she was alive because she would make so many. Years after she'd passed on, I realised that I only had this one left and made a conscious note to take care of it.

It's still the most comfortable blanket I've ever used and today, it's the "sick blanket", ie when any child or adult in the family falls ill and has to sleep without air-conditioning, he or she gets this blanket as it's not as warm as the quilts we use every night. It's soft and comforting - for me especially, it triggers warm and happy memories.

So those are my three heirlooms. Very simple, everyday items but precious in their own ways. If you haven't got heirlooms that tell a story of your past, I suggest you start looking now. Years from now, I'm sure your kids (and you) will appreciate them.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book series for teenagers and adults

I enjoyed writing my earlier posts about books so much that I've decided to make these posts a recurring one. My book recommendations are not meant to be comprehensive guides because I will only recommend books I've read myself. But if you're shopping around for ideas, I hope you will find my posts useful.

This entry is also about book series but since none of these books are actually considered children's fiction, they are more suitable for teenagers and adults. But I guess you can introduce them earlier or later depending on the reading level of your kids.

1) The Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend

This series is a collection of diaries of a boy starting from when he's almost 14. It's a wonderful, thigh-slappingly comic satire of life in the UK from the 1980s. Adrian Mole is an unlikely hero - he's your typical teenager who agonises over his looks, girl trouble, parents who don't understand him and an uncaring world in general. When you read the diaries, you can actually picture the protagonist in your mind. The writing is so deadpan that it's effortlessly funny. I first read this when I was 13 and it has been a favourite on my bookshelf ever since, especially when I'm looking for a light read that'll make me laugh.

Sue Townsend started off with two books but later continued the series due to its popularity. There are six books in the series (the first book in my picture is a compilation of the first three volumes). By the sixth book, Adrian Mole is an adult, still luckless and grappling with the controversy of Iraq.

2) The Frank McCourt series

If you're like me, with a melancholic streak, you'll love Angela's Ashes. McCourt's memoirs of his own life growing up in a devastating poor, Irish family with an alcoholic father will tug at your heartstrings and release the tears. In his opening statement, he writes: "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

Angela's Ashes is a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The writing is simple, crisp and heart-breaking. McCourt went on to write two succeeding volumes of his life, into adulthood - 'Tis and Teacher Man. Both great reads but neither can match the mastery of the original book.

3) The Empress Tzu Hsi series by Anchee Min

I'm not sure if two books can be considered to constitute a series, but I wanted to introduce books set in the Asian culture. I was just commenting to a friend that too often, our kids read books about Western characters, study Western music and are exposed to Western art. It's important to keep in touch with our Asian roots.

These two books trace Empress Tzu Hsi's (widely regarded as China's most ambitious and infamous Empress Dowager) rise to power. In an age and country where women have zero status and are completely subservient to men, it is facinating to read how Tzu Hsi clawed and manipulated her way to the top.

4) The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien

The ultimate fantasy series. Tolkien created an entire world named Middle Earth, with its own detailed history, characters and chronology of events. The book series is an enchanting read though long in parts. But I think the movie series has revived interest in the books and enabled readers to better visualise the characters and scenes. If you can, also read The Hobbit, which is a book on its own (and easier reading for younger readers) but gives a good preview to the events in Lord of the Rings.

My first book is a different edition from the other two because a friend borrowed my original one and never returned it, which annoys me tremendously. It's such a discourteous habit.

5) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
This is the only book series here that I don't own, but it's worth recommending because it's such a fun read. Set in a laid-back community in Botswana, the series revolves around a "traditionally-built" lady, Precious Ramotswe, who is also Botswana's only lady detective. Mme Ramotswe uses her wisdom to help solve her clients' problems and bring happiness to those around her. Unlike other detective stories, these have no gore, violence or sensational crimes, yet the stories are far from boring. The characters are delightful and their personalities intricately revealed one layer at a time, so readers are kept glued to every word.

There are currently 9 books to the series (starting with The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency) but Smith is still adding to the collection.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The beauty and pitfalls of free will

When I was much younger, before I got married, whenever I read in the papers about delinquent kids, I would tsk tsk over the way they were brought up, how they probably had no parental guidance.

Now that I'm older and hopefully wiser, I realise that things are never that simple. Don't be mistaken, of course upbringing plays a tremendous role in the way a child thinks and acts. But it is not everything. You see, there's the little thing called free will that makes us humans so unique. A child has his own character and personality in a way that makes it impossible for us to completely dicatate the way he turns out just because we did Step A to Step Z. In other words, a child is not as predictable as a factory by-product.

This explains why a child with loving, sensible parents can turn out to be a black sheep, and another child with as rotten a childhood as you can possibly imagine can still emerge as society's hero.

To me, understanding this concept is important for healthy parenting. It means moderating expectations, adapting parenting methods, and being able to step back and accept that beyond a certain point, it's out of our control.

Again I stress, I'm NOT saying that child-rearing methods are irrelevant - they are incredibly important. If you constantly imbibe your children with good values, equip them with the skills to think and live independently, and demonstrate your love and support unconditionally, you are much more likely to have well-adjusted individuals on your hands.

But moulding is not the same as making. The parenting manual doesn't come with a guarantee. Sometimes, I read about parents who go through such angst because their kids get into trouble and they blame themselves: "Maybe if I'd spent more time with him", "Maybe I should not have allowed him so much freedom", etc. Perhaps those are valid points. But it could also be a case of the child, despite knowing the ills and consequences, deciding to exercise his own will in choosing the path less straight.

Conversely, there's the other group of parents who's ever so ready to pat themselves on the back for their wonderful children. Yes, your kids may be polite, well-behaved, charismatic (and brilliant to boot) and I acknowledge that you likely had a big part to play in that. But before you swipe all the credit, pause to consider the possibility that perhaps you were blessed with kids who were more pre-disposed to such traits to begin with.

There was a Christian father (whose name I can't recall) who wrote about how he and his wife had always congratulated themselves on having raised three great kids and couldn't understand how other parents could let their kids run wild. Then they had another (unexpected) child and this child turned out to be uncontrollable. From the start, he was a rebel - anti-conforming and anti-authority. In the end, he turned out to be a fine young man, but it not before causing much heartache to his parents.

From my own experience, I've learned to adjust my methods and expectations to suit the temperament of each of my kids. Lesley-Anne was a dream to bring up because she's amenable, quick to learn and conscientious. For the first three years of her life, wherever we went, family, friends and strangers would sing her praises saying how well-behaved and bright she was. Enough to boost any parent's ego, eh?

Then Andre came along and he was, well... different. Mind you, he's not bad or anything but he's your typical do-now-think-later boy. When we went out to restaurants, we often ended up apologising to the waiters for the mess he would leave behind. He would get into scrapes because the consequences didn't occur to him at that time.

To this day, I'm convinced (and thankful) that God deliberately gave me two children who are completely different in personality. Imagine if my second child was another Lesley-Anne - I might be tempted to attribute their "goodness" to my superior parenting skills. It would also make me much less empathetic to other parents who struggle to raise their kids right.

The idea of free will is beautiful because it's what makes us special as human beings. For parents, understanding free will doesn't give us the excuse to do wrong by our children, but hopefully, it serves up a dose of humility - to know that we are ultimately not the authors of our children's lives.

MDA to investigate the screening of PG trailers during prime time

This is an update on my earlier post, Are we desensitised to sex on tv?

There was silence from Mediacorp so I thought they had simply dismissed the issue and swept it under the carpet. But yesterday, there was a reply from MDA on the ST online forum. It says:

PG movie trailers at prime time: MDA to investigate

WE THANK Ms Monica Lim for her Online Forum feedback last Friday, "Don't show trailers of adult films during prime time".

Broadcasters are guided by the Media Development Authority's (MDA) Free-To-Air Television Programme Code, which outlines the general standards to be observed by broadcasters for television broadcast. Although programmes rated PG (Parental Guidance) can be shown only after 10pm, their trailers can be aired at prime time if they have been edited for a general audience and if the PG rating is also included.

MDA is looking into the feedback and will take appropriate action if the guidelines have been breached.

Ginny Goh (Ms)
Head, Broadcast Standards,
Media Content
Media Development Authority

Whether or not anything is done, I'm just glad that someone has acknowledged the issue and is looking into it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Yes You Can, Andre!

One thing I've come to notice about Andre is that he lacks tenacity and that's not a good thing. When he's unable to do a piece of homework or encounters difficulties, he quickly gets frustrated and gives up. That annoys me because he convinces himself that he can't do it and I often have to spend time calming him down or prep-talking him just so I can get him to re-focus on the problem.

I'm not sure if this has anything to do with being the last born, where he has always had his older sister to pave the way for him. Although he fights with Lesley-Anne on a regular basis, I know deep down, he enjoys having an older sister. During his birthday party, I overheard him telling some of his friends, "My sister is in p5" with great pride, for no other reason than that she's three whole years older than any of them.

I didn't realise just how much he has come to rely on her until yesterday. He brought home a list of words which were scrambled. Each group of letters, when unscrambled, would reveal a word. He had solved the first three but couldn't do the last two. Apparently, his classmate had the same problem and gave him a call. I was by the phone when he called and was not very pleased to hear Andre say: "I haven't done it because my sister is not home yet."

As you can imagine, after that phonecall, I launched into a "What-do-you-mean-your-sister-is-not-home-you-can't-do-your-homework? Why-does-she-have-to-do-your-homework-for-you?" lecture. It turned out he didn't think he was doing anything wrong because it wasn't "homework" homework, it was a fun exercise given by his teacher. Besides, he had tried and couldn't do it. (By trying, he meant that he had stared at the letters for a good 10 seconds and no word magically formed in his head.)

I told him that he had to put in more effort and not give up, which led to me taking out the Scrabble board and making him slowly try to rearrange the given letters in the first word (wow, it's exactly like trying to form a bingo in Scrabble!) I had to grit my teeth through a discordant 5 minutes of wailing "I don't know! I can't do it!" before he suddenly grinned and told me he'd solved it - CINEMA.

The second one, it turned out he'd copied one of the letters wrong. Aiyoh, copy also cannot copy right. I knew as much at one glance. Come on - EIICGLL? I told him so but he wouldn't believe me and we went into another Battle of the Stubborn People. ("It's wrong!" "No, it's not!" "You copied wrong!" "No, I didn't!" Stamping of feet.) In the end, he agreed to call his friend and later told me sheepishly "It's not L, it's N. The answer is CEILING."

I don't know if this episode has taught him a lesson about perseverance but I think I'll have to be more conscious about encouraging him not to give up so easily. (Maybe I'll emblazon Obama's slogan on his forehead, "Yes We Can!") Afterall, it is one of the most valuable human traits - to remain resolute and to persist in the face of adversity.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The world is not an oyster

I came across this post on my friend, Gerard's blog. Gerard runs his own web company and his blog talks about corporate and work issues. But this post spoke volumes to me because it's symptomatic of how the Gen Y (whom we parents are raising) thinks. I'd encountered this sort of attitude too many times when I was working at a local university.

In my post "Are you a key?", I alluded to how over-indulgent parenting can lead to this sense of entitlement. (This view was reinforced by other parents who commented). Now Gerard says this phenomenon is made worse by the attitude of tertiary institutions. I remember when I first started work, I was under a scholarship bond and was so grateful to have work that my only thought was how to perform to prove to my employer that I was worthy of it. This mindset is now as extinct as the dodo. And it's disturbing.

Here's the post reproduced in full:

The World is Not An Oyster

Sometimes, I really want to blame it squarely on the schools. Especially fancy tertiary institutions that spin PR about how their graduates will become masters of the universe. Be it for recruitment, marketing or funding purposes, there is a dire consequence of such spin - unrealistic expectations borne by fresh graduates.

It is a phenomenon experienced in all developed economies, and across industries. Young recruits and interview candidates expect to be in positions that are high profile and high impact. They want to be in charge of marketing strategies when they have little domain knowledge. Or even having visited the real-world places where the commercial and human activities take place. Tell them that their entry level positions require maybe a few years of grind like hitting the stores, number crunching and mind-numbing paperwork, and they make for the exit faster than a premature ejaculation.

As I read the business magazines, I find scant consolation that CXOs of major corporations face the same recruitment and human resource issues as our small interactive agency. Even when the candidates say they really want a get into the Internet field, what they really mean is they want to work on big brand accounts that allow them to score big points. They want to do award-winning creative work; take control of the online marketing destiny of a product; write codes for the next YouTube. And if you do not mind, please pay them very well because they have the potential to deliver for you.

It is a good thing I do not do the first line of interviews, which is handled by our operations director at Convertium. Wait till you hear her stories. She tells me that the human resource conferences she attends talk about the issue of the millennium generation - kids coming into the market with rose-tinted glasses and a major dose of entitlement. I tell her to give as good as she gets from the kids.

Whatever happened to simple values (and logic) like, if I perform well please pay me more and promote me? To make matters even more fun in Singapore, even “foreign talents” from neighbouring countries are being caught in the zeitgeist of asking for the world before showing the goods. And it does not help that we have an “official” culture of pay-more, pay-more.

So, coming back to the tertiary institutions, yes, your under-graduates are smart kids. They probably know a lot about something or other. But please do not lead them on to think without reservation that the world is their oyster. Expect them to taste some cockles first.

This article was written in June 2007, when the world was still high from a buoyant stock market, when jobs were a-plenty and euphoria was in the air over the upcoming Beijing Olympics. How the tide has turned in just half a year.

Maybe this financial crisis has a silver lining. Maybe universities will stop promising the sky. Maybe parents will stop putting their kids on a pedestal. And maybe, just maybe, the kids will wake up to the idea that the world doesn't owe them squat. I don't know. But I have hope that common sense will prevail.

Monday, February 2, 2009

More maths problems by request

I've received a couple of maths problems on my blog. While I'm flattered that you have such faith in my maths abilities, I can't promise that I'll entertain all future requests (or be able to solve them all!) since this is not a dedicated maths blog. Do click on my mathematics label to see the workings of other maths problems I've done.

But for now, these are the two I received. Thanks for your patience!

By wo wen tian:

Hi, how to solve this problem without using Algebra? At first, two shops A & B had a total of 1,040 sacks of rice. After Shop A has cleared 3/4 of its stock and Shop B has cleared 3/5 of its stock. Shop B now has 52 more sacks of rice than Shop A. How many sacks of rice does each shop have at first?

It's quite easy to solve this problem using models, you just need to work backwards. First, you draw the model for the final scenario, ie Shop B has 52 more sacks of rice than Shop A (right pic).

Then you add in the initial stock of rice. Shop A now has only 1/4 of its original stock so you need to draw in another 3 units (to make up the 3/4). Shaded parts depict stock of rice that was cleared.

Shop B now has only 2/5 of its original stock, meaning 1 unit + 52 sacks = 2/5 of original stock. To add in the original 3/5, you need to draw another 1 unit + 52 sacks (2/5) and ½ unit + 26 sacks (1/5).

Remember one of my rules for models is every unknown unit has to be equal in value, so since you have a half unit, you need to cut every other unknown unit into half (including those for Shop A - just slice horizontally across). Now, you can see (below) that you have 13 units + 52 + 52 + 26 and all that is equivalent to 1,040 sacks of rice.

13 units = 1,040 - 52 - 52 - 26 = 910
1 unit = 910 ÷ 13 = 70

Shop A is 8 units, so 8 x 70 = 560
Shop B is 5 units + 52 + 52 + 26 = 5 x 70 + 130 = 480

Answer: Shop A has 560 sacks of rice at first and Shop B has 480.

Help needed said...

There are 600 children in Team A and 30% of them are boys. There are 400 children in Team B and 60% of them are boys. After some children are transferred from Team B to Team A , 40% of the children in Team A and 60% of the children in Team B are boys. How many children are transferred from Team B to Team A?

This question is tricky - I couldn't solve it using models, I used a combination of ratio, percentage and algebra. First, we are given the number of children in each team, so we can work out how many boys and girls there were in each team originally.

600 x 30% = 180, so Team A originally had 180 boys and 420 girls (600 - 180)
400 x 60% = 240, so Team B originally had 240 boys and 160 girls (400 - 240)

Next, we use ratio. The ratio of girls to boys was:

At first: Team A - 7 : 3 Team B - 4 : 6
After : Team A - 6 : 4 Team B - 4 : 6

Notice that the ratio of girls to boys for Team B remained the same, even after the transfer. This means that the proportion of girls and boys transferred out of Team B was also 4 : 6 (or 2 : 3), ie 2 units of girls and 3 units of boys were transferred out.

Using algebra, the number of children in Team A after the transfer can be expressed as:

(Girls) 420 + 2 units = 60%
(Boys) 180 + 3 units = 40%

The lowest common multiple of 60 and 40 is 120, so convert both equations to = 120 and you can combine both equations.

2 (420 + 2 units) = 3 (180 + 3 units)
840 + 4 units = 540 + 9 units
9 units - 4 units = 840 - 540
5 units = 300

Remember a total of 5 units of children were transferred out of Team B (2 units of girls and 3 units of boys), so you don't even need to find out how many children is represented by 1 unit.

Answer: 300 children were transferred from Team B to Team A.

If anyone can solve this problem using models, do let me know.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book series for boys

Since I posted my recommended book series for girls, I've had a few requests for recommended book series for boys (no surprises since it appears that more mothers reading my blog have sons than daughters!)

But as I've mentioned, I'm hitting a blank when it comes to classic boy books because they never appealed to me when I was growing up. Kenneth says he enjoyed Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five when he was very young, then progressed to the Hardy Boys series. In contrast, I didn't like any of these, I prefered reading about life adventures and character developments than mysteries (except a time when I was teenager and went through an Agatha Christie phase).

So I'm just going to take a stab at the dark, based on intuition and feedback from other mothers. From what I observe, boys tend to like mystery/fantasy/adventure type books. My guess is this stems from their task-oriented tendencies - there must be a quest or "purpose" to the plot, rather than reading about the ramblings of someone stumbling through life.

So here are some of my recommendations:

1) Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

This one, I know for a fact. Many boys are hooked on the Artemis Fowl series because it's fantasy and adventure rolled into one. Plus the protagonist is a genius 12-year-old boy with criminal tendencies. Fairies, centaurs, trolls, pixies and one very flatulent dwarf - the characters are original and funny. The writing is sparkling and witty and in my opinion, much more compelling than the Harry Potter series.

To date, the series consists of 6 books (I haven't bought the latest one yet) but Eoin Colfer is still adding to the series, which is great news for fans.

2) The Roald Dahl series

Ok, I cheated - the Roald Dahl books are not a series, they're mostly individual books. But how to leave out one of the all-time greats? I believe Roald Dahl single-handedly transformed the way children's fiction is written. His stories are irreverant and outrageously humorous (in one of his books, he said the biggest problem with children's books is they are often not funny). While he does promote children being good, his tone is never moralistic or priggish. And of course, in all his children's books, the hero/heroine is always a child.

I think for boys, the books they'll probably enjoy most include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (of course!), Danny the Champion of the World, Boy and Witches. By the way, I'm confident these would appeal to girls as well, and even adults - his books have universal appeal.

3) The Geronimo Stilton series

I hesitated to include this because frankly, I don't think the writing is super and the plots are often featherweight, sometimes practically non-existent. I think the writer (who's Geronimo Stilton, he uses his own name for the main character) is just churning them out as fast as he can bank in his money.

But the selling point of his books is that he very cleverly uses graphic elements as part of the writing and his books have loads of colourful and vivid illustrations. So if you have a son who is resistant to reading (like Andre), Geronimo Stilton is a terrific way to introduce reading into his diet.

No need to buy the entire series. At last count, I think Stilton's up to Book No.36 and he's still going strong, so unless you're made of money or related to Stilton, just select a few (my kids received many of them as Christmas/birthday presents). Anyway, I think they're good only up to about age 8, after which your kids should ideally progress to something more challenging.

4) The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald

I left this for last because this is the only series that is truly classic (read: old) like the book series for girls I recommended. First published in 1967, the series is of a Catholic family in a predominantly Mormon community in Utah, set in the late 1800s. The stories are loosely based on Fitzgerald's adventures growing up with his smart-alecky older brother. Tom, nicknamed "The Great Brain", is a scheming and money-loving boy who uses his intellect to swindle his brothers and friends. While some of the schemes and escapades may not seem too "brainy" among today's more savvy kids, boys might still enjoy reading about how this boy often manages to outsmart his friends and even adults in his community.

There are 8 books in the series and Fitzgerald has an easy, timeless style of writing that is engaging and convincing. I thoroughly enjoyed the books as a kid, prompting me to collect the books when I became an adult.

Mothers of boys will tell you there are many other series their sons enjoy reading, like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke. The ones I listed are just the ones I own. There's of course the ubiquitous Harry Potter by JK Rowling (which is ok, but completely over-hyped), the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary (terrific writing) and the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, which I own as well but some books are more interesting than others and the writing style is rather antiquated by today's standards, making the books a little dry in parts. Again, just my opinion.

At the end of the day, whatever gets your son interested in reading, go with it.
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