Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tips on English composition

One of the school topics I find hardest to teach is composition. And as luck would have it, this is one of Andre's weakest areas. After two years, I still haven't found any magic formula but I thought I'd share my experience trying to teach this and a couple of methods you can try.

Compositions in school are marked on two aspects: content and language. Both have equal weightage. I'll talk about language first. One of the main problems leading to poor compositions is simply poor usage of English, due to limited vocabulary and/or weak grammar. For Lesley-Anne, I never had to sit with her and go through her compositions because language came intuitively to her. Through reading, she gained an instinctive grasp of how sentences should be phrased and she can automatically reach into her vocabulary bank when writing.

Andre is completely different. Even though he may have come across a word several times, he often doesn't register its meaning until someone explains it to him. Nuances are usually lost on him, he takes meaning literally and that's why books which are loaded with figurative speech, implied meanings or dialogue just defeat the purpose. I've come to realise that he may be able to read the book but he doesn't fully comprehend it.

I'm also aware that comprehension does not equal application with Andre. For example, he may understand the phrase "terror seized him", but it would never occur to him to use it in his writing. To help jolt his memory, I've compile a list of 'good phrases' or alternative words. For example, instead of writing "happy", he can use "delighted" or "elated". The list is not very long because he can't remember beyond a few, but at least it gives him options. In Singapore, extra marks are given for good descriptions, so unfortunately, some parents have made their kids memorise pages and pages of descriptive sentences to be used wholesale. I'm not for this - offer some alternatives to spur more sophisticated usage, but not force it to the extent that it kills creativity.

To me, this is a stop-gap measure. My conclusion is that the best long-term solution for better usage is still extensive reading of a variety of books. When you've read more, the language will eventually become more familiar and comfortable, though the pace of improvement will differ from child to child. Since we've upped the ante on reading for Andre recently, he has been surprising us with his usage. A couple of weeks ago, he came home and told me casually, "I met Paul at recess, he was in such high spirits." I went, "What? What did you say? Where did you learn the phrase 'in high spirits'? That's very good! You can use it in your compositions!!" Haha, I realise I must have sounded quite nutty but Andre was so pleasantly surprised by the unexpected praise that I'm sure it's a phrase he won't forget for a while.

Next, we come to content. I'd always taken for granted that this should come naturally, afterall at the primary level, the topics aren't very complicated. Boy, was I wrong! Being able to write a realistic composition requires the child to be able to imagine the scenario appropriately, which can be quite a challenge if the child has never actually experienced it. Like, how would you write about a camping trip if you've never been on one?

One situation that Singapore exams love to dish out for compositions is the accident. I'm guessing that it's a scenario that allows the child to describe a whole gamut of emotions, that's why it's a popular topic. The problem is, majority of kids have never been in an accident! For a 7-year-old to be able talk about it realistically, either he is extremely perceptive and empathetic, or he is able to reproduce on paper what he had previously read (the latter is a much more likely explanation).

This was one of the early compositions Andre wrote in p1, based on four pictures depicting an accident (spelling and other errors are his):

One fine morning, I went downstairs to play with my freinds. I played soccer.

When my team was winning, the soccer ball rolled to the road. I went to get the ball. When I almost reached the ball, a car was coming. The car excitedly heat me. My freinds were frantic. The driver in the car called the ambulance.

When my mother came down and she look at me. The driver said sorry, then my mother replied back. She said it's all right.

Strange language aside, he couldn't fathom how his mother might react - to him, that was perfectly reasonable behaviour. It was only when I walked him through the imaginary scenario ("if you're lying on the ground injured, what do you think I would say? Will I really say it's alright? What do you think daddy would do?"), then he thought for a bit and said, "I think daddy will kill the driver." LOL!

Andre is very imaginative so if left to his own devices, he can come up with off-the-wall content, as shared in an early post. What I've done is to expose him to compositions featuring a variety of common scenarios. Not for the sake of memorising them (which he wouldn't be able to do anyway) but for him to understand what are realistic behaviours and emotions in those situations. I've also found that talking him through the situations step by step helps him visualise them better, and this has improved the way he structures his stories.

At the end of the day, reading is the best way to hone writing skills, but I hope this post gives you some ideas on what you can do in the meantime, to help your kids improve their compositions.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Lessons from Earth Hour

This is a more detailed post on what happened during our observation of Earth Hour on Saturday. I found out that four of us in a small room makes for very strange conversations that no scriptwriter can ever dream up. Especially when we have our resident comedian, Andre.

Doing justice to the event, Lesley-Anne tried to explain the concept of global warming to Andre. There was a long garbled exchange between the 11-year-old conscientious environmentalist and the 8-year-old sotong. Part of it went something like this:

Lesley-Anne: When the power company makes electricity, it releases carbon dioxide.

Andre: You mean they can make electricity?

Lesley-Anne: Electricity is made, where do you think it comes from?

Andre: From the wires lah!

Kenneth: Right, just like milk comes from the refrigerator!

Me: When we want to use electricity, we turn on the switch and the electricity comes through the wires, but we have to pay for it.

Lesley-Anne: So when we use a lot of electricity, more carbon dioxide is released.

Andre: I don't know what is carbon dioxide!

Lesley-Anne: It's a type of gas, the type you breathe out. It creates a layer in the atmosphere and traps the heat.

Andre: I'm confused.

Lesley-Anne: Aiyah, the carbon dioxide makes the earth hot, that's why there's global warming!

Andre: Global warning?

Lesley-Anne: WARMING lah, not warning!

Kenneth: Actually, it's not just carbon dioxide...

Lesley-Anne: I know, there's also methane, which is from cows' farts.

Andre: HAH?!!

Kenneth: And do you know why some people don't want to eat meat?

Andre: Because the cow is smelly!!

Environment lesson fail! Kenneth suggested playing a word game, where we would tell a story with each person saying just three words at a time. It went something like this:

Me: Once upon a

Andre: time, there was

Lesley-Anne: a boy called

Kenneth: Andre who liked

Me: eating smelly cows.

Andre: Oy!! Everyday, he went

Lesley-Anne: to school with

Kenneth: Paul who also

Me: liked to eat

Andre: hamburgers and french fries.

(Me: That's four words!)

(Andre: no what, hamburgers and frenchfries!)

(Me: French fries is two words!)

Andre: ok, ok! hamburgers and fries.

Lesley-Anne: When they went

Kenneth: to eat hamburgers,

Me: their mothers shouted,

Andre: "This is disgraceful!"

(interruption due to laughter all around)

Lesley-Anne: It costs ten

Kenneth: sheep and goats.

Me: The boys said,

Andre (delightedly): "I love it!"

It turned out to be really fun and you can always count on kids' creativity to come up with something very unexpected. We also played one round where each one could only say one word at a time (this is easier) as follows:

Me: Once
Andre: upon
Kenneth: a
Lesley-Anne: time
Me: there
Andre: was
Kenneth: a
Lesley-Anne: mermaid
Me: who
Andre: hated
Kenneth: swimming.
Lesley-Anne: Everyday,
Me: she
Andre: ate
Kenneth: seaweed
Lesley-Anne: that
Me: tasted
Andre: poisonous.
Kenneth: Unfortunately,
Lesley-Anne: she
Me: fainted
Andre: happily
Kenneth: ever
Lesley-Anne: after.
Me: The
Andre: end.

If you're looking for an innovative way to occupy waiting time, especially in the car during long journeys, this is fun and easy - no preparations needed. Try it!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can we save the Earth in air-con comfort?

Yesterday at 8.30pm was Earth Hour. If you don't know what that is, Earth Hour is an international event organised by the WWF which calls for households and businesses around the world to turn off non-essential lights and electrical appliances for one hour to raise awareness on the need for action to stop climate change. Earth Hour is held on the last Saturday of March each year.

Flashback to about a week ago when a flyer for Earth Hour arrived in the mail.

Me: What's that?

Kenneth: Earth Hour, supposed to turn off lights for one hour.

Lesley-Anne (self-professed tree hugger): Let's do it!

Me: Hmm... I guess I can still play computer games in the dark.

Andre: Ok, I can watch tv.

Kenneth: Cannot lah, you're supposed to turn off all electricity!

Me: What? I thought it's just lights?

Andre (alarmed): Hah? Cannot turn on air-con also?

Lesley-Anne: We're supposed to save the earth!

Me: Then what, we just sit around in the dark for one hour?

Andre: Without air-con?

Kenneth (reading the flyer): Oh, we're invited to go the shopping centre where the lights will be turned off for one hour.

Me: Then what, we all stand around in the dark for one hour?

Andre: Never mind, there got free air-con!

In the end, we dutifully sat in the bedroom in the dark with one lit candle. From 8.30-9.30pm, we played word games and had Lesley-Anne attempt to explain global warming to Andre... but with the air-conditioner on. Sorry, if you want Andre to join the revolution, you'll have to move him out of the tropics.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fun Chinese reading, thanks to Xiao Ding Dang

If you think Andre's English reading is dismal, wait till you hear about his Chinese. It's practically non-existent - limited to his school textbooks and assessment books. Once in three weeks, we go to the library and we'll borrow a whole armful of English books, plus the cursory Chinese book thrown in for good measure (and out of guilt). By the time the books are due, we'll be lucky if he even picked up the Chinese book, let alone read it.

Of course we parents are at fault too, Chinese is Kenneth's duty and he has so far only focused on getting homework and tuition work done. You probably can tell the lack of priority by the fact that this is the first and only post on Chinese since I started my blog half a year ago.

Chinese is just not my favourite topic - it's like a foreign language to me. This is despite having scored B grades at 'O' and 'AO' level Chinese, which only reinforces my belief that the Singapore system rewards those with exam skills because I say this in all honesty - that my pathetic standard of Chinese is somewhere between the p2 and p3 levels. I am a living example that the old methods of teaching Chinese HAVE FAILED. I sometimes hear people who complain about the new methods, that they place too much emphasis on hanyu pinyin or rely too much on English, yadda yadda. I think it's just the usual rejection of anything new and inclinations to hang on to tradition. To me, anything is an improvement on past methods which relied purely on rote learning, memorising and killed any love of the language. Kenneth took Chinese as a first language for 10 years, he was from a SAP school. Now, he communicates haltingly with the tuition teacher and his conversations are sprinkled with English. FAIL!

Just as I'm keen to improve Andre's standard of English through reading, I think it's important to foster his love of Chinese via reading Chinese books. The problem is Andre views this as work - reading + Chinese = double whammy. So when Adeline told me about the Xiao Ding Dang comics, I immediately grabbed at the opportunity to ask her to buy them for me.

Here they are, six volumes of Xiao Ding Dang comics for only about $4.80 each (why is it that Chinese books are generally so much cheaper than English books?) When I first showed them to Andre, he went "yay!" and then, "hah? why not in English?" At first, he only looked at the pictures, then later I made him read the Chinese and it wasn't too painful (after he'd gotten the hang of reading up and down, from right to left). The Chinese is pitched at just the right level - for lower primary so he knows most of the words (more than me *blush*). Plus the comics are in full colour and the stories are so funny. Here's one where everything from a book comes alive and Xiao Ding Dang and Da Xiong have to deal with a giant mammoth.

Of course I know that he can't just rely on reading comics forever but this is one small step towards cultivating an interest in the Chinese language. Thanks a million, Ad!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Holiday reading... and a breakthrough

During the one-week March holidays, my kids got more reading done than usual. This was a conscious effort on my part because I'd been feeling that my kids don't spend enough time reading. Lesley-Anne because her schedule is always so packed and Andre because he lacks interest.

So during the holidays, I made the kids fit "reading time" into their timetables (I find that with my kids, if I specifically pencil something in instead of vaguely leaving it to "when you're free", it's much more likely to get done.)

Finding books for Andre has always been a perplexing task for me - he just isn't interested in reading. I find that this seriously handicaps him in his use and comprehension of the English language. Then at a recent family gathering, Kenneth's niece said she stumbled upon this series of books that her son loves. Her son is a year younger than Andre and also dislikes reading, so I was instantly all ears. The series is Beast Quest by Adam Blade. It's about a boy who goes on a quest to free the Magical Beasts of Avantia which have been enchanted by the evil wizard Malvel.

So during the holidays, I borrowed one of the books from the library and guess what? I couldn't believe it - Andre was so engrossed he overshot his allotted reading time and finished the book in one sitting. After that, he recounted the story to me very enthusiastically and asked if I could get my hands on the other books in the installment. Wah! Tio beh pio (touch lottery).

The appeal is that it is in the fantasy genre with lots of imaginative monsters and creatures that boys just love, and the writing is simple and easy to understand, unlike most other fantasy books. That night, we went to Borders but they were practically all sold out of Beast Quest, it's that popular. They had only two titles left - I bought one and get this, Andre offered to pay for the other himself out of his savings. Later that week, we bought another two from the Popular Expo sale.

The thing is, I'm reluctant to buy too many of them because it's a very expensive endeavour. There are a total of five Quests in the series with six books in each Quest, so that makes it a total of 30 books (and that's at last count, I believe the author is still churning them out). Plus each story is very short so it's not really value for money. So we've decided to borrow them instead, from Kenneth's niece who has generously agreed to lend whatever her son has.

Lesley-Anne too caught up with her reading during the one-week holidays. She was browsing through my library and caught sight of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I didn't recommend this in the past because I don't think it's that great (even though I went on to collect the whole series just because I'm obsessive that way). To my surprise, she was so absorbed in the series that she devoured all 13 books before the holiday ended. Which is a reminder for me that I should keep an open mind when it comes to my kids' reading.

She's currently very taken with a book that I highly recommend: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It's basically a holocaust story tracing the life of Liesel, an abandoned German girl, but it's told in an extremely imaginative way - from the point of view of Death. The theme that runs across the book is the use of colours as imagery, and the deaths of people are seen by Death as certain colours depending on the sky. Interestingly, Death is not portrayed as sinister but as a perceptive figment going about doing its job. It even comments that it is "haunted by humans". Beautifully written - two thumbs up for this book.

Reading has slowed down again, now that school has resumed but the progress over the holidays has been very encouraging. For Andre especially, it's delightful to see him engrossed in a book other than Tintin. Hope this inspires you to persevere with your reading efforts, mummies!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Giving back

For many years, the word "volunteer" would make me shudder. Strange? This was because when I was working in the arts industry, part of my job was managing volunteers and I will outrightly say that this was one of the tasks I disliked the most.

It was the hypocrisy that grated, most of all. Although I can't generalise this to all, many of the volunteers were expat wives or tai tais with egos to match the size of their bling. Their primary motivation for volunteering was far from altruistic - it was to be seen and their activities evolved around getting the most public recognition for themselves. Instead of helping, they often created more unnecessary work for already loaded admin staff and the bitching.. oh, the bitching! It was so traumatic for me it almost made volunteerism a bad word in my books.

In recent years however, I had to acknowledge that my experience was not a valid reason for not volunteering. Giving back to society is an intrinsic part of being human. It reinforces the notion that we are obliged to help our fellow human beings or contribute to a larger cause like education, the arts or the environment. It keeps us from being self-centred - something we're already inclined to be in this greedy, material world - and in the process of serving, hopefully it makes us better people. I wanted my kids to learn this and so I needed to set the example myself.

Volunteerism involves some form of giving. But I think some people mistake this to mean sacrifice. I don't really buy that. Ok, when you see someone in need, you should respond if you can, even if you don't really like it. But in general, volunteerism comes in many forms - if you don't enjoy being around kids, you don't have to volunteer to help out at an orphanage, for example. No one is asking you to be a martyr. To me, the best way to volunteer is to give of what you enjoy doing, that might help someone. This idea is upheld in the bible:

"Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." - 2 Cor 9:7

So when I made a conscious decision to volunteer last year, I checked out the National Volunteer & Philanthropic Centre online e-match service. It's very useful - you can choose to volunteer by cause, activity, beneficiaries and even location, so you can work around your interests and schedule. I wanted to work for youths as I like kids and it turned out that one of the youth organisations needed a writer for their newsletters and website. Hey, I can do that! So that's how I got started.

I also practise Corporate Social Responsibility under my business. Not much admittedly, but when I get requests for writing by non-profit organisations, I usually do them at discounted rates. One such organisation was the National Parks Board and I wrote a brochure for their Plant-A-Tree Programme which I'm taking the opportunity to highlight here. If you're looking for a volunteering opportunity that you can do with your kids, this is a very worthwhile venture. For just a mere $200, your whole family can plant a tree at one of the local parks. You are sending a direct message on the importance of preserving the environment and the act of planting the tree, not just giving money, makes you an active participant in caring for nature.

Some people mistakenly believe that they need special talent to be a volunteer or that giving has to be in a big way. Not at all. Last Sunday's sermon at church was a timely reminder of the widow's gift of two mites (Luke 21:1-4). She gave quietly and generously. Because of that, her simple gift was more appreciated and blessed than the fancy donations flaunted by the Pharisees. No need for flashy gestures. As long as they're sincere and from the heart, even the simplest gift or service will count.

The talented George Michael released Praying For Time in 1990 - a poignant song which laments social apathy and injustice. Carrie Underwood, one of the past American Idol winners, gave a powerfully moving and gut-wrenching performance on the show last year as part of Idol Gives Back. Funny, I didn't like Carrie when she was a contestant but after she'd won, she really came into her own and wowed me as a singer. How far this farmer girl has come!

Anyway, I'm posting this video in the hope that it will further inspire you to give back in your own way. Do listen to the song, it's beautiful. The lyrics are posted below.

These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers
This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we'll take our chances
Cos God's stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all God's children
Crept out the back door

And it's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time

This is the year of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year
These are the days of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is over here

So you scream from behind your door
Say "what's mine is mine and not yours"
I may have too much but I'll take my chances
Cos God's stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things they sold you
Did you cover your eyes when they told you
That he can't come back
Cos he has no children to come back for

And it's hard to love when there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Play at your own Risk!

Risk - a game of world conquest, the ultimate test of military strategic prowess. Or so claims Parker Brothers.

Last night, we brought out our old game that had been languishing in the storeroom and introduced it to the kids for the first time. We thought we might need to give chance a bit, since the kids were greenhorns. Never happened - we were too busy trying to save our own skins.

Kenneth, the old pro at Risk, was the first to succumb, so malu. Next, Lesley-Anne fought valiantly over war-torn Asia but in vain. Kenneth tried to advise Andre to fortify his troops instead of battling down to his last man, but the advice fell on deaf ears - Andre was on a crazed rampage for world domination and no one, least of all his daddy, was going to stop him. Every country conquered was greeted with an evil cackle worthy of Hannibal Lector.

Africa, Europe, South America - one by one the continents fell like dominoes to the 8-year-old dictator. Finally, I was the last bastian of freedom, desperately defending North America but to no avail as bloodthirsty Napolean steamrolled over me with an uncanny, unrelenting stream of sixes on the dice. White flag.

Strategy, my foot. Plan all you want - it boils down to pure, dumb luck which Andre always seems to have an abundant supply of. "This is FUN!" he declared gleefully. I'm sure Hitler thought so too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Imagine if you were a cartoon character...

Since it is the one week school holidays afterall (or what's left of it), here's a post on games.

There's a terrific board game that we love to play with family and friends called Imaginiff. A friend helped us buy this from US, it's not available in Singapore, except maybe from specialty stores.

This is how you play: A set of names is chosen, usually of all the players and friends that don't even have to be present. At each turn, a name is chosen as the subject. You pick a card which has six possible answers, for example, "Imaginiff _____ were a musical instrument. What would he/she be? (1) Triangle (2) Bagpipes (3) Electric Guitar (4) Saxophone (5) Violin (6) Organ. Which would he/she be?". Insert the subject's name. Each player picks an answer and those who have picked the most popular answer get to move forward.

This is a hilarious social game especially if you are the subject because you get to see what everyone thinks of you (and it often doesn't match what you think of yourself!) Some of the questions are downright wacky, like "Imaginiff _______ were a body part" or "Imaginiff ______ were a cartoon character". Once, we had Andre as the subject and the question was, "Imaginiff Andre were a car part. (1) Steering wheel (2) Accelerator (3) Brake (4) Horn (5) Engine (6) Reverse signal. Which would he be?" Andre picked Accelerator, the rest of us chose Horn. Meaning he sees himself as quick, whereas everyone else saw him as loud. When we play this with my sister, she often wins, which indicates that she's the most socially astute among us.

This game usually results in plenty of laughs (and protests!) and often leads to side discussions that are rather enlightening. When asked what type of dog breed my kids are, I said Lesley-Anne was a spaniel ie dainty and sweet (left pic) and Andre was a Jack Russell terrier ie hyper and mischievous (right).

This game is very versatile, Andre could successfully play this at age 7 although some of the cards might be too difficult for young kids to understand. The game is also skewed towards American culture which may be lost on Asians. No biggie, we just take another card. If you're looking for a great board game that is fun, easy to learn, non-competitive (winning isn't the main objective) and socially meaningful, this is it. It gets a 5-star recommendation from me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A picture of poise and grace

Warning: image heavy post!

So this week, in addition to Andre's piano exam, Lesley-Anne had her Grade 4 ballet exam. (Holiday? What holiday??) I didn't grow up learning ballet, so when Lesley-Anne started going for ballet exams, it was a complete surprise to me that so much work went into preparations on the day of the exam itself.

We had to be there an hour before the exam time. First - hair. Getting the hair into a perfect bun takes a good 20 minutes. It's held up by a tonne of gel and hair spray, and some 16 hair pins. (See all the products on the table?)

By the time it's done, not a strand is moveable even if she did a series of cartwheels. It takes two thorough shampoos to release the bun after.

Next, shoes. By Grade 4, the girls wear ribbon shoes and these have to be tied perfectly so that they don't come loose during the exam. Here's Lesley-Anne's teacher applying her expert skills.

Then it's last minute brushing of shoes and ironing of character skirts to ensure that everything is picture perfect.

There's just something about ballet that makes it such an alluring subject for art and photography. I suspect that's why it's such a favourite among masters like Degas - even unposed, ballerinas generally look angelically graceful and elegant.

Before exams, Lesley-Anne's ballet teacher usually gets the girls to pose for pictures. This series of pictures are of Lesley-Anne's exam group. They look happy and their nerves didn't show at all (believe me, they were nervous!)

These next photos are with their character skirts and shoes.

I think you can tell these three girls are great friends.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

To teacher with love

It's time for the annual Parent-Teacher meeting again and this year, the school has instituted a group briefing instead of individual sessions. However, a few parents whom the teacher feels require an individual face-to-face session were notified. As you would have guessed, we received a summons from Andre's teacher... uh oh.

These meetings are never good news. Here's some of the less than desirable feedback we received about Andre:
  • He rushes through his work because his goal is to finish it quickly
  • His English vocabulary is weak
  • In English comprehension, he makes up answers not from the passage
  • He's competitive but only in PE
  • He doesn't file his work
  • He was told to bring a set of files in Week 5, he eventually only brought them in Week 10
  • He doesn't pay attention
  • He plays in class
  • His handwriting is so bad he confuses himself
  • His pencil is always blunt
Aiyoh. I'm just about ready to faint. But there is a silver lining and that's his teacher. This was the first time I'd met her and I found her to be fresh, earnest and enthusiastic. Most importantly, she obviously connects with Andre and wants to inspire him to do better, in spite of himself. She says he's imaginative, creative and she enjoys having him in her class, something I know more jaded teachers will never say. She believes in incentivising good work and I've seen her comments on his worksheets and journal - they're always encouraging and thoughtful.

It was also heartening to learn that Andre is one of the stronger ones in maths in his class and his English is average (bearing in mind though his is not the most academically-inclined class). Basically, his biggest issue is his attitude - his lack of interest in his studies means he doesn't apply himself and he performs below his potential. But it was somewhat comforting to know that at least it's not a question of ability - it's a question of motivation.

The down side of having a teacher Andre likes is that he's not afraid of her and completely takes advantage of her sunny nature. But I discovered that he's not entirely unsympathetic to his teacher's predicament, as evidenced by this conversation we had in the car on the way to the meeting.

Andre: Miss xx works very hard.

Me: Why do you say that?

Andre: Because there are 44 pupils in the class and it's mostly boys.

Me: Why is it harder to teach boys?

Andre: You know.

Me (amused): I don't know, you tell me.

Andre: Talk lah, play lah.

Me: So you're one of them.

Andre: Yah lah!

Me: That's not nice. Since she's kind to you, you should pay attention and listen to her.

Andre: Ok. (pause) This year passed so fast, it's March already.

Me: That's right.

Andre: When the teacher is nice, time goes by very quickly!

High praise indeed. Andre has been truly blessed this year.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Exam fever

Yesterday was Andre's theory exam and I'd been quite at ease as I knew he was prepared for it. His music teacher is quite ingenious - he came up with funny phrases to help Andre remember the corresponding major and minor keys, eg.

G major + E minor = Giant Elephants
F major + D minor = Fat Donkey

And Andre's personal favourite:

C major + A minor = Crazy Andre

Despite knowing that Andre was ready, in the morning before the exam, I suddenly experienced an irrational attack of exam anxiety and felt the urgent need to bombard him with instructions.

"Read the questions carefully."
"Check properly whether it says 'with key signature' or 'without key signature'."
"Do you have enough pencils?" (I hastily packed two extra ones, in addition to the two mechanical pencils already in his pencil case).
"Make sure you write dark enough."
"But don't keep going over the notes until they're messy!"
"If you erase your work, make sure you rub it away completely."
"Take a packet of tissue in case you need to blow your nose."
"Don't draw your notes too closely until they're joined together like Siamese twins."
"Don't draw your flat so round like a 'b'."
"What is con moto??"

This barrage continued unabated all the way to the exam centre, right to the door of the exam room.

"Remember to paste your name label on the paper."
"If you finish early, you can come out."
"But don't rush to come out! Take your time!"
"Wait for me at the corridor if I'm not here."
"If it's cold, wear your jacket."
"Do you need to go to the toilet?"
"Check your work properly!"

I was not the only restless parent. A few, after watching their kids find their seats through a small glass panel on the back door, proceeded to tap on the panel to get their kids' attention and mime last-minute instructions. It's a marvel our kids are able to retain anything - I'm sure after a while, they learn to tune our voices out like white noise.

I proceeded to the kopitiam to have my teh while waiting for Andre to finish his exam. And there, on a nearby chair, I saw this vision of jaunty carefreeness and total serenity.

It was mocking me: "Relak lah!"

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Creative English definitions

Someone emailed me this list, supposedly the latest in a yearly competition by the Washington Post. Trying to be the responsible blogger, I checked out the authenticity and turns out, it's fake. (In fact, it has been in circulation since 2005).

Nevertheless, it's creative and funny, so I'm publishing it, but no credits to Washington Post. You're supposed to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. This is the list:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus (n.): A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxication (n.): Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realise it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation (n.): Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Hindprint (n.): Indentation made by a couch potato.

7. Giraffiti (n.): Vandalism spray-painted very,very high.

8. Sarchasm (n.): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the Person who doesn't get it.

9. Inoculatte (v.): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Hipatitis (n.): Terminal coolness.

11. Karmageddon (n.): It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido (n.): All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect (n.): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The colour you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

18. Nazigator (n.): An overbearing member of your carpool.

Also check out this list of alternate meanings for common words:

1. Coffee (n.): The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted (adj.): Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate (v.): To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade (v.): To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Negligent (adj.): Absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph (v.): To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle (n.): Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence (n.): Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash (n.): A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Rectitude (n.): The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

12. Oyster (n.): A person who sprinkles his conversation with yiddishisms.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hooked on Classics

In honour of Andre's upcoming music exam, here's a post on classical music.

Many kids find classical music unpalatable, especially if they're hearing it for the first time. It's not instantly accessible like pop music. But classical music has wonderful benefits, one of them being it develops the mind. So if you want to expose your kids to classical music but their level of resistance is similar to that for green vegetables, I have three words for you: Hooked on Classics.

In 1981, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a very ingenious album which basically blended seamlessly together a series of highly recognisable tunes from classical music works, set to a distinctive pop beat. The recording was conducted by Louis Clark, former arranger for the Electric Light Orchestra.

The first cut of the album was so popular it actually reached No. 2 on the UK singles chart and No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981 and 1982. No mean feat considering these are pop music charts! The popularity of the album led to the release of two more Hooked on Classics albums in 1982 and 1983, followed by numerous spin-offs like Hooked on Swing.

Technically, they are not classical music albums because the beat is completely pop and they're too kitsch for true classical music fans. But in this respect, I'm no purist - I feel they are perfect for getting kids interested in classical music because the music is infectious and easy to catch on. It opens them to the possibility that classical music can be quite enjoyable, and that's half the battle won. I remember the albums paving my foray into classical music and Kenneth's too.

Recently, I downloaded the albums onto Lesley-Anne's handphone and she's... well, hooked. She has other pop music in there but she's addicted to Hooked on Classics. The best part is, the albums provide an entire list of the works that were extracted from, so they spark curiosity as to what the original pieces sound like. Lesley-Anne, after listening repeatedly to one of the tracks - Hooked on Tchaikovsky - said she wants to listen to the entire Swan Lake ballet suite.

Just as an example, the first track on the first album contains the following works:

Piano Concerto No 1 In B Flat Minor Op 23 / Tchaikovsky
Flight Of The Bumble Bee / Rimsky-Korsakov
Symphony No 40 In G Minor / Mozart
Rhapsody In Blue / Gershwin
Karelia Suite Op 11 / Sibelius
Symphony No 5 In C Minor Op 67 / Beethoven
Toccata In D Minor / JS Bach
Serenade No 13 In G Major - 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' / Mozart
Symphony No 9 In D Minor Op 125 / Beethoven
Overture To William Tell / Rossini
Le Nozze Di Figaro / Mozart
Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture / Tchaikovsky
Trumpet Voluntary / Clarke
Hallelujah Chorus / Handel
Piano Concerto In A Minor Op 16 / Grieg
March Of The Torreadors / Bizet
1812 Overture / Tchaikovsky

Some of the titles may not sound familiar, but I'm sure you'll be surprised at how many you can recognise. They've been used for anything from tv commercials to movie themes. You can hear it on this Youtube video (the sound isn't great though, remember, it's a 1981 recording!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rejecting gender stereotypes

I am a feminist. No, I don't burn bras and I don't hate men. Feminism has become sort of a dirty word, conjuring up images of brawny women who don't shave their armpits. Nothing could be further from the truth. What feminism is, is simply the belief that men and women should be treated equally (note: equal doesn't mean the same). This is a belief I've held for a long time, since I wrote my thesis on perspectives on equality for women way back in NUS, and I touched on my views briefly in this post.

I feel the need to write about this because it has great bearing on the way I bring up my kids. Don't get me wrong - I do recognise that there are inherent differences between men and women. Despite my determination to raise my kids as gender-neutral as possible, Lesley-Anne is as delicate and fastidious as the next girl and Andre naturally gravitates towards toy cars and soldiers. Nevertheless, gender differences tend to be magnified, so that men and women are often compared to as coming from different planets. In reality, men and women have more similarities than differences, as a human race.

An MCP friend of mine once argued, "It's like an apple and a pear! Men and women are not the same!" My retort was that an apple and a pear are both fruit - they have more in common than they are different.

The problem is that society plays up gender differences (even imagined ones) from the cradle. At the hospital, relatives coo over the new male baby "oh, he's so handsome!" and female infant "oh, she's so pretty!" when in reality, the only way they can tell the gender of that wrinkled bundle is from the colour of the swaddling blanket.

From a very young age, children understand the way they are expected to act in relation to their gender. When boys get into scrapes, they're often told, "Don't cry, you're a boy. Don't be a sissy." Girls hear "Why are you so dirty and untidy? You should be more ladylike." These gender stereotypes are reinforced if their parents have traditional roles, ie dad goes out to work, mum stays home to cook, clean and look after kids.

Once again, there is nothing wrong with these roles, but what I'm saying is that contrary to popular belief, many gender traits not inborn - they are learned. From examining the world around them, kids form their worldview and believe that this is the natural order of the universe. Which may not be a problem if the kids are able to accept these stereotypes in their own lives but the minute they encounter something contrary to what they have internalised, the inevitable angst will set it.

A boy who grows up thinking he should be tough and like tough guy stuff like sports is more likely to hide or smother his passion for music and theatre, for instance, or risk facing the wrath of his parents and ridicule of his peers. A girl who has Wall Street ambitions may feel they are unrealistic as her sole purpose in life as a woman is to be a good wife and mother.

In both scenarios, you will have unhappy children who are more likely to grow up to be unfulfilled adults because they have conformed to societal norms against their hearts' callings. Worst case, they will feel that there is something inherently wrong with them because they are not able to embrace their roles like other "normal" people.

Gender stereotypes have real consequences. Women have struggled with issues of a glass ceiling, menial labour and unequal pay for decades. Men have not had it easy either, mostly with having to live up to expectations of what constitutes being a "man". Like this phrase, "but if I let my son play with dolls, he will grow up gay!" My personal view is that if that's his inclination, forbidding him to play with dolls will not prevent it from coming true. All you'll end up with is one in the closet or worse, one that pretends to be otherwise and lives a lie as an unsatisfactory husband and father (there are many of these out there). If he doesn't have the inclination in the first place, playing with 10 Barbies will not "turn" him. What is more likely to be true is that if you fill your son with all that macho BS, he'll probably grow up to be a jerk.

Whether you have a son or a daughter, both will benefit from a loving family that teaches responsibility, honesty, independence and respect for others. These cut across gender issues. As far as possible, I try to instil in my kids that they can be anything they want to be (unless like in the Baby Blues comic, they want to be giant carnivorous lizards) - they should not be hampered by myopic gender roles narrowly defined by society. In this day and age, I still hear comments like, "it's not so important for her to be smart, she's a girl." Hang on a minute as I throw this Barbie doll at you.

It's difficult because we're still living in the backdrop of an Asian patriarchal society, although mindsets are slowly changing. So even though I try to imbibe gender equality in my kids, it's an uphill battle. Last year, Andre told me one of the girls in his class played soccer with him and a group of boys. Instead of therefore acknowledging that girls can play soccer too, as I'd hoped, he said, "she's not really a girl." (It was meant to be a compliment.) We may laugh but when you think about it, we adults are guilty of this as well. If we see someone not behaving according to our ideas of what men and women should do, do we consider the possibility that our perception might be wrong or do we dismiss that person as perhaps possessing some "faulty" biological wiring?

It's a philosophy worth fighting for and I will continue to treat both my son and my daughter equally. They have the right to equal opportunities to pursue their dreams - Andre shouldn't get priority over Lesley-Anne just by the mere fact that he's a boy... nor vice versa. And that's what being a feminist means.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

If music is a universal language, why do we need to study Italian terms?

In less than a week, Andre will be sitting for his Grade 2 theory exam for piano. For the most part, he's ready... except for them dastardly Italian terms. For those not in the know, since Western classical music was mostly composed in Italian centuries ago, the expressions for describing how the music should be played are usually in Italian (or French or German, but in the lower grades, you only need to learn Italian terms). Which might not be a problem for ang moh kids but for a little Hokkien boy in Singapore, it might as well be Greek.

Taking theory exams growing up, I never liked learning the Italian terms but I don't remember having quite so much difficulty. Lesley-Anne too, managed reasonably well. But Andre just can't seem to wrap his mind around them. Part of the problem is that his English is shaky to begin with. Take these Italian terms and their meanings:

Maestoso - Majestically
Brio - Vigour
- Sustained

Andre hasn't the faintest idea what the English words mean, let alone the Italian ones. So when he's learning the terms, he actually has to memorise BOTH the Italian terms and their accompanying meanings in English. Which really defeats the purpose, in my opinion. Imagine if he comes across a piece of music which states Maestoso, he won't have the slightest clue how to play that piece majestically, even if he remembers that's what it means. (Now, if Mozart and Beethoven both spoke Singlish, things would've been so much less complicated - "Don't so hurry lah!")

Take these three terms, for example: Allargando, Allegretto, Accelerando. They mean "broadening out", "lively, fast" and "getting faster" respectively. To Andre, they're all long words that start with the letter 'A'. Unpronounceable and indistinguishable. As with Rallentando, Ritardando and Ritenuto. (Actually, you should hear him try to say the Italian, it's like a hysterical mix of Japanese and Tamil. His "Allegretto" sounds suspiciously like "Arigato". The Italians would have a fit.)

That's not the end of it. His teacher has written out all the Italian terms he has to know and even as we're struggling with those, I compared them with those in Lesley-Anne's old theory book and found at least a dozen other words that are not on the list. A quick check with the teacher revealed that he only provided the ones that are often tested - he didn't give the full list because Andre couldn't even remember the more common ones.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When all else fails, resort to exam skills (we're not Singaporeans for nothing!) I've told Andre that if the exam paper throws up an Italian term he's not familiar with, look at the piece of music. If it has many minims and crotchets (long notes), write "slow". If it has many quavers and semi-quavers (short notes), write "fast". At least he'll have a slim chance of getting it right.

Fine. (The end).

Monday, March 9, 2009

The responsibilities of a blogging mum

There’s something very ego-boosting about having your own blog and knowing that you have readers. It’s like publishing your own little newspaper. But with publishing comes responsibility. Unlike a newspaper, anyone can start their own blog, so the difference is that with blogging, the responsibility lies with us.

I'm not talking about the responsibility to be politically correct. Blogging provides a relatively open platform for freedom of speech (of course in Singapore, there's still a limit but generally, you can say what you want). I'm talking about two main types of responsibility - responsibility to readers and as a blogging mum, responsibility to our kids.

The written word is very powerful. When something appears on print, its legitimacy is immediately heightened. You know I have many (opinionated) views on parenting and the education system. I've shared many of these with my friends for years but once I started blogging about them, it seemed like my views suddenly held more weight and more authority. Many mothers blog. Some blog purely about what their kids are doing, as a sort of journal, others zoom in on specific issues like maths or child-rearing methods. Mine is a rojak mix of everything. Where I sometimes feel the need to pause before I say something is in those commentary-type posts, where I state my viewpoint on an issue. Will this statement trigger an undesirable outcome? Will it make another mother feel less secure about herself? It's not about whether others agree with me, we can agree to disagree. It's about whether it helps or hinders someone else in her own parenting journey.

I read somewhere that a blog is not a book, it is a broadcast. The minute you stop writing, people stop reading, so the blogger is under some pressure to keep writing. Subconsciously now, I'm always on the look out for blogging opportunities. In doing so, I have to remember that I have a big responsibility to my kids when blogging. When you're writing not about fictitious people but your own kids, what you say has a real impact on them. Especially if your kids read your blog, like mine. It's like a window into their mother's thoughts - they can see themselves from my eyes. So sometimes, I have to be censor what I say because I need to protect their self-esteem and their privacy.

This is not to say that I will only write about their strengths and not their faults. In my opinion, blogs that only gush about how perfect their kids are, are boring and artificial. What I'm saying is that different kids have different sensitive points. When Lesley-Anne saw me taking a photo of her worn-out school shoes, she immediately panicked and screeched, "Why must you blog about that? It's so embarrassing! They will laugh at me!" Of course she didn't trust that I wouldn't openly embarrass her, when she saw the eventual post, she realised there was nothing incriminating in it. Whereas Andre, when he heard his sister's outburst, sidled up to me and said conspiratorially, "Mummy, you can blog about me, I don't mind."

So, mothers, blog away! But take the cue from your kids, whether they're shrinking violets or attention seekers, and adjust your words and volume accordingly.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lesley-Anne's meticulous art

Unfortunately, I don't seem to have Lesley-Anne's early drawings. I remember she doodled quite a bit, but what did I do with them??

Lesley-Anne has always loved art. When she was much younger, she would make cards and pictures as gifts. Unlike Andre, she pays attention to details. Like a flower can't be just a flower, it must be a specific type of flower. When she draws, it tends to be small, detailed items with lots of blank space. She also bothers to colour her pictures (Andre finds colouring a waste of time).

Because of her interest, we used to bring her to drawing and colouring competitions. This is one that she did for a drawing competition held at our estate when she was 6. She was supposed to depict our estate. She took it literally - only our estate, no people! I remembered asking her why the building was so small and the butterfly so big. She explained, "the building is far away lah." Oh I see... perspective. She got third prize for it (granted the competition wasn't very stiff lah). The colours are a lot more vibrant in real life than my sucky camera could show.

This one was for the HSBC art competition the following year. The participants had to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. She didn't win anything but it was quite fun and I thought it was very nice of HSBC to make miniature copies of the drawings for the kids to take home. Here is the picture. Lesley-Anne drew herself as a zookeeper and in the corner, she's feeding a crocodile with very large teeth. Notice how she allocated a large space to the snake enclosure - for some strange reason, that was her favourite animal exhibit at the zoo back then.

This next one she drew for me a couple of years ago and I love the thought behind it. If you can't read it, the title is "Uses for a Hedgehog" and there are four. The first picture shows a hedgehog being used as a holder for candied apples, the second is a quill as a needle (with the words "Hey! I'm missing a spine!" and "Note: Don't take the spine out of a hedgehog who counts its spines at night"). The third is as a pen and the words "Again, don't take it from a hedgehog who counts its spines". Fourth is a hedgehog breaking the world record for jumping and a speech bubble which says "He did it. He jumped over a block of flats."

Finally, this one on the right is part of a project she's doing now for school. She's supposed to sketch wetland creatures. Each creature has to be drawn in two ways - gesture, ie shaded to show the texture and flat style, ie clean lines to show details. I think her kingfisher drawings are still in progress.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Andre's functional art

Lilian requested for posts on scribble games, but I couldn't find any. I think we dumped them when we'd finished playing. So instead, I dug around for some of the drawings my kids have done. This post is on Andre's work, I will post Lesley-Anne's tomorrow.

This is the earliest "drawing" I have of Andre's. It was done when he was three and it's supposed to be a picture of mummy and daddy.

I don't know which is supposed to be me (I hope it's not the long faced one!) I also don't know why we're not smiling. I think he could only manage circles and straight lines then, he found it hard to manipulate the pencil to draw more complex shapes. But one thing I noticed about Andre's drawings is that he tends to draw big pictures that fill up the paper. That's still his style now.

His drawings are also what I call functional, ie he zooms in on the important stuff. His people tend to be stick figures because he can't be bothered with filling in the details. His focus is on the story that the picture is telling, aesthetics are a mere accessory. Like this one where he had to draw his favourite Olympic sport. No prizes for guessing what sport he chose! (He spent more time drawing the court and the net than the people... hey, they're playing doubles!)

Below is a recent drawing he did. I don't know what is it about kids that they must have the mandatory sun, clouds and birds when creating an outdoor scene. Anyway, this is a city drawing with traffic, skyscrapers... and giant birds. Sorry it's so faint, if you can't see the words, there's "Beap!" "Move!" and "I am trying!" Looks like there's a traffic jam.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Watch out! McDonaldisation in progress

The Straits Times yesterday reported that fast food chains are expanding in Singapore, in light of the recession. This is in line with trends in the West - in bad economic times, fast food popularity surges because the food is cheap compared to restaurants.

I see this is bad news all around, except for the fast food companies. Most parents have this vague notion that fast food is unhealthy, but apart from it containing lots of fat, that's it. I mean, chicken rice and char guay teow are also extremely fattening, right? So what's the big deal? Well, let me introduce you to the evil empire that is fast food.

First, let me qualify that my reference to fast food is mostly burger joints, not the quick serve pasta or Japanese fast food places. In particular, I'm refering to McDonald's, the king of fast food. No need for me to go into the fat content in fast food - I guess you know already that it's high, especially in trans fats. I'll give you some other nuggets (haha!) of information.

Have you ever wondered why the McDonald's fries taste so good? It's because of their unique beef taste. Before 1990, McDonald's fries were fried in beef tallow which made them contain more beef fat than a hamburger. Following criticism over the cholesterol in the fries, McDonald's switched to vegetable oil but they also added an artificial beef flavour made entirely from chemicals to replicate the taste.

The worst thing you can order at McDonald's though, has to be chicken McNuggets. They're popular because they're easy to chew and appear to be healthier than other items since they're made of chicken. Well, get this. Researchers found that McNuggets too contain more fat per ounce than a hamburger. The same "beef flavour" added to fries is added to McNuggets to give them the yummy aroma. But the worst part is this: according to the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, McNuggets are made from mashed up parts of genetically modified chicken with unusually large breasts. These chickens are stripped down to the bone, and then "ground up in to a chicken mash then combined with a variety of stabilizers and preservatives, pressed into familiar shapes, breaded and deep fried, freeze dried, and then shipped to a McDonald's near you." If you read the raw ingredients listing on the wholesale packaging of McNuggets, chicken breast accounts for less than 50% of the product.

If you've never watched Super Size Me, I recommend you do. It will scare the living daylights out of you. You can watch the video here. As part of a social experiment, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate exclusively McDonald's food for a month, super sizing his meal every time he was asked. Before the experiment started, he consulted three doctors, a nutritionist and personal trainer. All of them said the experiment would have some impact of the body but thought it wouldn't be too drastic as the human body was very adaptable.

After five days, Spurlock gained 4.5kg and reported feeling depressed and lethargic, which he said was relieved by a McDonald's meal. One doctor described him as "addicted". Three weeks in, Spurlock experienced heart palpitations, at which point his doctors started expressing concern over his health. By the end of the experiment, Spurlock had gained over 11kg and sustained IRREVERSIBLE LIVER DAMAGE. In just one month. All three doctors were surprised at the degree of deterioration in Spurlock's health. Fast food companies have slammed his experiment saying that hardly anyone eats McDonald's three meals a day, everyday. In his own defence, Spurlock theorised that his diet is typical of the amount of fast food an average American would eat over eight years.

Spurlock also took issue with the way McDonald's targets young children with ads. McDonald's spends approximately US$1.4 billion annually on advertising, most of which is directed at young kids. This view is mirrored in the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist. In the book, Schlosser states that the Golden Arches are more widely recognised as a symbol by American children than the Christian cross, and Ronald McDonald more than Jesus. In Australia, a survey showed that Ronald McDonald is viewed by half the country's 9 and 10 year-olds as the ultimate authority on what they should eat. As Spurlock says, if you look closely, Ronald McDonald is not wearing a smile, he's wearing a smirk.

McDonald's operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the US, and the fast food industry competes for marketing partnerships with toy companies, sports leagues and Hollywood studios - all to entice children, parents and grandparents to their outlets. It is insidious, it is calculated, it is deliberate. It strives to create that feel-good factor among young kids whose food preferences are still forming, so that they associate happiness with a meal at McDonald's. An experiment showed that when kids were given two lots of identical fries but one presented in a McDonald's wrapper and the other in a plain wrapper, all the kids said the McDonald's one tasted better. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's has been quoted as saying, "A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald's gives us two more customers."

The fast food industry is a multi-billion dollar one. It is so large and powerful that it influences whole sectors of the economy. It lobbies for fast food to be sold in US schools, for a relaxation in food safety testing by the FDA. It hires people on the lowest rungs of the workforce - migrant workers, the uneducated, teenagers, the elderly, which makes it appear magnanimous because it provides employment. But really, the motivation is purely monetary. It gets cheap labour, often at minimum wage, and in the US, the employees at the slaughterhouses for the fast food industry are working in what Schlosser describes as the "most dangerous job". They get no benefits and serious injuries are rife. Injuries often don't get reported, injured workers get their pay cut and are shipped out as fast as the next batch of workers can be brought in.

I'm not naive enough to propose that you abstain from fast food completely. God knows we too go to McDonald's once in a while, and Andre loves it. But moderation is the operative word. And I personally believe that moderation is once or twice a month at the most, not once or twice a week. If cost is the reason, there really is no excuse in Singapore because eating out is relatively cheap here. A bowl of wanton noodles and a drink at the coffee shop cost less than a McDonald's meal (and it's much healthier too). If it's because fast food has become comfort food, just remember that with every bite of that burger, you are endorsing a whole ideology that is not as sunshiney as Ronald would have you believe.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Teething troubles

A few of us mothers were discussing the issue of teeth and how to get our kids to visit the dentist without fear. Afterall the fear of dentists is one of the most prevalent phobias, right up there with the fear of public speaking.

I think in Singapore, the fear of dentists can be attributed largely to those very fierce female dentists at the Institute of Dental Health. I remember lying prone in the chair, bright spotlight blaring in my face and a very sharp implement in my mouth. All I could see was a face with a white mask over the mouth and eyes that narrowed with disapproval every time a cavity was found. This would be accompanied by an endless verbal onslaught of how carelessly I'd neglected to brush and floss, making me wish I just could spit out all the gunk and make a run for it (I probably would have if I wasn't so terrified and immobilised).

Going to the dentist during my childhood was a dreaded yearly ritual for me, so I was determined not to let my kids undergo the same ordeal. My current dentist is a super nice guy - he's soft-spoken, gentle and reassuring. Upon his advice, I would bring Lesley-Anne and Andre to him when I went for my checkup, just so they could get used to going to the dentist. They both started going when they were about 3 and he would chat with them, get them to open their mouths and take a look, maybe squirt some water to show that there was nothing to worry about.

But despite all that, Lesley-Anne still developed a fear of dentists. When she was 6, she had to have a little filling and I could see her clutching the side of her chair the whole time. I blame it squarely on the scary, ear-piercing drill. Come on, it sounds like it can penetrate your skull, hard to imagine what it's actually doing to a little piece of enamel!

Once your kids hit primary school, their basic dental problems are taken care of by the school's dental clinic and nurse. This is great news for me as they usually handle all the small stuff like extractions, polishing and minor fillings, so no need for private dental visits. Or so I thought. When Lesley-Anne had a shaky tooth and the permanent one impatiently on the way, we still had to bring her to our dentist, who sweet-talked her and slathered on strawberry flavoured anesthetic before gently extracting the culprit. That'll be $30, thank you.

Andre, on the other hand, surprised me. He has no such qualms about dentists. He didn't understand why all his friends feared the dental checkup and volunteered to go first. In p1, he had two shaky teeth and was whining about how difficult it was to chew his food. I made a passing comment that he should go to his school dentist to have them taken care of. That evening when he came home from school, I was startled when he handed me his two teeth in a little bag. It seems he had nonchalantly made a trip to the dental clinic at recess and said, "My two teeth are shaky, please pull them out for me." Whaaa...t?? Even Kenneth was impressed. Best part, it's free!

I'm resigned to my kids having a long-term relationship with the dentist. Both of them have large teeth and small mouths, never a good combination. Their teeth also seem to be free spirits, sprouting from wherever they feel like it, so braces are inevitable. Ah well, we've still got a few more years, so time to start saving up now.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Big feet, little feet

No, these were not the pair of shoes cast in Jack Neo's movie Home Run, in which the kids had to wear worn-out school shoes because their parents were too poor to buy them new ones.

These belong to Lesley-Anne - they're in this state because her parents were too cheap to buy new ones and were hoping that she could make them last her final year in primary school. Alas, this was not to be. It's like hoping your final remaining piece of wrapping paper will be enough to wrap that very last Christmas present. There's a phrase for it - I think it's called Fat Hope.

You might think we're terrible parents but I know for a fact that this is a very common practice. It's part and parcel of being kiam siap in Singapore. Some primary school kids are inadvertent casualties of this phenomenon - p1 kids drowning in super-sized uniforms (far-sighted parents in anticipation of growth spurts) and p6 kids in fashionably short and faded uniforms (parents reluctant to buy new ones with just a year to go). Lesley-Anne says her classmate keeps tripping over her own feet because she's wearing shoes two sizes too big. So clearly, pragmatism trumps dignity with Singaporean parents.

Actually, Lesley-Anne has had a pretty good record in getting our money's worth when it comes to school supplies. She generally makes one pair of school shoes last at least an entire year, and they usually need to be replaced only because she has outgrown them, not because the shoes are spoilt. Andre is a whole different story, wearing out five pairs of shoes in two years. When he comes home from school, his shoes are usually in an appalling condition - scruffy and dirty. His excuse? It's hard to keep your shoes clean while playing soccer at recess.

Likewise, I had to replace his school uniforms within a year as most of them had pen marks (permanent, of course!) To be fair, he also couldn't fit into them anymore. When the year started, his school shorts were so loose that they sometimes fell off his hips when he ran. By the year's end, he had grown so tubby around the middle that he could barely button his shorts without cutting off his blood circulation. In comparison, you probably won't believe it when I tell you Lesley-Anne could still wear her p1 school uniform (still in pristine condition) when she was in p4.

Last year alone, Andre managed to rip four school bags. If Lesley-Anne's account is right, apparently some boys have found an ingenious way to avoid carrying their heavy bags - just kick them down the stairs. At one point, we threatened to make Andre carry his books in a plastic bag.

So anyway, back to Lesley-Anne's shoes. We lost the gamble on this one - she received spanking new school shoes over the weekend. Do you know if Jack Neo is making a sequel to Home Run? I'm happy to donate her old pair.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Easy and scrumptious shepherd's pie

I'm no cook. But I do have a few fail-safe recipes for Western food, which my kids love. You probably know me by now, cooking is one of my lowest priorities, above cleaning and below playing computer games. So my recipes tend to be as simple as possible, which is not that easy a task considering I have four (including myself) very discerning eaters at home.

I'm sharing this recipe for shepherd's pie - it's quite a constant in my household and is a great one-dish meal.

First, fry up 600g of minced beef or pork (we usually use a combination) with onions. If you like, you can marinate the meat with a little salt and pepper beforehand.

Then, and here's the secret - take a bottle of 10oz Prego Pasta Sauce, pour about a quarter of the contents into the minced meat, stir and let it simmer until the sauce is nicely absorbed by the meat.

If you are crying "cop out!", let me say this: by all means, you slave over your home-made tomato sauce making sure you have the right combination and amounts of ingredients. Meanwhile, I pop open a bottle and have the remaining 45 minutes to play with my kids. And chances are my sauce will still taste as good as (if not better than) yours.

While the meat is simmering, mash about five potatoes. If you've never done homemade mashed potatoes, try it. It's not that difficult and its taste can never be replicated by that packet rubbish. Just boil or microwave the potatotes until you can poke a fork right through. Peel the skin, mash, add some salt, lots of milk and butter until the consistency is soft and creamy.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celcius. Place the meat mixture in a dish, spoon the mashed potato on top, sprinkle paprika on top and bung it in the oven. Cook for 20 minutes.

Tah-dah! Serve hot with side garden salad if you wish. Always a family favourite and great for parties.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...