Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Math Challenge to parents

When I heard the news that the swine flu has become pandemic, I turned to Kenneth and asked, "If it spreads and schools have to close, will that mean there's no PSLE? Then all the kids this year can have a free pass to sec. 1!"

See how deluded I've become? Well, rather than wait for that pipedream to turn into reality, here's a better suggestion: prepare your kids for the eventuality. And by prepare, I don't necessarily mean teach. I mean prepare them psychologically and emotionally and most importantly, support them.

The best form of empathy is to walk in the footsteps of the other person and that's what Lilian and I did. Well, Lilian did it first. She actually printed out the Nanyang Primary School p6 prelim math paper 2007 and DID the paper. Then she urged me to do the same, which I did, based on allocated time and everything.

Guess how we performed? I amassed a dismal score of 73/100. Even more mortifying, I made four careless mistakes (the thing I'm always nagging Lesley-Anne about!!) which cost me 8 valuable marks. (I had to mention this because I'd like to think that I could have scored over 80/100 which wouldn't be quite so embarrassing.) I'll let Lilian decide whether she wants to reveal her score but here's a hint: she performed even worse than I did LOL (sorry Lilian!!) Her son Brian, on the other hand, managed to score 82/100 and mind you, this is without having ever attended formal math lessons on most of the p6 topics! Brilliant lah, Lilian. Luckily he's the one sitting for the exam, not you, hehe.

I learnt plenty from this exercise, mostly that when you have a time crunch, it's extraordinarily difficult to think clearly and it's all too easy to make careless mistakes, especially when you have very complex questions with multiple steps. I didn't have time to check - I had the grand total of 3 minutes left for the last problem sum which didn't matter anyway because there was no way I could have solved it. 5 marks out the window.

It is a very stressful and draining process, even more so for our kids because they know how much is at stake. So today, I'm issuing a Math Challenge, especially to parents whose kids are taking the PSLE this year - walk in the footsteps of your child. Since Lilian and I took the Nanyang Primary School p6 prelim math paper 2007, this can be a benchmark (plus I'm curious to know how other parents will fare!) You can print out the paper here. Give yourself 2 hrs 15 mins, no breaks. I'm even ok with giving you a handicap since some of you might protest that you're rusty when it comes to maths formulas - you're allowed to refer to your kids' p6 math textbooks.

Nanyang Primary School is one of the local primary schools known to have the toughest maths papers, so don't be discouraged if you can't do some of the sums. But I guarantee you that after that exercise, you will gain a newfound respect for what our 12-year-olds have to go through. And when you understand better how it feels to be them, I'm sure you'll be better able to guide and coach them in their education journey.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Are boys really better at math and girls at languages?

There's a common belief that boys are better at math than girls. Based on my personal experience with Lesley-Anne and Andre, I had accepted this old adage without question.

Well, guess what? A study by a team of scientists conducted on SAT and math scores from 7 million students in the US found that this belief is actually fiction, not fact. Whether they compared average performance, the scores of gifted children or students' ability to solve complex math problems, girls measured up to boys.

So why does this misconception persist? According to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, the study’s leader, cultural beliefs like this are “incredibly influential.” “Because if your mom or your teacher thinks you can’t do math, that can have a big impact on your math self concept.”

It makes sense. Sometimes when a friend of mine says her daughter is struggling with math, I spout this glib reply, "Girls lah, they're not as good in math." So slap me now because apparently, not only am I wrong, I'm reinforcing the stereotype and adding to the self-fulfilling prophecy of these young girls - "I can't do this math paper because I'm a girl, I'm not as good in math. I'm not as good in math, so I won't be able to do this math paper." Doh!

I think it has partly to do with our eagerness to embrace the left brain-right brain theory, ie boys are more inclined towards left-brain work (logical, analytical) and girls are more right-brained (creative). That's why along with the boys-are-better-at-math belief, we have the girls-are-better-at-languages theory.

But you know what? The part about girls being better at languages IS true, at least in the early years. Researchers have found that this is due to the way words are processed. Girls use the language decoding portion of their brains, enabling them to decipher abstract information. Boys however, rely more on vision and hearing to process information.

Doug Burman, an aneuroscientist at Northwestern University’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston explained, “For girls, it doesn’t matter whether you are reading or hearing the words, the information gets converted into an abstract meaning, an abstract thought. For boys, the research suggests it’s really going to be very important whether they’re hearing or reading words. That is going to determine how well they’re processing the language.” These results explain why girls consistently score higher than boys at language tests. But this advantage may taper off after secondary school.

While these findings warrant a separate post on catering to the different learning styles of boys and girls, for now, the lesson here is not to be so quick to dismiss your kids' learning difficulties as biological. Everyone is different. I guess I should have realised this from my own experience - I don't fall clearly under the right brian or left brain style. I'm reasonably good at math but suck at science. People tell me my English is pretty "powderful" but I couldn't learn Chinese to save my life.

So what does this mean? It means that human beings are so complex that we can't compartmentalise them into neat boxes. Even if something holds true for the vast majority, it may not hold true for us. We all have our unique strengths and weaknesses that are largely tied to our interests. If our kids are struggling in certain subjects, let's not be so quick to believe that these are beyond their abilities and instead, try to stir up interest in those subjects. Evidence has shown again and again that the kids who tend to do well eventually are not necessarily those who have the best talents but those who keep persevering.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Learning about Singapore's history under GEP

One of the significant differences between the GEP and mainstream curriculum is the former's focus on Social Studies. In the mainstream, Social Studies is relegated as one of those "soft" topics, like Health Education and Moral Education. From what I've heard, the exam paper consists of 20 multiple-choice questions and only covers a broad overview of the subject.

Under GEP, Social Studies is an examinable subject and the kids have to garner at least a 50% pass to maintain their GE status. The curriculum is very extensive and detailed, with particular focus on Singapore's history. The exams test in-depth understanding of the topics and are mostly open-ended questions.

I'm guessing that this is part of MOE's determination to cultivate social and political awareness among this group of kids, as well as foster patriotism and nation-building. A few of us mothers sometimes roll our eyes at what we deem as "national brain-washing" but at heart, we agree that it is very important for our kids to grow up with an understanding of how this country evolved.

The textbook for the Singapore portion of GEP Social Studies is Understanding Our Past - Singapore from Colony to Nation, MOE Singapore, Times Publishing, 1999.

In my opinion, it's quite well written. History books are usually so dull but this one is written in a casual narrative style that's easy to understand, yet is very informative and detailed (it's almost 260 pages). It also has loads of pictures and the visual layout facilitates reading. Another reason I like it is that it keeps largely to the facts, none of that preachy propoganda that some of the primary level social studies materials tend to feature.

Note: GEP Social Studies doesn't just entail Singapore history but I estimate that this makes up about 75% of the curriculum.

The Singapore portion is studied at the various levels as follows:

p4 - Origins of Singapore, World War II
p5 - Post-war, Merger and Separation, Independence
p6 - Industralisation, Modern Singapore

Most of the lessons are supplemented with worksheets and go beyond superficial awareness of events. In p5, the topic on Singapore Independence leads to an interesting discussion on what is involved in building a national identity.

When the kids are learning about racial riots with the Maria Hertogh Riots as a case study, they don't just study what happened. They have to examine the surrounding circumstances and the different points of view in order to come up with a more complete understanding of the implications of such an event. In addition, they have to discuss an article about the event, analysing the author's purpose of writing based on the way the information was presented, his own interpretation and inferences. This part of the study I feel is very important because it teaches the kids that writers have their own biases and opinions, and they shouldn't just take everything they read at face value.

This is followed by a worksheet where they have to write their own reflections on the event.

In case you can't read it, the instructions are:

Write a reflection on the Maria Herogh Riots. Your reflection should include
  • an outline of the causes and consequences of the Maria Herogh Riots
  • the lesson learnt from the riots
  • recommendations to schools nationwide to advise the youth the importance of promoting racial harmony in Singapore
This was what Lesley-Anne wrote:

The causes of the riot was that the Malays felt that there was no respect for them. The consequences that then followed was that a curfew had to be imposed for two weeks before the police could gain control of the situation and 18 people were killed and 173 were injured.

The lesson learnt was that we have to preserve racial and religious harmony as racial disharmony can disrupt our daily lives. The media also had to exercise more discipline in the coverage of sensitive issues.

My recommendations to schools is that they should tell the students about the cultures of different races so they can be sensitive to each other. They should also tell the students about each others religion so that they can be sensitive too. This can promote racial and religious harmony.

This is only my personal opinion but I feel that the mainstream kids would benefit from the same focus that the GEP places on Social Studies. Or maybe it will be introduced to them at the secondary school level. I hope so. Afterall, understanding our history is a critical component of knowing who we are and being able to plan for our future.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Let's be AWARE... and use some common sense

I have been following the AWARE saga that has created more awareness (or maybe kaypoh-ness) in Singapore about women's issues in 2 weeks than probably in the past 2 years. I didn't intend to blog about it. Afterall, mine is not a political or civil rights blog.

But there's one thing about the whole ruckus that bothered me deeply on a personal level enough for me to put my fingers to the keyboard. This was succinctly summed up by a writer to today's Straits Times forum: "The tragedy is that two innocent groups will be the real losers: women and Christians." This is true no matter what the eventual outcome of this battle is. And even though I'm on the side of the old guard for many reasons, this alone would have been reason enough.

Because of what this group led by Thio Su Mien and Josie Lau has initiated, the image of women has suffered an irreparable rift. "You see? Women can't get along with each other!" seems to be the predominant sentiment. For over 20 years, AWARE and other advocacy groups have fought hard to empower women in a whole gamut of domains - education, work, marriage, relationships, etc. Now all these very important issues have been buried beneath the trivialisation of women and their cattiness.

As for Christianity, I'm sometimes amazed that when it comes to religion, even the most intelligent individual can display such a lack of common sense. The entire debate now seems to centre around whether AWARE is pro-gay. AWARE has already stated categorically it supports ALL women and that includes lesbians, that neutral-gay is not the same as pro-gay. But people are still nervous. And the idea that it goes out to "recruit" young girls to be lesbians? I mean, seriously!

Anyway, you've probably all read the debate and arguments flying about so I won't go into them. We can argue all we want, to me, I'm just vexed that Christianity is the loser. The new guard claims it is not doing this out of their Christian values but I don't buy it ("oh, we just all happen to come from the same church!" Come on.) But whether they are or not, that is beside the point. In the public's eye, they represent Christians. And unfortunately, their behaviour has been so far from godly that if their original intent was to "save" young girls, I'm afraid they have probably already pushed thousands of souls further away from God.

Yesterday, I wrote on my Facebook status in frustration: "Monica Lim is sick and tired of people invoking Christ's name and then engaging in deceit, hypocrisy and bullying. They're not doing themselves, others... and God any favours." Tolerance is not the same as compromise. AWARE is a secular organisation - it has every right to take a stand that is in accordance with its constitution, that all people should be treated equal, regardless of sexual inclination. Now, as a Christian, the Bible tells us homosexuality is wrong. We are free to believe that. But that doesn't entitle us to take over the runnings of a secular organisation that teaches otherwise just so we can change it to our liking. Common sense!

I will never claim to be the person closest to God. Some people may say I'm not as fervent as the next Christian because I don't go up the MRT and preach the gospel to anyone who happens to sit next to me. But here's what my common sense tells me: at the end of the day, Christianity is about saving the lost and loving thy neighbour. When we leave this earth, we will be judged by how well we've done both. And if by shoving the gospel into people's faces, you alienate them, make them hostile and turn them AWAY from Christ, I don't care how good your intentions are, you have failed. Common sense. Instead, I will try (the operative word being 'try') to live my life as sincere, honest and Christ-like as I possibly can and yes, I will try to love my neighbours in words and deeds (even though sometimes I feel like throttling them!)

Here's what Josie Lau and company have done - spout moral superiority, seize control using surprise tactics, spread propaganda, claim martyrdom. Sounds familiar? No, it's not Christianity at all. And I certainly do not want my children learning that as Christians, they have the right to impose their beliefs on others via under-handed tactics.

Let's love God, love our neighbour... and exercise some common sense.

*I know this is a controversial topic, these are my views on the implications of the saga. I will not publish any inflammatory or adversarial comments.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Adventures in Reading... 30 years in the making

This post is purely out of nostalgia. This was my p1a English textbook some 30 years ago (yes, I kept it!) Published by McGraw-Hill, it's called Adventures in Reading.

It was easy for me even back then, but that was a much simpler time where parents actually sent their kids to primary school to learn how to read. Compared to today where you need to know how to read before you enter primary school otherwise you're toast.

Each page only had a few lines with several words used repeatedly, I guess to reinforce learning of the words. The stories were so simple that they didn't register with me at all, but I do remember being quite captivated by the pictures because they were so vivid and vibrantly coloured.

Rummaging through my cupboard, I found a stack of my old exercise books and whadya know! My p1 English exercise book was one of them. Flipping through it brought back a flood of memories. As part of English work in class, we had to copy out a page of text and the accompanying picture.

Below is my copy of the textbook illustration and text above.

Funnily enough, the highlight of my English class was not the English but the drawing! I loved drawing the pictures. Looks like I even got a star :D But one thing's for sure, my penmanship has definitely deteriorated over the years!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The value of money

Just the other day, Andre asked me, "Mummy, do you know what I want to be when I grow up?" "What?" "A millionaire."

My friend Eunice previously blogged about the importance of teaching our kids to manage money. I couldn't agree more. In our relatively affluent world, many kids these days have no awareness of how to manage money. Most of the time, the reason is simple: they have too much of it.

When Lesley-Anne was in p1, she packed food for recess, so we gave her a token 50cts a day. Since she hardly bought anything from the school canteen, it became more of a hassle than anything, trying to find the loose change and remembering to give it to her. After a while, we stopped bothering. But one day, when I casually mentioned this to a friend, she said, "If you don't give her money, she will never learn how to manage it."

The truth hit me like a ton of bricks. So from then on, pocket money to our kids was carefully calculated (not based on the going rate). We give our kids enough to buy a meal but they'll have to think about whether they want to spend the remaining amount on a drink (which I consider an extra since they bring water) or an extra snack or just to save it. But they won't be able to do all three. That's the principle of management - to plan what you want to do with the finite amount of resources you have. Too much or too little and there's no management involved.

Related to this is the value of money. I'm sure we've all read horror stories where kids chalk up atrocious bills on credit, spend beyond their means and expect their parents to bail them out. Even young adults spend like there's no tomorrow, without thought as to how they will pay off their debts.

And I will say this unequivocally, often it's the parents' fault. If you think, "oh, my kids will learn to manage money when they're older", think again. If they can't manage $2, they won't be able to manage $2,000. If you have always doled out money to feed your children's needs and wants, how would they have learnt to value money (or things for that matter)? It's not about whether you can afford it, whether you are rich or poor. It's about responsible parenting. It's about teaching your kids that money is a commodity that needs to be earned and should be used with thought.

Both Lesley-Anne and Andre have been trained to value money. If we enter a toy store, they know better than to badger me to buy something for them. My rule is that us parents will pay for necessities, extras come out of their own pockets except for the occasional treat that we initiate. Interestingly enough though, I've found that the value of money can differ from person to person simply based on differences in character. My sister and I were brought up the same way, but I'm much more careful with money, she's more liberal.

I'm seeing this trend with my kids - Lesley-Anne plans for the future, Andre lives for the moment. When I brought Andre to the bookstore, I told him I would only buy him one Beast Quest book, if he wanted more, he had to pay for them himself. Immediately, he said, "ok! I have $40. How many Beast Quest books can that buy?" I was a little miffed - somehow the point of valuing money is lost if he's so willing to part with it.

But then I thought about it and realised that it may not be such a bad thing. You see, Andre has a very generous spirit. Although he knows that money is valuable and cannot be wasted, he doesn't love money. If that sounds contradictory, it's not. The lesson here is that we need to value money, ie not treat it carelessly, but not love money, ie be consumed by it. Money is, at the end of the day, only the means to an end. The bible is full of verses which warn against the love of money, not because money in itself is evil but because the love of it can lead to many evil thoughts and deeds. Another friend once told me, "Saving money is not the same as hoarding money." Very perceptive.

In sociology, we learnt a simple truth: wealth is not defined by how much you have, but how little you want. The Nigerians are one of the poorest people in the world, but they are also the happiest.

"Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless." - Ecclesiastes 5:10

So it's a volatile balance we need to achieve - value money but don't love it. Simple to understand, hard to execute. Now we just have to teach it to our kids.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I'm not fat! I'm just vertically challenged

Last week, Andre brought home a form. Alamak! Kenah TAF club.

For those who don't know what TAF club is, it stands for Trim And Fit club - it's an initiative by MOE to try and whip overweight kids into shape. Unfortunately, the powers that be had zero foresight and it took kids all of 2 seconds to figure out that TAF spells FAT backwards. (Or maybe it was a deliberate, cruel joke). Anyway, what has happened is that over the years, TAF club has led to so many fat jokes and ironically, kids growing up with eating disorders because of the stigma they had faced in TAF club. So after many complaints, MOE has removed TAF club and left it to the schools to implement their own health programmes.

The programme in Andre's school is not called TAF club, it's Health and Fitness Club or something innocuous like that. I don't remember because I decided to exempt Andre from it (it's now no longer compulsory). Not because I don't see the value but because he's already active enough (badminton three times a week, soccer every recess, cycling, swimming, etc) and I didn't see the point of him skipping recess to do exercises. Although he does have a pouch, I figured that part of the reason he's considered overweight is because he's short for his age.

But it did make me more conscious of his eating habits, which are far from exemplary. Just a couple of years ago, he was so scrawny you could see his ribs when he inhaled hard. But from p2, his appetite suddenly surged and he developed the typical Singaporean love for makan-ing. Hokkien mee, satay, oyster omelette, char guay teow, grilled chicken wings, he attacks them all with relish.

I never realised how much he thinks about food until we had this conversation in the car on Saturday afternoon.

Me: Andre, you've got to watch your diet, cannot eat so much fried food.

Andre: Ok. (pauses as we drive by Temptations) Hey! Can we buy the blueberry cheesecake for tea?

Me: No! Cheesecake is so fattening.

Andre: Aiyah. (pouts) What about chocolate cake?

Me: For heaven's sake, why must you have tea? You're not even hungry.

Andre: I am! I'm staaarving! (Lunch was just two hours ago)

Me: You're just being greedy. At most you can have a little yoghurt.

Andre: Ok. What about a snack?

Me (exasperated): What snack?? I just told you you can't have tea!

Andre: I mean tonight!

Me: Haiyah, all those potato chips, no wonder you're fat.

Andre: Then what kind of snack can I have?

Me: Why must snack? (glares at Kenneth, who's the Snack King) No need to snack!

Andre: Hah!!!

Me: Can you stop thinking of food all the time!!

Andre: (sulks)

Kenneth: No need to have tea or snack, we'll just go for early dinner.

Andre (brightens up): What's for dinner?

And that's my little puffball.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The magic of squares

For many kids, maths is about abstract numbers. Even though they may be able to execute formulas and work out the solutions to problems, they often don't get the concept behind these numbers. That's the reason I love maths models - they enable you to have a very concrete visualisation of what the numbers represent, which really helps understanding.

Lilian's boys have an extraordinary ability to grasp mathematical concepts, fueled by her very imaginative way of teaching (and obvious love of maths herself!) In one of her older posts, she wrote about her method of explaining squares, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.

This method helps you find the answer to large squares without doing long multiplication, but really, that's not the point. (If you want to find an answer fast, use a calculator). It helps you see very clearly how squares work and how the answer is derived.

She starts off with the basic premise of a 10 x 10 square, which in pictorial form, is basically 10 columns x 10 rows (right pic). Most kids will know 10 x 10 = 100 (which is also the area of the square).

Now, say you want to find out what is 15 x 15. Visually, what this means is that you add another 5 columns and 5 rows to your basic 10 square (right pic).

And don't forget that little square in the right bottom corner which consists of 5 columns and 5 rows. Your final 15 x 15 square will look like this (bottom pic):

Now we just need to add up all the different areas of the square. We already know that the basic 10 square = 100. Each of the additional 5 rows/columns is 5 x 10 = 50. That corner bit is 5 x 5 = 25 (bottom pic). Add all of that up and you get 225. Therefore, 15 x 15 = 225.

You can do this all the way from 11 x 11 to 20 x 20, after which you use the 20 x 20 basic square. You can read more details on how Lilian got her 6-year-old Sean to work it out here.

Just last week, I came across another intriguing pattern on squares, thanks to Adeline's precocious son. He discovered while doing some multiplication, that when you multiply any two numbers that are two apart, the answer is always one less than the square of that middle number. (Ok, ok! I know that sounds very confusing!) Let me show you what I mean:

4 x 6 = 24
5 x 5 = 25

5 x 7 = 35
6 x 6 = 36

6 x 8 = 48
7 x 7 = 49

See the pattern? This is true no matter how large the number. For instance,

246 x 248 = 61,008
247 x 247 = 61,009

(I used the calculator lah, what did you think??) There's a very simple explanation to the pattern, which I will attempt to show visually.

Here is a basic 8 square - 8 columns x 8 rows (right pic).

To change it into a 7 x 9 rectangle, you essentially take one row and move it to a column.

You'll find that you have an extra square (bottom pic) because the number in the column will always be one more than the number of rows (which has been reduced from the original by one).

See? It's so simple I don't know why I never saw the pattern before. And it took a 6-year-old to point it out :P

Once again, seeing this pattern probably won't help your kids do their sums any quicker but I believe it facilitates understanding of how squares work.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Home made chicken pie

Tonight, we had home made chicken pie for dinner. This is another recipe that we've perfected over the years. It's a little more su-sah than my shepherd's pie because it requires you to make the pastry but it's a good one dish meal and leftovers are easy to reheat for lunch.

Ingredients (pastry):

500g plain flour, sifted
190g butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
milk or water as needed
pinch of salt

Ingredients (filling):

1 cup water
1 can Campbell's Cream of Chicken Mushroom
10 pcs chicken thigh, remove skin and bone, diced
4 potatoes, diced
2 carrots, diced
3 tbsp peas
2 hard boiled eggs, quartered (optional)
Oil and garlic

Chicken Pie
  1. Fry garlic in oil until golden brown.
  2. Add chicken, stir fry for a few minutes.
  3. Add potatoes, carrots, peas and water. Bring to a boil and simmer until all ingredients are cooked.
  4. Add Campbell's soup. Stir until mixture is thick and creamy.
  5. Leave aside to cool while making pastry.
  6. Rub butter into flour until mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Add salt.
  7. Stir in egg (leave a little aside) and milk, combine into a firm dough.
  8. Knead until smooth.
  9. Shape pastry into base of mini pie moulds.
  10. Add hard boiled egg if desired, pour filling into moulds.
  11. Shape pastry to cover mould and crimp sides to seal.
  12. Use a fork to poke holes on top of pie.
  13. Use remaining egg mixture to brush top of pie.
  14. Preheat oven to 210 degrees celcius.
  15. Bake for 35 mins.
As usual, I'm the queen of short cuts when it comes to cooking and I've found that Campbell's soup forms a tasty, creamy base. You can also use their chicken soup or mushroom soup, there's no discernible difference. What you get is a very moist chicken pie, which is just the way I like it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Education is a marathon, not a sprint

Lesley-Anne's math common test is today. This test is crucial because the grade will form part of the assessment for DSA. As you probably know by now, math is the subject I'm most concerned about for Lesley-Anne, not because she doesn't know her work but because she's so prone to careless mistakes.

We've been struggling with the same issue (notice I said "we"!) for three years now and it doesn't seem to have improved much. So I'd told myself that she just has to perform her best and whatever will be, will be. But then last week, I had a sudden irrational attack of kancheong-ness and decided to set her a few sums for revision because I figured if she did badly for the test, I'd be kicking myself for not doing more.

As a result, we had one of our classic Mum-Lesley-Anne blow ups. I had only set her a few sums but she managed to make several careless mistakes. Which led to screeching (me), tears (her), sulking (her) and head-on-wall banging (me). I'm at my wit's end because it seems like in her case, practice doesn't make perfect. In fact, that incident probably just made her more nervous. And I was thinking, this is only April and I'm already so tired. How to tahan until PSLE?

Then Lilian happened to mention that a friend's daughter, who is homeschooled and also taking her PSLE this year, is so stressed that the skin is peeling from her soles and she's having ulcers. You see? It's the system! Even homeschooler also not spared! I've talked to enough parents to know that if you're in the Singapore education system, you WILL be kancheong. Cannot escape.

A case in point: I have a friend who's the most laid-back parent I know. Before his son entered p1, he was the biggest critic of kiasu parents - his take was, why succumb to the pressure? There are more important things in childhood like learning how to fish and play soccer. Tuition is over-rated. And so on. By the time his son was halfway through p1, he was completely stressed out by calls from the teacher that his son could not keep up with the work. He quit his job, coached his son at home and sent him to Kumon for maths tuition. The last time we met, he told me that he had discovered a great method for explaining maths models and that his son had scored 94/100 for his maths test. You see? Cannot escape! I'm not very gracious, I did the "I told you so" routine.

But having said that, I've always maintained that the education journey is a marathon, not a sprint. What I mean is that our children's education will last anything from 12 to 18 years. Yet we don't often think beyond the next exam. Instead of focusing on study skills, we usually zoom in on last-minute cramming.

Of course it's easier said than done. When my kids do badly for a test, I can't help feeling disappointed. But I have to remind myself what I keep telling others - marathon, not sprint. Honestly, in 5 years' time, would you care that your kid didn't ace his math CA1 paper in p2? What's more important is that in 5 years, your child still enjoys learning and has not become so demoralised or disheartened that he totally hates school. This is very real - when I hear about parents putting extreme pressure or setting unrealistically ambitious targets for their kids ("must get 100 marks for every paper!"), I wonder whether they realise they are doing more harm than good.

Exams are important. But if we take a step back and think about it, no one single exam is EVERYTHING in the entire journey of life. Yes, even the PSLE. We all want our kids to be in the best schools, to be in the best class, to be in the best programme. But looking at the whole scheme of things, even if they didn't, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Really. If you look around, many of the adults we admire today never went to the top schools and probably had done badly in some exam or other.

At the end of the day, no one singular path can guarantee our success in life (however we define success) and certainly not one school or one programme. So I'm now reminding myself (again!) to get some perspective over the stress I'm facing with Lesley-Anne. Yesterday, she initiated revision for the test on her own and I'm comforted by that. I have to allow her to take responsibility for her own studies and to do the best she can, nothing more. Train our kids for the marathon, not the sprint. If you let push them to go too fast too soon, they will only run out of steam.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The pursuit of beauty

A few of us mums have been discussing makeup and a certain "miracle" cream. Even though we are strong, independent women, we are helplessly drawn to the allure of some magic potion that might make us look a few years younger. Remember the mad rush for a certain Boots serum a couple of years ago after it was reported in a BBC programme? Even after other reports proved that it's just hype, the ingredients are no different from those in some other brands. Such is the power of the press (and the desperation of women!) But for this reason, the so-called miracle cream that we were discussing shall remain nameless, disclosed only to a select few, hehe.

I will confess now that I am a closet makeup addict. I love to experiment - glitter eyeliner, crimson lipstick, turquoise eyeshadow - it's all so whimsical and fun! (and so contrary to my usual understated preferences). And it's washable afterall, so no need to angst over a temporary change. But there aren't many opportunities to experiment, afterall you can't go for meetings looking like a teenager wannabe, so I usually just end up putting on my "safe" face - the one that I know makes me look awake without being overdone.

Beauty is not as shallow an issue as it may seem. It does require some thought, especially as mothers because the way we view ourselves physically has a huge bearing on the way our kids (especially our daughters) view themselves. To overstate the importance of beauty can be detrimental to our kids' physical self-esteem. But to say beauty it not important at all is just being hypocritical.

I've had this debate on beauty before. In fact, I wrote an article for the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO)'s 25th Anniversary coffee table book back in 2005. Since this topic came up, I guess it's timely to reproduce the article here. I'm curious to know your views, so fire away!

The Pursuit of Beauty – Emancipation or Entrapment?

Helena Rubinstein once declared: “There is no such thing as an ugly woman. Only a lazy one.” It is as if by virtue of being female, it is our duty to be beautiful. This concept is rooted in the age-old belief that a woman’s power lies in her appearance. Throughout history, odes have been dedicated to women who have conquered men with their beauty, from Yang Guifei to Helen of Troy.

With the rise in women’s independence, we have seemingly risen above this antiquated notion. We know now that we want to look good for ourselves, not just for others, and certainly not in order to attract a mate and protector. We have been emancipated in our pursuit of beauty.

Or have we, really?

UK Fashion editor, Lowri Turner once said: “The truth is, most women dress for themselves some of the time, for men at other times and attempt a sort of compromise for the rest. If we dressed only for ourselves, we’d all wear leggings and baggy jumpers all the time.”

Beauty as a concept is almost always tied to others’ perception. While beauty and fashion magazines no longer explicitly tell us how to dress in order to snare a man, they still dispense truckloads of advice telling us how to project a desired image, whether “sexy” or “sophisticated” or “natural” (the last ironically requiring the most effort!)

To add to the confusion, the beauty industry is a fickle one, and trends move faster than the stock market. Right now, waif is out, curves are back. Neutral is passé, glamour is in. Faux bronze is the new tan. Pink is the new red. Wait, by the time you read this, melon would be the new pink.

So where lies this elusive line between emancipation and entrapment in the pursuit of beauty?

I pride myself on being a new age feminist, comfortable in my own skin. However, I am far from immune to the lure of beauty promises. Despite being fully aware of the industry’s gimmicks and high profit margins, I find myself succumbing frequently to the newest range of lipsticks. I know I am paying $29.95 for two inches of red dye, yet that little gold tube buys me a little spring in my step for a day or two.

That does not mean I am a slave to beauty. While I hope the new lipstick will step up the glamour quotient for a night out, I do not expect it to miraculously turn me into a Julianne Moore. That new face cream may erase a few wrinkles, but it will not erase the fear of ageing. Each purchase is a trifle to be enjoyed for the moment, nothing more.

And that’s where the insidiousness of the whole issue lies.

As much as the beauty trade empowers women to look good for themselves, the same industry thrives on the insinuation that left on our own, women are not beautiful, not perfect, not ideal enough. Priscilla Presley purportedly went to bed with her makeup on so that her husband would only see her at her best. A beautiful woman draped on the arm of a man is still perceived as a status symbol, an accessory. Scores of dutiful wives worry that once their beauty fades, they will be cast off in favour of pretty young things half their age.

There is a whole multi-million dollar industry waiting to cash in on these insecurities. For every advertisement offering women choices in fashion and beauty, there seem to be three which exclaim: ‘Get bigger breasts and a happier husband!” As quickly as women are gaining economic independence, enterprises have sprung up to exploit this new spending power.

Beyond cosmetics, there is plastic surgery. I am as much in favour of women holding the keys to their own enhancement as the next woman, and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with plastic surgery. It is the way in which plastic surgery is viewed which disturbs me. Plastic surgery used to be a phrase whispered behind closed doors, implying shame and a Machiavellian audacity in trying to manufacture beauty which was not your birthright. But these days, plastic surgery has become a buzzword.

I have a macabre fascination with the reality programme, Extreme Makeover, where each week, candidates are whisked off for a buffet of face lifts, liposuction, implants and laser treatments. My discomfort lies in the fact that many of the candidates are there not simply to change parts of themselves that they don’t like. Many of them appear to have defined themselves and their entire lives based on their physical appearance. They seem to believe that they can physically carve away their past by being stitched, lifted and tightened into a new life, a new self.

Yet, each of these candidates claims they have not abandoned their old selves, merely embraced new improved versions. My concern for this and future generations of women is that the “extreme” nature of plastic surgery has been reduced to a decision as casual as changing one’s hair colour. I realise there are no easy solutions, but in an age where everything has become disposable, I say: let’s not dispose of ourselves so readily.

And that’s where I think the line between emancipation and entrapment lies – whether the pursuit of beauty aims to reflect one’s self-worth or in fact, to acquire some. It’s a thin line but it makes all the difference.

In the movie Shrek, after receiving love’s first kiss to break her enchantment, the princess finds herself still an ogre. She says in puzzlement: “I don’t understand, I’m supposed to be beautiful.” And the pot-bellied, disarmingly lovable Shrek affirms: “But you ARE beautiful.” In a world of synthetic beauty, perhaps what we need are more reminders that there is real beauty everywhere - we just have to look for it ourselves and on our own terms.

- reproduced from "Her Story", Tisa Ng ed., SCWO, 2005.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Parenting that empowers

This is a rather unusual post because it's not about any of my kids. It's about one of the girls who attended Lesley-Anne's birthday party. In general, I liked the group of girls. For the most part, they are mature for their age and articulate, they were well behaved, and didn't display any of the cockiness or smart alecky sass that kids that age can sometimes have (and which I detest).

But one girl in particular, caught my eye. She had a quiet confidence about herself and she was so down to earth and sensible. All this I gathered from the board games that the girls played, where I also learnt that she is an adventurous person, cares about the environment and is a staunch Christian. Yet, she didn't come across as a prissy goody-two-shoes (which can be equally annoying) - she's friendly and was very at ease with the group. According to Lesley-Anne, she's well liked since she's genuinely nice and doesn't gossip behind people's backs like some of the other girls.

At the end of the party when the parents came to pick the girls up, I found out she had to make her way home herself. She explained, "my mother says I can't take a lift from others because I have to learn to be independent". She then asked me where the bus stop was and what bus she could take to the interchange as she had to be home before 6.30pm to help look after her baby sister. (Her parents even entrusted her with finding out how to get home).

Well! I was even more impressed by her and her parents after that. You know I believe in bringing up independent and responsible kids (you can read my post on it here). I wrote this post because this girl is a clear example of a wonderful, well-adjusted kid who exemplifies such values. And I believe that parenting played a big part in the kind of person she has turned out to be.

Of course no two kids are the same, but it was very encouraging to me that when you set out to teach your kids independence and responsibility, you can possibly see such positive results. I won't point out which girl she is (just in case, I don't know who reads my blog!) but I hope it will serve as an encouragement to you. This is what I call parenting that empowers - it really does breed great kids.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday and Lesley-Anne turns 12

This year, Lesley-Anne's birthday falls exactly on Good Friday so it was the perfect day to hold her birthday party. We don't plan a party for her every year but since this is the last year she'll be with her primary school classmates, we thought it would be nice for her to have a little celebration.

Lesley-Anne loves animals but giraffes in particular, so I printed out an invite card with a giraffe. She invited only the girls in her class (by age 12, the gender divide has become practically unbridgeable). There are 8 of them in total, excluding herself. Only 2 couldn't make it.

Right from the start, I was quite relaxed, unlike with Andre's party last year. Organising a girls' party is a walk in the park compared to a boys' party which is like trying to run 5km while juggling.

The girls arrived, played with the hamsters and then just SAT AROUND CHATTING. No jumping, fighting or screaming. Sometimes I marvel at how one little chromosome can make such a difference in behaviour!

Lunch was served. I figured since it was a small group and I could trust them to be mini civilised adults, the girls had a sit-down lunch at the dining table.

And here's the menu - two types of pizza, coleslaw, garlic bread and my trusty shepherd's pie.

I'm very happy to say that there are no anorexic nibblers in this group - these girls have hearty appetities and they walloped everything!

Here's one of them polishing up the shepherd's pie which she declared as "addictive". If you want the recipe, it's here. Honestly, this one is tried and tested!

After lunch, it was time for games. Again with 12-year-old girls, no planning is required. I just brought out the Imaginiff board game, taught them how it's played and left them to their own devices.

It was a big hit. Because the girls are all very bright, they learnt very quickly and it was an interesting social experiment to see how the other girls viewed them and how they viewed themselves. I was a by-stander and it was fascinating to me how I could figure out each of the girls' personality so clearly just by watching the game. For instance, I quickly gathered who was the diplomat and who was the leader, who was sharp and who was clueless, who was thick-skinned and who was sensitive. This is a very revealing game.

After the game, it was time for cake. We ordered a modest chocolate fudge cake from Temptations. My baby is 12!

The sweet photo.

The siao photo (I love this one!)

And here's a family shot. One reason for Andre's big smile is that he earned a free pass to play Wii at my sister's place. It was a move to prevent him from disrupting the party and was the highlight of his day.

I cut generous hunks of cake and no protests - the girls dug in. I tell you, they can really eat! One of them said, "This is the best chocolate cake I've ever eaten" and another ejected, "This is heavenly!"

I'm beaming all round - I have to admit, Temptations makes a fail-safe chocolate cake.

After that, I brought out another award-winning game we bought from the US, called Gift Trap. Like Imaginiff, this is another social game but where you give and receive gifts from other players. Winning the game depends on how well you know the likes and dislikes of the others. Again very revealing. The ones who are perceptive tend to give gifts that are better matches but it's the ones with stronger personalities who tend to get the gifts they want. The challenge is to both give and receive good gifts.

When organising a party, my main concern is always whether the kids had a good time. This party was a runaway success, evident from the fact that most of the girls were so reluctant to leave that they rang their parents to ask if they could stay longer. Don't say I not shy lah, praise myself - a comment I overheard from one of the girls: "Lesley is known for having the best birthday parties." Wah, who can ask for a better compliment?

The best part was, it was completely fuss-free. We didn't even have a mess to clean up! Unbelievable.

The final touch - in the spirit of Easter, each of the girls were given a chocolate bunny to bring home.

Since we'd already thrown Lesley-Anne a party, we didn't get her anything fancy or expensive. Just a little stuffed giraffe and a book from the Warriors series by Erin Hunter, at the recommendation of one of the mothers who visit my blog. (Thanks LL!)

And here's the birthday girl with the rest of her gifts. Most of them are very thoughtful. Home-made cards and lots of giraffes (that huge giraffe stuffed toy is from her best friend). Childhood memories should be made of these.

Happy birthday, Lesley-Anne! You may be 12 but you'll always be my baby girl :)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

All the better to see you with, Mummy

Last week, Andre had a eye check in school and turns out his myopia has gotten worse, so he has to change his glasses again. Sigh. So we headed out to an optical shop.

At the shop, he tried out several pairs of frames. I picked out a pair for him which I thought framed his face perfectly and the bronze hue made him look so intellectual and demure. Look at how enthusiastic he was.

Unbeknownst to many, Andre is actually very vain. To him, his glasses are a fashion statement. Apparently, the bronze glasses said, "I'm boooring." Then he caught sight of a bright blue pair that was so shiny it could blind you. Now, THIS one shouted, "I'm cool!" (It's bluer and shinier in real life than in the picture).

No amount of cajoling would move him. Even when I told him he looked like a motor-cycle riding pai kia (on hindsight, that probably served as a further impetus). After collecting his glasses, in the car all the way home, he was musing to himself:

"Do you think my friends will know I changed my specs?"
"I think they will since my old one is round, this one is square."
"Maybe I'll ask them if they noticed anything different."

Oh vanity, thy name is Andre!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Les P'tites Poules... in Chinese

This is another post on Chinese books. Lesley-Anne found this series of books in the library a few years ago and she thoroughly enjoyed them. It's actually a translation of the French series of books called Les P'tites Poules by Christian Jolibois (author) and Christian Heinrich (illustrator). The stories are of little effervescent chickens and their very funny adventures.

One of my quarrels with Chinese fiction books for children is that they either tend to be very moralistic or just plain boring. But this series is different (maybe because it's not originally written in Chinese!) The pictures are brilliantly animated, very reminiscent of the style of the Nicholas books (incidentally also by French author and illustrator). The storylines are so comical that you can't help laughing when you read them.

For instance, in Book 1, the story tells of Carmela the chicken who was not interested in learning how to lay eggs like all the other chickens in the coop.

She dreamed of going out to sea in search of magical creatures so she ran away one night. Unfortunately, she was caught by a pirate ship whose crew wanted to eat her, so she struck a bargain to provide them with eggs everyday if they would spare her life. Which she almost couldn't deliver since she never practised laying eggs! Hilarious.

Eventually she managed to find her way back to the coop with a rooster mate and they produced a little rebel of their own, Carmelito, who decided he wanted to own a star... and that's Book 2.

I estimate the books to be pitched at the lower primary level, so they're just right for Andre now. I have no idea what's the name of the series in Chinese but the title of the first book is 我想去看海 under the author Jolibois. I think there are 8 or 9 books in the series. At the library, if you find the first one, you should be able to find the rest.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Shel Silverstein - writer, illustrator and philospher

This post is a tribute to whom I consider as one of the most original writers/poets/illustrators of our time - Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein's laid back, whimsical wit is truly one-of-a-kind. To me, he is a package of contradictions - his stories are super short, yet tell tales of epic proportions. They are simple, yet hold weighty messages. The books are for kids, yet adults love them. He's like a minimalist Dr Seuss, for lack of a better description.

Three of his books I have and love are:

The Giving Tree

This story is about a relationship between a young boy and a tree in a forest. The tree loves the boy so much she gives him everything he asks, even to the point of letting him cut her down so he can build a boat to sail away. When the boy becomes an old man, he returns and the tree says, "I have nothing left to give you." The boy says he just needs a place to sit down and rest, and the tree which is now a stump, happily obliges.

This book has sparked controversy on whether the tree is selfless or self-sacrificing, on whether it teaches kids to be selfish or about unconditional love. Personally, I feel the the book depicts the complexity of life and relationships - it's not meant to prescribe a moral lesson, the interpretation is up to the reader. But it reflects Silverstein's genius that such a simple story can stir up so much emotion and discussion.

The Missing Piece

Once again belying its simplicity, Silverstein creates a powerful message using just a circle. The circle has no name, it's merely refered to as "it". The story starts: "It was missing a piece. And it was not happy. So it set off in search of its missing piece." The story tells of a circle who goes in search for a piece to complete itself, much like an individual looking for a soul-mate. After many failed attempts, it finds a piece that fits exactly but realises that when it is "complete", it loses part of itself.

A very thought-provoking story and it's amazing how Silverstein can inject so much expression in a simple circle. Some say the book condones divorce, others say it celebrates the acceptance of self. I say, read it and interprete it for yourself!

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

The sequel to The Missing Piece, this book continues with the theme that life is a journey of constant evolvement and depicts how people often treat others as a crutch or as a means to deflect their own deficiencies. Again, naysayers have criticised the book for playing down relationships, but I believe that the stronger message is that to be happy in a relationship or friendship, it is important to be your own independent person. The last page of the book shows two circles rolling together, so I think that's pretty clear.

If you want to see extracts of Silverstein's books, go to his website under Shel's Books - each one features a quirky animation that will give you a pretty good idea of what the book is like.

Apart from his stories, Silverstein also wrote a few collections of poetry - many of these poems are hysterical, nonsense rhymes accompanied by his signature line drawings. We have Where The Sidewalk Ends and Lesley-Anne LOVES it. Here are two of the poems in the book:

The only downside is that the books are not cheap. All of them are hard covers and I believe over $40 each. Silverstein was very particular in this respect and chose the type, size, shape, colour and quality of the paper himself. As a serious book collector, he felt the feel of the paper, typeface of the stories and binding of the books were very important and was actively involved in these decisions. He did not allow his books to be published in paperback because he did not want his work to diminish in any way.

So they're not cheap. But these are keepers, not something you'll want to borrow from the library and read once. Maybe wait till you have a discount coupon or something, but my view is that they are true gems worth having.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

If music be the food of love, play on!

Recently, I had a chat with a mum whose daughter was taking piano lessons but didn't seem to be very interested. She would drag her feet when it came to lesson time and hardly practised except when her mum nagged her to do so. Her mum was contemplating letting her stop her piano lessons but was undecided and wanted to know my views.

On the surface, this appears to be a no-brainer - no interest, stop. But having taken piano lessons for over 10 years and given some piano lessons here and there, my experience tells me that the situation is slightly more complex than it seems. You see, learning to play an instrument involves HARD WORK. After the initial euphoria of being able to play a tune dies down, having to spend hours at the piano hammering away at the same old piece just to get it right can be tedious and at times, downright frustrating. So after a couple of years, the motivation to practise tends to wane and you'll find that your kid seems to have lost interest.

The truth is, very few kids, safe for your music prodigies, enjoy practising. My personal opinion is that learning an instrument requires more patience than say dance or sports because the progress tends to be slower and the practice portion not as enjoyable. So what you deem as a lack of interest in music could just be a lack of interest in practising, the latter of which probably applies to 99% of kids.

When I was in primary school, many of my classmates took up piano lessons. By p6, about half of them have dropped out. I begged my mother to let me do the same because the lessons and practising were eating into my leisure time. Basically, I wanted to have more time to play. Being the authoritarian mum, she said "no". And looking back, I thank God she made that decision because in truth, I love music, I love being able to play the piano, and it has given me many hours of enjoyment.

What all this has taught me is that when our kids claim to have "lost interest" in music, dig deeper into what they're saying and don't be too quick to take it at face value. I often hear adults saying they regret giving up music lessons when they were younger and wished their parents had forced them to continue. Would you want your child to look back years from now and think the same thing? It's not a clearcut decision, so my suggestions on what you can do are as follows.

First, examine what it is that your child doesn't like. Is it the practising? Or the exams? Or is it really the music itself? If it's the last one, then by all means, let him stop lessons. But my feeling is that often, you can't really tell, especially at the early stage. For both my kids, I tell them that they have to learn until Grade 5 (although they need not take exams at every grade before that). To me, Grade 5 is like the PSLE. It's a milestone, albeit an artificial one. It certifies that you have reached a certain level of maturity and understanding in the subject. Once you have reached Grade 5, you would be better able to assess your true feelings about music or the instrument. (Coincidentally, when I was talking to Lesley-Anne's ballet teacher, she said the same thing about ballet - only at Grade 5 can kids really make the call as to whether they enjoy dancing).

Lesley-Anne has been on the fence about music for a few years, her true passion is ballet. But she dutifully followed through her lessons until she passed her Grade 5 exams in both theory and practical last year. I, of course, had always hoped that she would continue because she's very musical, but since I had told her I would leave the decision to her beyond Grade 5, I had to respect that. So when the results for the Grade 5 theory came back, I asked her what she had decided (with bated breath). She said she had thought about it and decided she would continue learning, but without exams. Hallelujah! Can you tell I'm pleased? And once she had taken ownership of that decision, I found that she now practises more on her own.

Andre is now at the Grade 2 level and starting to be lazy about practising. He says he doesn't like exams and I'm willing to let him skip a few, but the Grade 5 rule still holds.

You can also try other ways of keeping the interest going, like ensuring that your child's teacher makes lessons fun. Taking exams every year can put a dampener on interest because most of the time is spent on exam preparation rather than enjoyment of the music, so one possibility is to minimise exams. You can read my earlier post on my kids' music experiences.

Letting your kid learn music (or anything for that matter) is a commitment that your kid has to agree to. I feel, and this is again only my opinion, that if you feel the interest is not there to begin with or your child won't be able to put in the requisite time, then DON'T START. Otherwise, you'll be caught in the dilemma later as to whether to force him to continue against his wishes or allow him to quit, which sends the negative message that quitting is ok when things get difficult or boring. Once your child understands and agrees to the commitment of having lessons, do persevere even if at times, it may be tough going. That's how you build resilience and determination.
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