Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Half-God and a Wimpy Kid - more books for boys

Andre loves comics. Lately, he's taken to reading comics as he eats his lunch on a tray. I know comics are hardly considered reading but hey, it's better than watching mindless tv. I often find him chuckling over all his favourite characters - Calvin & Hobbes, Tintin and Asterix. And who can blame him? The characters are so darn adorable, I love all of them.

It's therefore quite natural that he would gravitate towards the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. When I first showed it to him about a year ago, it didn't take but now he loves it. It really is written for boys, both the storyline and the way it's presented with the classic stick figures and scribbles.

There are currently five books in the series, all in brightly hued covers. If you have boys who don't enjoy reading, try this one. It's certainly not literature by any standards but it's humorous and great for easing them into the habit.

Another series that Andre recently got into was Percy Jackson. This one was discovered quite by accident. Lesley-Anne mentioned that the boys in her class used to be crazy about the series but I could never find the books at the library (which is probably a sign of their popularity). So when I saw the first three books being sold at Borders at a discount, I decided it would be a low-cost investment.

Turned out to be a good call. Not since Beast Quest has Andre been so taken with a book. The story revolves around Percy Jackson, a boy who learns that he is a demigod, son of Poseidon. He embarks on quests to save his friends and ultimately, the Gods of Mount Olympus.

I did a quick browse and I think I understand why it appeals to Andre. Rick Riordan writes in a very straightforward style which makes for easy understanding. He also dispenses with long, verbose descriptions which tend to bore impatient kids and dives right into the action (within the first chapter, the mean math teacher turns into a monster and is killed. Way to tap into little boys' fantasies!)

There are five books in this series - The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian. Rick Riordan has written many other children's books but the Percy Jackson series is his most popular. His latest offering is The Red Pyramid, the first in another fantasy-adventure series, this time set in Egypt.

I would describe the reading level of the Percy Jackson series as somewhere in between Beast Quest and Artemis Fowl. Highly recommended for active, imaginative boys!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Character first

I know many parents in Singapore who hold fast to the maxim "studies come first" but more and more, I've been feeling that this mindset comes at the expense of character building. While most parents would agree that character is important, the learning of values definitely takes a back seat to hitting the books. I suspect they don't really believe that it should take top priority. Afterall, you don't get graded on it.

The thing is, character building is a long-term process. It's not enough to just say the occasional "be polite" or "you should work hard" and expect an instant angel. In fact, children have a way of sifting out these platitudes, especially when they're not followed up with real action.

Even Christian parents fall into this trap. If you think that because your children are growing up in a Christian household, they will automatically become people of character, think again. Remember Eli from the Bible? He was an upright man, a priest in the House of God. He was the one who guided Samuel and I'm pretty sure he must have prayed for his children. Yet the Bible records that "Eli's sons were wicked men" - 1 Sam 2:10.

The message is that having good parents or coming from a "good family" doesn't guarantee that the child will grow up with values. Character building doesn't take place via osmosis. Nor is prayer alone enough. Regardless of how strong your faith is, if you don't study and don't do your work, you likely won't do well in an exam no matter how hard you pray. God's not a genie there to just grant you your three wishes. Likewise, if you don't do anything to develop your child's character, prayer won't be enough to make him or her a good person.

For example, if your child fails a test, what is your response?

1) Punish him.
2) Shrug it off.
3) Scold the tuition teacher and find a new one.
4) Redo the paper for him. (Don't laugh.)
5) Go through the mistakes with him and encourage him to keep trying.

If your answer is 1, your child learns that it's bad to fail.
If your answer is 2, he learns that it's not important to try.
If your answer is 3, he learns not to take responsibility for anything.
If your answer is 4, he learns that his parents will solve all of life's problems for him.

Obviously 5 is the preferred action. But it's tough because character building requires conscious and constant reinforcement. Ideally, your responses and actions should always be consistent with the values you are trying to promote. I'll be the first to admit that I have lapses, especially when I'm distracted by too many issues. Sometimes it's just easier to let it go or pretend not to see. You can't see results overnight and you don't know how many more times he will falter.

I find that in today's context, more and more parents seem adverse to letting their children work through challenging tasks. Eat what you want, buy what you want, do what you want, with no regard for consequences. If something is difficult, it's ok to give up or try something else. The path of least resistance is offered up on a platter like it's a measure of the parents' love. (You might like to read my earlier post on this topic here). It bugs me deeply because I see so many kids growing up to be self-absorbed and aimless... and their parents wonder why.

When Mrs Lee Kuan Yew passed on, what struck me was that in all the eulogies by her children, they recalled how she focused on instilling good, old-fashioned values. They were constantly taught not to throw their weight around, how she told the school principal to punish her children like everyone else if they misbehaved, how she didn't approve of expensive gifts being lavished on them, even though they obviously could afford them. It's about putting character first.

We as parents have a duty to bring up our children right. The Bible is full of passages exhorting parents to guide our children (and none telling us to make sure they excel academically). Of course we all know people who had crappy or absent parents and still turned out to be wonderful human beings but do you honestly want to leave it to chance?

Character building is like having a solid foundation for a house. Once that is established, there's a higher chance the other things will fall into place and this includes studies. Afterall, if a child hasn't developed basic virtues like diligence, tenacity and patience, the day will come when he will resist your efforts to force him to study. If you think you can strap your child down to the study table beyond age 15, good luck to you. But if he has been taught that results come to those who work and who persevere, these are the traits that will carry him through into adulthood.
"Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." - Proverbs 22:6

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Strike a pose!

For PE in school this term, Lesley-Anne has been learning gym. It's something she enjoys much more than regular PE (especially if it involves running laps around the track). Her ballet training is an advantage since flexibility is called for.

She hasn't mastered the handstand or the cartwheel yet but it's fun to see her perform some of the other poses so I took some pictures.

This is the side split.

Front split.

This is an attempt at what legendary French prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem calls the "6 o'clock" position. Not quite there yet.

For her gym test, Lesley-Anne's group choreographed a neat number and they did very well. Individually, she scored an A+. Too bad it's a non-examinable subject!

I'm not sure if she'll ever manage the handstand, I think it's such a cool move. I'll post a picture if she does.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sec 1 maths project on GST Offset Package

This is EOY (End of Year exams) season for secondary school kids and Lesley-Anne has been busy hitting the books. From what I see on Facebook, students have been complaining incessantly but really, they have it good compared to primary school.

For one, their school holidays will start much earlier - Lesley-Anne's begin about 2 weeks before Andre's and I'm dreading the inevitable whining from him. Secondly, exams are just one component in the calculation of the final grade. In Lesley-Anne's school, the grade takes into account numerous mini tests, assignments and projects done throughout the year, so it really is about being consistent. It also takes the pressure off the final exams somewhat.

One of the more interesting maths projects that Lesley-Anne had to do this year was to create a scenario to show the application of the GST Offset Package in a Singaporean family. The students could be as creative as they wanted but all workings had to be shown and they were limited to two pages. They were scored on creativity, presentation and accuracy of calculation.

Lesley-Anne decided to draw a cartoon and named her protagonist Andre (who's apparently a math whiz!) Notice also that she drew the parents as hopeless with their finances. Hmm...
Gst Offset

I thought it was fun and apparently her teacher thought so too cos she was one of the two or three in her class who received 15/15 for the project. Maths is still Lesley-Anne's weaker subject so it helps to have this project pull her grade up. She claims Andre brought her luck. Maybe he will feature in more of her assignments!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Shopping buddies and cargo pants

When Lesley-Anne was very young, I used to day dream about the day when the two of us can going shopping together, share clothes and beauty tips, etc. Well, she's now come of age and we do wear the same size shoes but that's where it stops.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to raise a girl with zero interest in her appearance. Asking her to go shopping for clothes or shoes is like asking her to go to the dentist. Once, I forced her to come shopping with me as she desperately needed some new shoes. She trailed along reluctantly and every pair I pointed to, she would merely glance at it and reply primly, "no thank you." After about a half hour, I grumbled in a huff, "What's the use of having a daughter if you can't go shopping with her?" Yes, I know it's a silly comment. Bahhh.

Up to about aged 7 or 8, Lesley-Anne still wore pretty dresses and cutesy hair pins, like most little girls. But these days, she's by and large a t-shirt and jeans gal. True to her personality, her idea of fashion is something that helps her blend in, not stand out, which means her clothes tend to be either in dark or dull hues. How to raid her wardrobe when her clothes are more conservative than mine?

Recently I brought her for a hair cut and the hairdresser suggested that she do a rebonding to tame her thick and unruly hair. In my mind, any other teenage girl would leap at the chance but no, Lesley-Anne was having none of it. There we were, the mum encouraging a frivolous beauty treatment and the daughter stubbornly putting her foot down. Someone should have put a box around the scene and asked "what's wrong with this picture?" Even the hairdresser was amused.

In contrast, Andre loves clothes and shoes. Even though at home, he rotates among his oldest, tattiest and most comfortable t-shirts, when he goes out, he dresses to impress (meaning stand out). His favourite colour is fire engine red - the brighter, the better. If he has to blind passers-by in the process, so be it. We like it cos he's easy to spot in a crowd, haha.

On one of my rare shopping trips with Lesley-Anne, I bought her a pair of cargo pants from Uniqlo. We love the kids' clothes there as they're comfortable and very reasonably priced. When Andre saw the purchase, he immediately held it against himself and said to me hopefully, "I think I can wear it."

In the end, I had to return to the store to get another pair for him. As it turns out, I found that I could fit into the largest kid's size so I bought one for myself too. At just $9.90 a pop, why not? Here we are, the three of us, in our Uniqlo cargo pants (there was a bright orange that Andre would have loved but they didn't have his size so he had to settle for khaki, which he consoled himself by saying it would go well with all his bright tees).

So for now, I'm adjusting my mindset. If I can't go shopping with my daughter, I'll just have to go with my son.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Literature assignment using poetry

One of the short stories Lesley-Anne learnt last term as part of her literature class was Anita Desai's Circus Cat Alley Cat. Most literature assignments involve critical analysis of the chosen text but this had an added dimension - the kids had to write a poem on the story from the perspective of the child (narrator). I think this assignment played to Lesley-Anne's advantage because she loves poetry. In her p6 class, she had earned the reputation among her classmates of being the resident poet.

The poem was to be in free verse, ie rhyming is optional. Here's what she came up with (for the poem to make sense, I think it's necessary to read the original story first).

She was the new nanny, who had a large build
With hefty shoulders and wiry hair - unlike silk
Her lady-like ways forever gone

When Anna walked in, everything changed
My imagination fired, slightly deranged
My own room and self did transform

When dusk came and the lights were switched on
The brightness of Anna's eyes really shone
Like that of a performer under bright circus lights

Her white uniform, all neat and pressed
Was that of a nanny who is very well-dressed
But it changed to become a pair of pretty pink tights

Breakfast time! Anna's freshly cut bread
Became a hunk of flesh, a deep crimson red
Our stomachs stopped growling

We gnawed our bread, but our appetites were suppressed
However, our imagination continued to digress
The cats are prepared and are prowling

For the pink stucco house was the Big Top, a new thing in this story
Our lawn was a stage, basking in the glory
Of the audiences' loud cheers

The chirps of a mynah and barks of a dog, both out of sight
Became the gibbering of apes and tiger's roar with much might
They were our fellow circus peers

For now, we spring, not skip
We no longer hop, but we leap
Just like a circus cat would

Then, wooden chair in hand, Shakti arrived later
Also holding a whip, it was obvious she was our trainer
For around cats, Shakti ruled

Oh! The thrills of the circus acts
Involving many circus cats
With Shakti as our queen

We take away the audiences' breath
As we defy gravity and death
The most terrifying act you have ever seen


A cry in the distance made me realise
That all this was not real and before my own eyes
Things changed back to the way it was before

A tricycle and skipping rope where the wooden chair had been
A neem switch where the whistling whip was seen
The locked cage door was a shut window, no more
And Shakti was Anna weeping on the garden floor

Anna was weeping for her lost baby
Some other time, I shall tell you the full story
But, most importantly, Anna there, seemed to be tame!

However, it did not last, for several years soon passed
And Anna returned to the circus at last
Anna "the circus cat" lives up to her name!

Lesley-Anne scored 17/20 (Content: 9/10, Language: 8/10) for this assignment. Her teacher wrote, "Very clever!" with a smiley face. I think it's quite apparent that was an assignment Lesley-Anne really enjoyed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Transitioning into the teenage years

One thing I noticed about Lesley-Anne this year was her change in temperament. For the past two years, she was angsty and often uptight and testy. I'm not sure if it's because of exam stress (aggravated by the PSLE) or the hormonal changes associated with puberty (probably both) but she was not always easy to be around. A casual remark could set her off unexpectedly and many a time, I would yell at her to snap out of it which of course would drive her into a blacker mood. I used to despair over what monster had taken over my angelic daughter.

The change this year was significant enough for me to notice. She's more relaxed and confident, less sensitive and and readier to laugh at herself. As a result, our relationship has improved tremendously as well as her relationship with Andre. This year, the two of them have quarrelled less and they've played together more. Funnily enough, Lesley-Anne likes to spend time in Andre's room and I hear a lot of laughter emerging from it, which is a good sign.

I credit part of the smooth transition to Lesley-Anne's school. It has a very warm and nurturing environment, and has without a doubt, helped her settle in the secondary school routine comfortably. She has made friends, especially with her fellow band members who are such a tightly knit group that when the sec 4 band members made their formal exit, there were lots of tears and what Lesley-Anne calls (with a shudder) "emo-ing".

This change is a huge relief to me - dealing with teenage issues is no fun at all. In fact, when Andre started getting sulky and throwing a hissy fit, I went, "no no no no no, you are NOT becoming a teen just yet!" I'm not sure if you can halt the teenage process out of sheer willpower but that sure ain't stopping me from trying.

For Andre's birthday, Lesley-Anne put in a lot of effort and thought into his presents. She gave him a couple of smooth stones (one she painted with the letter 'A' and another with a shuttlecock) and a bird to hang on his handphone.

She also made him a couple of signs for his room - one is a No Entry sign (which now proudly hangs on his door) and the other is a sidewalk star bearing his name.

I thought it was very sweet of her to do what she did and I love that the two of them are getting along so well now. Maybe it's also because Andre has matured a little and is less prone to pushing her buttons (which he's annoyingly good at). Whatever it is, I've waited a long time for them to be able to share the same space without biting each others' heads off. The fact that they can actually be friends, well... that's just a bonus.

So here's my encouragement to parents out there who are dealing with teenage angst: take heart! It doesn't last forever even though it may seem like it. Keep the communication channels open, be patient and in time, you'll likely get your delightful, personable child back again.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Andre's big sleepover!

Andre first asked me if he could have a sleepover birthday party earlier this year. I thought it was a reasonably good idea mainly because he would only be able to invite a few kids (since his room is small). After his birthday party two years ago, I wasn't keen on organising another for a large group of boys.

So the party was planned and Andre invited 5 of his friends for the sleepover from Thursday to Friday (which was Children's Day, a school holiday). I didn't bother to organise party games this time since I learnt from the last experience that boys being boys, prefer free play and sports.

I fetched the boys from school to save their parents a trip since it was a working day. During lunch, I asked them what they wanted to do first and to my utter astonishment, two of them actually replied, "homework". That's what I call well-trained in the Singapore system!! It never happened though, they were vehemently shouted down by the other three boys (the birthday boy included).

The boys spent most of their time playing table tennis and badminton, which they enjoyed tremendously. Be warned though, chaperoning a bunch of 10-year-old boys in a confined space is not for the faint-hearted. I've never witnessed people play across the length and the breadth of the table tennis table AT THE SAME TIME while others are kicking and dribbling ping pong balls on the floor like they're playing soccer. Not to mention high-pitched shrieks echoing off the walls. It's like being in a room with 20 howler monkeys on drugs.

Who says you need a net for badminton?

Badminton finally gave way to the most basic activity created by hyper boys - catching. Here's an interesting observation - some of these boys didn't know each other since they each became friends with Andre from a different circumstance. The 6 boys are actually from 4 different classes at school. But placed in an activity-based setting, they quickly got along like a house on fire.

Dinner was pizza, shepherd's pie and garlic bread. It's funny, with girls, if a parent was present at the dining table, they would instantly clam up or be on their guard. With boys, everything is unfiltered. There's this particular boy who left me in stitches with his quips and deadpan expression. He's obviously a food lover - the minute he stepped into the house, he opened his bag and whipped out a family sized bag of snacks, declaring, "this is my Children's Day present."

At dinner, he revealed that his grandmother watches a local Channel 8 serial with a Hokkien theme song and proceeded to belt it out at top volume. When the conversation moved to TAF club, he stated as a matter of fact, "My grandmother always feeds me too much chicken. That's why I'm fat."

"Chicken doesn't make you fat," I offered consolingly.

"It's fried."

"Well," I was trying to stifle a smile. "It's not too late..."

Not even batting an eyelid. "Yes, it's too late."

Later, I discovered he had not brought his sleepwear and asked him about it. "My mother will bring it later. She has to come because we forgot to buy a present for Andre." I'm sure his mum would be mortified to learn that he volunteered that piece of information but really, that boy made my day - he's pure entertainment.

Finally settling down to eat some birthday cake and watch a movie. One boy asked if I had Fast and Furious, another requested for "something with zombies". I didn't want to risk complaints from angry parents so I screened a cartoon instead - Monsters vs Aliens.

The calm didn't last long. All too soon, the sugar rush kicked in. You know, even though there were only 5 boys at any one time at the party (one arrived only at dinner time, one didn't sleep over and another had to leave for a birthday dinner with his mum before returning to the party), let me tell you, it felt like 50.

I'm not sure if it's just the boys Andre hangs out with but these were as jittery as Mexican jumping beans and the only time they could sit down without hitting or kicking something was during meals or when they were playing computer games. I did find out that all of them, except one who happens to be the most mature of the bunch, are last borns. Hmmm....

If you're wondering what that the boy in the left picture is holding, it's a fabulous plush hammer that I gave each of the kids as a party gift. There are two types - one goes "DOIIIII-NNNNG!" like in cartoons when you hit it and the other makes the sound of glass shattering. Very fun and it was a great 'hit' (pardon the corniness) with the boys.

Finally at 11pm, we sent the boys to brush their teeth and change into their sleepwear. There's the pre-bedtime routine...

and the mandatory telling of ghost stories...

...before they acquiesced to having the lights turned off.

If you think it was an uneventful night, then you haven't heard a word I've said about boys. Talking ensued despite my reminders to go to sleep, as well as a pillow fight. At 1am before I turned in, I caught two boys sneaking out of the room. They claimed that they needed water so I topped them up and shooed them back to bed.

The next morning, I learnt that the same two culprits had woken the rest of the boys up at 3am thinking it was 5am and told them to get ready for breakfast. They then stumbled out bleary-eyed into the dark living room and toyed with the idea of playing Risk. SERIOUSLY. When Andre realised that it was only 3am, they apparently looked at each other and said, "what do we do now?" The most sensible boy of the lot declared, "Go back to sleep lah!" From what I know, Andre had muttered, "morons". Heh.

At 6.30am, Kenneth peaked into the room. The boys were out like a light, having completely swapped sleeping positions. Two were on Andre's bed.

Their little night adventure didn't seem to have any lasting effect. By 8am, they started to climb out of bed and still in their pyjamas, decided to start their postponed game of Risk. Conquering the world before breakfast. Why not?

Breakfast was ham and sunny side up eggs with toast, pancakes with syrup and milo.

Later that morning, when the food had settled, the boys went down for another round of badminton and table tennis before their parents came to pick them up.

All in all, Andre had a blast even though he was zombied out during his badminton training later that day. His prayers that night had a little addendum, "Thank you God for a wonderful sleepover and I-hope-I-can-have-another-one-soon."

Well, if God can help organise it, I won't object.
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