Monday, September 28, 2015

Helping kids overcome the fear of failure

Recently, a mother wrote to me after reading my book, The Good, the Bad and the PSLE, to say that her daughter has the same fear of failure as April in the book. She asked me how she could help her child overcome this. In case you didn't know, that reference in the book was based on Lesley-Anne and an incident I wrote about way back in 2008.

The fear of failure is very common, especially among high achieving kids. Some people feel this is so because high achieving kids have never tasted failure. It's probably true but that's only part of the picture. High achieving kids don't just seldom taste failure, many of them systematically go out of their way to AVOID failure. In other words, for this group of kids, not failing may have started as the cause of the fear but it also became a calculated outcome.

When Lesley-Anne was much younger, she would shy away from trying anything new. It took us a while to realise that anything new was frightening because she didn't know if she would be good at it and somehow, being good at whatever she did was so important to her (even if it was something as inconsequential as trying a new piece of equipment at the playground).

We constantly told her it was fine not to be good at something (who cares if you can't work the monkey bars??) Just try lah. But she wouldn't. She felt she would be judged for failing and the impending shame (which to us was imaginary) was too overwhelming. Contrast this with Andre who would give everything a go with gusto, and if he fell down or failed, he would just cry and blame the obstacle for being "too haaaaaaarrrd". Lesley-Anne internalised the failure whereas Andre attributed it to external circumstances.

According to this article, the fear of failure is one of the biggest fears in modern society among children. I'm no psychologist but I believe that this fear has to do with self-identity. In today's modern society where a person's self-worth seems to be wrapped around how smart/popular/beautiful/sporty/arty we are or how many trophies we can chalk up, failure is like a bad word.

Compounding this problem is our ridiculously narrow definition of success. In Singapore's context, it usually just means good academic scores. Kids here are almost always singularly judged by their academic achievements, which is so limiting for personal growth. Children who have consistently done well in school and regularly told how smart they are, run the danger of accepting this label thrust on them. They tend to fear bad grades like the plague because that threatens their self-identity.

Lesley-Anne, who is in a "branded" school, tells me she sees this around her all the time. After the release of exam results, there will always be students found crying, sometimes for a B grade. Like it's the end of the world. Whereas in Andre's neighbourhood school, it's a less common occurrence.

I can picture parents blaming the schools and education system for this. While I don't deny that our system plays a part in reinforcing the kiasu competitive spirit, I want parents to face the brutal truth: we are complicit in entrenching the fear of failure in our children.

I often hear of parents setting ridiculous standards for their children, like "you have to score 95/100 for Maths!" If the kid slogs enormously hard and amazingly manages to achieve this feat, the parent starts to think, "There, see? It's achievable!" And that then becomes the standard the kid has to thereafter live up to (or even improve on - "if you can get 95, you can get 100!") or forever be considered under-performing. We not only set them up to be afraid of failure, we set the bar for failure at such an unrealistically high level so anything less than perfection is considered failure. Any wonder our kids turn out this way?

Incidentally, once we set goals this way, we are undermining our teaching of other values like honesty and compassion. If we define the measure of success as a finite grade, then we're sending the message that this is the goal to be reached at any cost. Even if it means cheating in an exam. Or even more incomprehensible, if the benchmark for success is based on someone else's: "You have to beat Aaron in Science!" I've seen kids hate their smarter classmates or view them as rivals because their parents have unwittingly painted them as the obstacles to their own kids' success. It's terribly sad.

So if you're the parent of a child who's afraid of failure and want to break the cycle, what do you do? First, do understand that the fear of failure is largely internalised. You can't simply tell your child that failure is part of life and he needs to get over it. (Just like you can't tell me to get over my fear of lizards and expect it to magically happen. I'll smack you.) You need to create the environment that de-stigmatises failure and reinforce this through everyday lessons. Like I wrote previously in my article on affluent parenting, instilling values is a long-drawn process. It will take time.

Here are some suggestions based on my own experiences and articles I've read:

1. Praise the effort, not the outcome. Eg. if your kid worked hard for an exam, praise that, regardless of the result. That's right, see the second part of that sentence underlined. For my kids, when we see that they have worked hard, we praise them before the results are released. Even if the results turn out to be less than satisfactory, we want to reinforce the lesson that it was the hard work that mattered. After all, one could also do well in an exam without studying, just due to luck. That's not something to reward.

2. Praise your child for the values he demonstrates, like diligence and perseverance, not for his smarts. A kid who's constantly told how smart he is tends to internalise the "smart" label and feel the pressure to live up to it. There's a lot to lose and his self worth can come crashing down if the results don't reflect that label (hence fear of failure). Also, don't overpraise for every little thing. Kids know when the compliments are fake and these don't give them a sense of accomplishment. In fact, they do the opposite.

3. When your kids fail at something, resist the scolding and the nagging. Scolding reinforces the message that failure is BAD and something to be avoided. By all means, help them see where they went wrong but instead of harping on the failure, help them get back up on their feet and encourage them try again. And if they fail again, help them try AGAIN. Seriously. No matter how many times it takes. In this interview with the South China Morning Post, I talked about how I responded when Lesley-Anne failed maths in school. I know not scolding is hard. We're human (and Asian parents!) Even if we don't scold, our kids can still sense our disappointment. So I know it can be a struggle, but do try.

4. Encourage your child to try new things. Like a new sport. For young kids, this could be as simple as trying out a new contraption on the playground. If they resist, don't force or criticise. Just try again next time. If they do make an attempt, remember Point 1 - praise the effort. Then go back to point 3 - if they fail, resist the scolding. Even better, try it with them. Some articles I've read say to use encouraging phrases like "you can do it!" but I would proceed with caution because it depends on the kid. For Lesley-Anne, saying "you can do it!" didn't encourage her one bit, it only added more pressure and increased her fear of failure. So know your child and adjust accordingly.

Over the years, Lesley-Anne has definitely made lots of progress and she's a lot more self-assured now. When she was in sec1, she loved dance but refused to try out for the school dance CCA despite my prodding because she was convinced she wasn't good enough. High chance of failure = don't try. But by the time she entered JC1, she was prepared to give the dance CCA a go, even though she knew her chances were slim (because she wasn't in a dance CCA in secondary school). That gave me great comfort as I saw how she had matured in this area. The fact that she made it to the CCA was a bonus but I would have been proud of her even if she hadn't.

I wouldn't say her fear of failure is entirely resolved because even to this day, issues occasionally crop up. Lesley-Anne tends to downplay her achievements so as not to raise expectations. Whenever I express delight over her performance in some exam, she would dismiss it with something like "oh, I just got lucky" which I have to admit, sometimes annoys me. But I understand it's her way of not putting pressure on herself because she already tends to do that. It's her coping mechanism and her way of distancing achievements from her self-identity, something I've grown to understand.

The fear of failure has implications not just in school but on life itself. Kids who fear failure will almost never take risks. In school, they will choose the "safe" subjects. Their singular goal is to pursue good grades and enter prestigious universities, studying prestigious courses because that is the definition of success. Read this article about how to some kids, not getting into the top university is considered a total failure. Upon graduation, they will go for the prestigious or "safe" occupations.

Which is such a pity. For these people, life isn't a journey of discovery but an obstacle race fraught with hurdles to safely cross. They miss out on life's adventures because they are afraid to try new things (which is instrumental to discovering one's passions or interests). And they will be terrified of making mistakes at work. At the end of the day, how fulfilling is this life? I've met many adults who told me they regretted not being more adventurous in their youth and that they wished they had found their life's passion earlier. How can you find your life's passion if you are too busy staying on the tried and tested path? The fear of failure is incredibly limiting.

Many entrepreneurs didn't get good grades in school. While it is also because they tend to have a very different mindset that doesn't fit in with structured curriculum, I believe part of the reason could be that entrepreneurship is too far too risky for high achievers who fear failure. There's just too much to lose.

Bill Gates famously said, “I failed in some subjects in exam, but my friend passed in all. Now he is an engineer in Microsoft and I am the owner of Microsoft.” Something to think about.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A 9-course meal to remember

Remember last month when I wrote about how doctor-turned-chef Chan Tat Hon invited me to his restaurant for lunch at The Bento People? Well, not long after that wonderful experience, he invited me back again for his 9-course Omakase degustation menu at the Snack Culture Company. This menu has already taken Singapore by storm since it began earlier this year, winning rave reviews from food critics and bloggers for its creativity and taste.

Before I went, I was very curious, partly because degustation meals are not my usual food scene. My family is the type who would eat a lot of the one type of food we like, not mini plates of many dishes. For us, a fancy dinner is one that features Peking duck or some French dessert that we can't pronounce. But we do love food (sometimes too much) and as far as adventures go, the culinary type is our favourite!

I decided to bring Andre as my date because I thought it would be nice for him to experience something different and it was rare for us to have mother-son bonding time that didn't involve me yelling at him to study. Although once we were there, I wondered if I'd made a mistake bringing Vacuum Cleaner Boy who might inhale each dish within seconds.

Arrived at 7.15pm and the place was comfortably filled (as in not too many that we had to share tables but not too empty that you felt you were being watched). Tat Hon's wife, Janice, served us drinks first. One of their specialties is the Yuzu Italian Soda but since we don't like aerated drinks, she made us the non-fizzy version. Nice!

Before dinner started, a fellow diner approached me and asked if I was the author of the Danger Dan books. Her son was a big fan. Wow! Dinner was off to a good start and I hadn't even eaten yet! Heh.

Ok, enough of the preamble and on to the food!

#1 Japanese Edamame with Thai Tom Yum Espuma

You're supposed to eat this by dropping the edamame peas into the tom yum broth and eating it together. The natural lightness of the peas was a bright contrast to the spiciness of soup. Even though Andre has an extremely low spice threshold, he slurped this up and declared it very good (as beads of sweat appeared on his nose).

#2 Mini Korean Mandu (Pork Dumplings) in Chilled Singapore Bak Kut Teh Consomme

I had serious doubts about this dish when I first read about it. Chilled bak kut teh? Sacrilegious! But I was instantly ashamed of my scepticism when I had my first taste of the broth. It was sublime. The peppery flavour was subtle, not overpowering - it was akin to chilled beef consumme. And the dumplings were equally fantastic (I wanted more). That's when I began to have an inkling as to why food reviewers were hailing Tat Hon as a budding new talent.

#3 Chilled Black Fungus and Mushroom Salad in Nonya Belachan Mayo Dressing

How pretty is this dish? Inspired by nonya chap chye, it was bursting with a myriad of mushrooms. The creamy dressing and chilled serving made this yet another harmonious East-West creation. The little bowl on the left contains the belachan mayo.

Unfortunately, Andre is not a fan of black fungus so he ate everything else except that. Silly boy. When Tat Hon came around and saw the black fungus untouched, he exclaimed, "You don't like? I'm so hurt!"

#4 Ter Kar Chor Scotch Egg

This is a Scotch quail's egg. According to the chef's instructions, we were supposed to take a bite of it plain (like a regular Scotch egg) and then dip it in the vinegar, eat it with the deep fried ginger and experience it as Ter Kar Chor (vinegared pork knuckle typically served to women during their confinement after childbirth).

Dutifully, I took a bite. It tasted fine but a little bland. Then I dunked it in the vinegar, tried it and my brain exploded. It was brilliant. The Scotch egg had magically transformed itself from a score of 7.5/10 to a 10,000. I LOVE the unexpected pairing and the ignition of flavours. I immediately wished I hadn't eaten half the egg without the vinegar. I wished I had a bigger egg. My advice if you're going to the Snack Culture Company for dinner - ignore the chef's advice! Eat the whole egg with the vinegar! You're welcome.

#5 Asian Trio: Beef Bulgogi Shabu Shabu in Vietnamese Rice Paper Roll, Ayam Buah Keluak Wanton, Laksa Prawn on Haebee Hiam Cookie

By this time, we were almost halfway through the dinner and Andre whispered to me that he wasn't even half full. Aiyoh. Patience! The bulgogi beef wrap was tender and very tasty, especially with the sweet chili sauce. The buah keluak wanton was so, so unique. The nutty, almost liver-like flavour packs a punch in its deep fried casing. I thought the sour spiciness of the laksa prawn battled a little against the sweet spiciness of the haebee hiam (dried shrimp) cookie but it was extremely tasty nonetheless

#6 Pen Cai Parcel

Pen Cai is a popular Chinese New Year dish where fresh seafood and other expensive ingredients are usually lined with cabbage and steamed in a pot. We opened this neat little parcel to reveal a mini abalone, shiitake mushroom and a fantastically scrumptious scallop. The soup was rich, yet light (this seems to be Tat Hon's signature ability - extracting maximum flavour from ingredients without overloading your palate).

It was at this time that Tat Hon went round from table to table, asking diners to guess the secret ingredient in the soup. Red date? Nope. Kelp? Nope. Beef? Nope. Nope Nope. After several dead ends, Andre's competitive streak kicked in and he called out, "chicken feet!", making Tat Hon stop dead in his tracks. Just to be clear, Andre has no clue what chicken feet tastes like. He probably figured that since everyone else had gotten it wrong, he would just make random guesses. Tat Hon did tell us what it was in the end (no, it's not chicken feet!) but so as not to spoil the fun, I'll not reveal it here.

#7 Kaffir Tomato Capellini Pasta + Cantonese 'Har Jeong' Soft Shell Crab Pasta

Andre's eyes lit up when this was served because he is a huge fan of carbs, especially pasta. The crab, with the prawn paste that's typically used for chicken, is very tasty. The pasta sauce however, was too acidic for us. I think most Singaporeans are accustomed to the sweeter (albeit less authentic) version of Italian pasta sauce.

There were some crispy pieces in the pasta which we enjoyed and couldn't figure out what they were. When I asked a server, she gave me a strange look and replied, "bacon". That triggered a bout of giggles in both of us. Our palates so hopeless lah! Can't even tell we're eating bacon. All those hours of watching Masterchef wasted. Food critics we will never be.

Anyway, Tat Hon mentioned that we were the last diners to sample that dish. Following feedback, he would be changing it to something else.

#8 Seafood En Papillote

This is the piece de resistance, Tat Hon's masterpiece if you will. Fresh seafood baked in parchment with Cajun spices and loads and loads of garlic. This was a generous serving of large prawns, mussels and clams - moist, buttery and delicious. Best of all, it was served with this:

That's right - light, fluffy and crispy prata! This was a stroke of genius. A local twist to an American dish. Andre wasted no time in wolfing down the prata, using each piece to mop up the addictive garlic sauce. Tat Hon even topped up our prata, which was much appreciated by Andre. After this dish, the bottomless pit that is Andre was finally full. He was a happy camper.

#9 Chendol Panna Cotta

First, let me say that Andre doesn't like chendol. And I never understood the big deal about panna cotta. It's just a custard, isn't it? So we were prepared to be underwhelmed. Then we both tried a spoonful and we almost didn't stop for breath as we guzzled it down. I know I should have tried to savour it more but I couldn't stop. It was THAT good. The panna cotta was amazingly rich and satisfying. I actually didn't think it tasted that much like chendol, it was more gula melaka, and the gooey gula melaka was an oh-so-perfect complement. A very satisfactory end to an exceptional meal.

You know how people say you remember a meal based on how it ended? Going by that, I give it 5 stars. If you're looking for a different dining experience that doesn't burn a hole in your wallet, the Snack Culture Company is the one to try. At $59 per head, it's pretty good value compared to other degustation meals on the market.

Andre was so impressed he pestered me to buy a jar of hae bee hiam cookies for dear old dad. So we did. As the official hae bee hiam lover in our household, Kenneth approved!

A parting photo with Tat Hon and Janice, because I totally forgot to do this the last time I was here.

The Snack Culture Company
#02-17, CT Hub, 2 Kallang Avenue
Singapore 339407
Tel: 6443 2006  / 8218 8700 (after hours)

Thursday, Friday & Saturday Nights
‘Around The World in 9 Small Plates’ Degustation Menu: 7.30-10pm. 
By reservation only, limited to 20+ diners per night.

$59+ per person, minimum 2 persons

For reservations and more information, visit here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Confessions of a middle-ground voter

I am a classic middle-ground voter. I am not a die-hard supporter of any party - I support the one with the most rational and convincing plans. In the past, I've voted both for white and for opposition. Over the past 9 days, I've been bombarded with all sorts of rhetoric and passionate pleas on my feed.

But for a want-to-be-rational voter, many of the posts annoyed me tremendously. When you hurl attacks, act yaya papaya, it makes me want to vote your party less. When opposition supporters accuse Ministers of doing nothing but collect their $1m paycheck and shake leg, it makes me want to vote white. (Seriously, they make it sound like we live in North Korea). Conversely, when people tell me to "vote wisely", it makes me want to vote blue. When will people learn that trying to arm-twist others into following your political beliefs has the OPPOSITE effect?

I hear a lot of opposition supporters say they need change, for action. PAP is no action, talk only. This makes me laugh. You only need to talk to people on the ground, the everyday folks, to know that the ruling party had been very busy working their asses off since GE11. I've spoken to so many people who told me that while they want opposition, their MP helped them in this and that. In other words, while the keyboard warriors have been making assumptions about the MIW, painting them as ivory tower caricatures, the MIW have been quietly winning the hearts and votes of their electorate over the past four years. It's very difficult not to vote your MP in when they helped you get a HDB flat or a job.

Using the same argument, what did the opposition DO over the past four years? For many silently watching by the side, WP did nothing, at least nothing that could be chalked up as significant in Parliament. In GE11, people voted WP because they felt PAP was getting too big for their britches. In GE15, many people felt that WP had taken over those britches. A vote is a pledge of trust, not a prize. When people feel that you don't measure up to what is entrusted to you, they take it away the next time. It's a very level-headed decision.

What I'm saying is this was no freak result. No, people didn't vote white because they were scared PAP would not form gahmen. No, it wasn't the new citizens. Don't flatter yourself. As it turned out, the gerrymandering was needless anyway, the swing was so big it wouldn't have mattered. As Cherian George said, Singaporeans are a very pragmatic electorate. People can talk till they're blue in the face about more voices in Parliament but guess what, a voice is just that - a voice. The vast majority of Singaporeans have indicated that they don't want empty talk. They want people who DO. Stop posturing with your big words and your grand ideas. How will you make those ideas happen?

I have since last night, come to realise that majority of Singaporeans are inner rebels. We don't like confrontation so we may not respond to arguments we don't agree with. But it doesn't mean we don't have our own minds. We make our own assessments. The more you shout, the more I'm convinced you are a lunatic and I will show it secretly in the polls. In fact, all the sour grapes by candidates and supporters that have since appeared online only prove to those who voted white that they've indeed made the right choice. Amchio-ing, they are. Incidentally, threatening fellow Singaporeans that they will pay for this decision is akin to LKY threatening Aljunied they will have to repent. See how well that worked out?

Do I wish there are more alternative voices in Parliament? Yes. Do I think it was an unfair playing ground? Yes. But do I think this result is therefore invalid? Not at all. Again, the Singaporean electorate is pragmatic, not stupid. Don't be so bloody condescending. It would do well for the opposition to realise that the best way to win votes is simply to WORK for them. The MIW figured this out the last GE. That's why they're back.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...