How Going Home For CNY Can Help Make You A Better Parent

We’re midway through the Chinese New Year celebrations for 2019, the Year of the Pig. Before we go further, I’d like to wish you a wonderful Chinese New Year, may the coming year bless you with abundance, prosperity, good health, plenty of wealth and tons of happiness. Now, let’s get to our regular programming.

For CNY, I went home to Tawau which is in the state of Sabah, the land below the wind. I got holed up in a house that 17 people slept in during the night and 20-30 people run around in during the day. Eight of those are someone’s grandkids.

With so many family nuclei crowded together, I had the exciting opportunity to observe parenting techniques practiced by each family member and their spouses. But first, let’s set the scene.

Community-based Parenting

In a large household, because not everyone can be at the same place as their children at the same time – some of us are cooking in the kitchen, others are smoking in the balcony, still others are doing housework while the kids are almost always never in a line of sight – we all depend on the unofficial community-based parenting method to keep all eight of the grandkids injury-free as much as possible.

What happens is that you parent the child that is closest to you (by proximity, not by relationship). As every child that runs around will call you a variation of uncle (伯伯 / 舅舅 / 叔叔) or auntie (阿姨 / 姑姑), you can pull rank and make them behave if they are misbehaving.

It’s amazing what an uncle or an aunt can do that their own parents can’t: make them switch off that phone, make them eat the food in front of them, make them stop cussing (kids cuss so much these days), make them stop running around, make them run more, make them stand still and look at the camera and smile like they mean it – stuff like that.

Effectiveness May Vary

Some aunts or uncles are more effective than others. Seniority doesn’t help much; the level of your voice and how stern you are does. Noticeably, the aunts talk more to the kids (is school fun? I bet it’s fun) while the uncles talk more to fellow parents (schools these days, sigh).

Some conversations get really personal.

One of my nephews had an incident a few months back with his mother that left everyone upset. The son, at the onset of puberty and possibly a rebellious stage, had upset his mother. The good news is she is tough and won’t let something like this faze her.

But this is an issue that should be addressed, and my husband carried out his role as uncle to talk to the boy about it. I admire his patience when talking to his nephew. He took the time to ask the boy what happened from his point of view. Rather than take what was told at face value, he asked questions that dug into the details, the kind of questions that tear fibs apart. The boy had no choice but to be completely honest.

Uncle promised a resolution with the mother. Nephew says to leave it alone. Uncle respected his nephew’s decision because he is growing up but made him promise to try harder to be more civil with his mother. Nephew accepts. They go back to their activities.

Doing It Longer Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing it Right

Correcting children’s behaviour is one thing. Correcting parent’s behaviour is another. We often look up to the older generation for tips on parenting, right? I mean, “you raised more kids that I will ever dream of having. They all survived to adulthood, they aren’t robbing banks or doing drugs, ipso facto you must be a great parent.”

With a line of reasoning like that comes a misplaced sense of confidence and belief in those who have been parents longer.

But doing it longer doesn’t mean you have been doing it right.

Parents had it far easier back then: the streets weren’t as dangerous, there is less toxins in our food, teaching was actually an ambition and a dream job, school headmasters were revered, people were less judgemental if you beat your kids etc. Old-timey parents get a Grade A for parenting if their kids grow up normal, in other words average. Average is good.

Today’s kids have to live up to higher expectations in more demanding environments. They have to deal with stress from studies as well as responsibilities in the classroom and at home. With both parents working, today’s children lack the emotional support that many of their parents had while growing up in single-working-parent households.

Society has also grown more dangerous and bold – it’s no longer a viable option for a child to walk to the store alone. In fact, if anything happens to the child during said walk, people call the parents an idiot for being neglectful yet never really ask what caused the environment to change so drastically between their relatively safer time and this currently problematic one. But I digress.

My point is we live in different times.

Old parenting methods may work but they no longer suffice. And we have to adjust and make changes. We need to communicate with our kids more. We must equip them with valuable knowledge and skills and ways to defend themselves. Don’t you agree? Yes? Try telling this to someone who has been a parent longer than you.

Excusing Behavioural Problems

How dare you say I don’t talk to my children enough. I talk to them all the time. Heck, I’ve been doing this far longer than you, my kids are older than yours. You wait until your kids are the same age, then you’ll see how hard you will have it. When that happens to you, then you’ll know.

Whoa, I’m sorry for trying to drop a hint that your child needs a little bit more of your time. This is not about you or your parenting skills. It’s about your kid. But fine, I’ll back off. Cause I get it: getting critiqued as a parent always makes one feel really bad. And let’s face it, you get a higher dose of those during CNY.

We all seem to think that if we fail as a parent, then it’s all over. I’ve learned that this is so not true. Parenting isn’t a job you can quit or a career you can leave. That thought is downright frightening. But at the same time, if you look at it a different way, this also means that even if you mess up a thousand times, you’re still going to keep your job as a parent. As long as you keep trying, and keep doing that job, it’s never really over.

Instead, what we (my finger is doing circles in the air right now) shouldn’t do but still do anyways, is that we set the bar low. We attribute every behavioural problem to a phase or a developmental stage. In other words, we make excuses for our kids. It’s almost a culture.

Child disrespecting you? “Oh it’s their rebellious stage, it will blow over soon.” Child can’t manage their studies well? “They’re kids. It’s unnatural to chain them to a desk for 6 hours a day.” Child stuck on screens a lot? “There’s nothing for them to do here, the weather is so hot, there are kidnappers out there on the prowl.” You get my drift.

When we make excuses for our kids, we are actually making excuses for ourselves. That’s when we stop trying. And that’s when we need to sit up and pay attention.

Tackling Parenting Like A Boss

(Have I got your attention? Want to have a share of the nuggets of parenting tips I’ve collected from various parents in the past few CNY? Come join me. Let’s all learn together-gether.)

I’ve learned to keep an open mind with parenting advice. Some parenting advice are golden, those passed down from generation to generation, those that have proven themselves over and over again. Others reek of passing trends (those gleaned from articles) and failure due to poor execution (low levels of commitment). It’s healthy to mix it all up and then pull the ones that work with your situation out of the parenting hat.

Bear in mind that what works for you may not work for others, and of course, vice versa. Also, what works for one child may not work for their sibling, and of course, vice versa. Parenting isn’t a science, it’s an art. #rollwiththepunches Here we go:

You have to commit if you want to be an effective parent. Be consistent. E.g. you can’t treat your kids being rude to you as a joke on a good day then snap at them when you are having a bad day. If they’re not supposed to be rude to you, tell them, every single time no matter what mood you are in.

You have to teach with your actions and your behaviour rather than your scoldings and lectures. Practice what you preach e.g. stop playing with your phone 24/7 if you want your kids to stop playing on their phones 24/7.

If parenting isn’t difficult, you probably aren’t doing it right. Worrying about whether you are doing this right is part of the process too. You need two things to help you through: faith and patience (time). The second one is harder, trust me.

Even if you mess up, it’s okay. It’s always okay. Stop beating yourself up. Stop being so stubborn. Learn from your mistakes. And stop doing the wrong thing again and again.

What works in one family may not work in another. Every technique works based on a set of circumstances (home environment, how much time you spend with your kid, principles you have lived with and are now passing down to your kids etc) e.g. not all kids function better if you scold them, some kids don’t require scolding in order to do what you ask but they may require specific instructions and words of encouragement. Adapt.

If you are going to complain about your child with them in the room, (to another adult), you need to sing praises in front of them too. Don’t do one in front of them and one behind them. Be fair. Keep their self esteem and how your actions affect them at the back of your head at all times.

Talking to your kids isn’t the same as communicating with them. Communicating with your kids is teaching them without it feeling like you are teaching them. Think that is hard? Then try teaching first. Teaching is the art of delivering what is in your head into your child’s head. It’s actually harder than it sounds. What you are telling them may not be what they are receiving on their end. You will need to always make the effort to make sure you both are on the same page. Hence, talking to your kids isn’t the same as communicating with them.

Kids have good opinions too. We just have to learn to listen. Sometimes we need to wait quite a while. Without interrupting them. While motivating them to speak. In a no-judgement zone. Without saying things like, “you’re a kid, what do you know?” And we need to do this often if we want to raise kids with good, solid, substantive opinions.

Kids who talk back grow up to be more assertive and sure of themselves. So long as they aren’t rude, give them some leeway. Never fall back on, “you do as I say because I said so” cause that will come back and bite your ass faster than you can say “because I said so”. Kids who talk back develop better sense of logic. Rather than discourage them, encourage them by breaking apart their argument. They will come back stronger and that trains their sense of logic to the point where that will keep them out of trouble because then they know how to tell right from wrong.

Teach your children respect so it becomes part of their principles. Children may think being rude is just being playful. Don’t wait until they make that association before you teach them to be polite when they speak to someone older than them. Make it so it is engrained in the way they are, to the point that if they see another child being rude to an older person, they will speak up.

In Conclusion

Oh, I’m done with the post. I just want to share something else: a theory and this cool shot of home.

During CNY, while it is festive to be amongst so many people at all hours of the day, the discomfort of working long hours in the kitchen and running through hoops to get things done in time does get to you. Meanwhile, children run free and get into trouble. Tempers flare, especially if those children belong to you.

I think that some Chinese ancestor from all those years ago noticed this and passed down specific rules like “No scolding or anger on the first day of Chinese New Year or bad luck shall befall upon you and your family”

As a reaction, parents proactively give warnings to their children, “Please behave on the first day of CNY, I don’t want to scold you please, it is bad luck. Please.” The children behave (or not) and the parents will ignore their shenanigans or correct them in a calm manner instead of shrieking at them for being such a hooligan, thereby keeping the harmonious nature of CNY in spite of all the stress and hectic goings-on behind the scenes.

In conclusion, I think the person who set this rule is a goddamn genius and deserves a Nobel Peace prize.

How to Make Kids Appreciate the Food You Make

My daughter is an average sized child, not too tall or short or thin or overweight for her age. But she eats like a trooper especially when I make her home-cooked meals and I’m not even a very good cook compared with the other cooks in my family.

The fact that she is appreciative of the food I make for her is because when she was younger, maybe 4 or 5 years old, I let her watch her 70+ year old grandmother labour in the kitchen to make dinner for us.

One thing you need to understand about this is that we lived in one of those wooden houses you see in kampung areas. Those type of houses are cold as winter during the nights and hot as hell during the day.

As she watched her grandmother de-scale and de-gut fish or pluck feathers off a kampung chicken, or chop up meat and bone to make soup, she herself will be drenched in sweat. The hot unforgiving sun and the zinc roof turned the kitchen into a sauna on a daily basis.

Yet instead of complaining, her sense of curiosity will take over and she would ask 99 questions per hour. What is this, what is that, why is po po doing that to the chicken feet, why throw that away, what do you call this, why does it look like this, what is she adding to the soup, what does that do?

I would help fill in the blanks or ask grandma to explain to her (to be honest, it’s more of the latter. It’s a learning experience for the both of us). In between each ingredient prep, she would run off to play. And when grandma is going to prepare the next item, po po would holler from the kitchen and we would assemble next to her once again.

Come dinner time, I will identify the dish on the dinner table, and relate it with the raw ingredients that grandma had prepared just now. Remember when po po removed the scale or pluck the feathers? That is what you are eating now.

Her eyes will grow bigger with recognition, and I know that the connection has been made.

I do this often but not every day. If we can opt out of being in the hot kitchen, we would (we’re only human, not superhuman like po po) but every now and then, grandma would prepare a special meal and we would stand on the sideline and watch her work her magic.

To be honest, I did this only to introduce more of the kampung life to my daughter. I was pleasantly surprised that she understood the link between the work in the kitchen and the food at the table during dinner time. A side effect of that is that she is appreciative of every home-cooked meal, be it made by me or by her grandma.

She would ask for a second helping of rice and sometimes mid-meal, she would mumble to herself, “this is so delicious”. That’s like music to my ears after spending three hours making soup for her. (It takes only an hour now with a pressure cooker, but still…)

Now that she is older, I ask for her help to peel carrots or daikon, cut cucumbers, wash leafy vegetables or pluck water spinach (bayam). When we go to the market, she is the one who picks the tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and corn to make her favourite ABC soup.

The fact that she does this voluntarily is something that makes all those Q&A sessions in the kitchen years ago so worth it.

More Reading: Why Mothers Cook

Letting Kids be Kids

I was with my kids having a go at their bicycles after dinner. We live in a guarded neighbourhood so riding their bicycles after 9PM is a common occurrence. Hey, we get them out of the house whenever possible, right?

This time though, a 3 year old from next door saw us and rode his push-scooter over to play. He was chubby, a little sunburned, chatty and frankly a little bossy. His grandmother (turns out she was his great-grandmother, 85, small statured but still limber) came over to watch him not fall and hurt himself, like all mothers do instinctively.

Fifteen minutes into play, the boy manages to get my son unseated from his bike. The boy tries to ride it. Fails. Grandma reminds him repeatedly to not play in the middle of the road. He tries again. Still haven’t quite figured out the bike. Gives up. Goes back to his push scooter.

Another ten minutes into play, while playing cops and robbers, the accidentally grabbed my son’s arm too hard. My son grimaced in pain though by his lack of tears, I figured it wasn’t intolerable. After making sure he was okay, they continued playing.

Five minutes later, Grandma starts scolding the boy really loudly, then goes to retrieve a cane(!) I must have blacked out before this because at no point was the boy misbehaving so badly that Mr Cane needed to make an appearance.

Grandma starts the ritual: threaten, threaten, raises cane, boy holds his ear, stays in submissive position. Grandma lowers cane, boy runs off to continue playing. Grandma waves her cane around some more, then asks us to ignore him. “Go play. Ignore him.” Then to her great-grandson, “Why can’t you just play by yourself? Why do you need to talk so much? Why order people around so much? Why… Why… Why…” The questions kept coming, to no listener in particular.

She comes to me, apologetic. For what, I’m still not sure. I smile to her, gesture positively. “It’s okay. He’s just being a kid.” Perhaps she was afraid her kiddo had upset my kiddo with the arm thing. But that’s 10 minutes ago, by now – all but forgotten.

Then she starts her gripes. “His mother has canes all over the house. We go swimming, he goes and bother other families. He refuses to come out of the swimming pool even after swimming for an hour. I’m 85. I can’t control him without the cane. He doesn’t listen to me. His parents work late nights. See, until now, they are not back yet. I’m 85. How can I manage him without the cane?”

“CAR!” We usher the children into the parking spots, away from the road.

The boy waves at the driver and its passenger. Mommy and daddy are home. They walk over while the boy tries to squeeze in 3 more minutes of playtime. “Say goodnight to aunty and your friends.”