Friday, March 27, 2009

Parenting: Natural or Learned?

This NY Times article asks, "Are parenting skills something you are born with? (And if so, what are all those shelves of parenting books for?)"

I have not read a single parenting book in the last two years. Not that I don't find them useful, but anything I've learned from these books I end up not putting into practice after the initial couple of weeks. And while learning from friends about how they parent their kids is useful during the toddler years, I'm finding that as my kids grow older and develop their own distinct personalities, it's often easier to just trust my instincts.

So I'd have to say my style of parenting is probably in-born and then fine-tuned according to the child's temperament. As with so many things in my life, I really go with the flow. I do not subscribe to any particular parenting philosophy nor am I bound by advice from the more religious amongst my friends.

Not that it's gonna be useful to anyone other than myself, but here are a few underlying principles in the way I parent:

I don't want to be my mother

Now, I love my mum and I know she loves me. She's always been there for me, and she has many positive traits. But her authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative) parenting style compounded by an irrational temper she says she can't control, would probably had marred me for life if it had not been for the kind, generous, gentle and loving ally I had in my late father, the funniest person I know. Because of my wonderful childhood memories, I strive to be like my dad, but often I hear my mother's voice coming out of me when I lose it with the kids (...when this happens, I shudder). So while I try not to parent like my mum did, my natural parenting style is actually a mix between my mum's and my dad's, tilting more towards my dad's.

No blaming the bogeyman

My sister and mum used to like distracting little kids who hurt themselves by pointing somewhere and going "Oh, oh, look at the cat!" when there's no bloody cat around. Or they'll beat the floor after a kid's fallen down and say, "don't cry don't cry, we beat the floor, naughty floor." Ridiculous! When Brian was just a baby, I told them, NEVER, EVER, EVER do that. If they fall, they fall, it's no one's fault but their own. It's most definitely not the naughty floor's fault! This applies to other things in life, look to yourself first and ask if the fault lies with you, instead of always looking for someone to blame. And when they're old enough and able to pick themselves up, I'm not gonna hover over them making sure they never hurt themselves. Of course, if the child is truly hurt and need your help, your maternal instinct will let you know. Which brings me to...

Mother knows best

The parenting guru does not know your child. They may have some good tips but not all will work with your particular child. We've gotta be flexible and trust our maternal instincts. For example, someone will say Spare the rod and spoil the child, another will say violence begets violence. My personal preference is to use a cane instead of my hand, if any physical punishment is to be meted out. A cane is detached from mummy but mummy's hand belongs to mummy, I don't know if this makes sense. What I know is I have been caned so many times when I was young but the one punishment that I always remember will the the one time (actually twice :(, once when I was 6 and another when I was 17) my mum slapped me on the face. That, somehow, left a deeper emotional scar than all the canings which left physical marks on my legs (many of my Chinese classmates had cane marks too, no biggie).

My caning (or what I call training) style goes like this, boys misbehave, they both (the musketeer rule of one for all, all for one, applied; one gets punished, both get punished) lie flat on the sofa on their stomach. I explain why they're being punished and give them each a swat. Brian takes it like a man while Sean will cry and plead even before he sees the cane. After the swat, they sit up and say, "Sorry Mummy, and Thank you for training me."...Sean says this while sobbing. Brian hasn't been caned in the past year and I've told him I won't be caning him anymore as he's old enough to reason with. I've told Sean he'll still get the cane if he misbehaves. So although I get bombarded by how we shouldn't cane our kids, I know I couldn't have done without the cane. No amount of reasoning and talking would have kept Sean from driving me crazy circa 2004/2005.

Mothers make mistakes, move on

I've done some pretty mean things to the kids, and I do look back with some regret, but who knows what worse things could have happened if I did not react that way? I might not even be here today. I've slapped Sean so hard on the face when I totally lost it (so really caning is when I'm still rational, when I use my hands, I am already out of control). When Brian was 2+, he gave me such a hard time one weekend that I just whacked him so hard, only to realise to my horror five minutes later that he had huge ulcers in his mouth and that was why he was making such a fuss before and during dinner. He actually had HFMD. I beat myself up and cry really hard whenever I did mean, insane things; and I tell the kids how sorry I am. Brian is always forgiving, Sean less so...but they always know how sorry I am. A friend told me once parents shouldn't ever say sorry...but I don't buy that. So regrets there have been more than a few, but we move on; the kids know I'm human and I make mistakes, while I pray I haven't scarred them for life.

Season speech with grace

I take a laissez-faire approach to lots of things and allowed my mum pretty much free rein over the way she parented the kids when I was still working, but one thing I insisted on was that she must not use negative words such as Stupid, Idiot, Naughty on them. Of course when I lose it, I have used these words, maybe even worse words. But because I hardly use these words, when I do, it really pierces the boys and you can see the hurt immediately on their faces, it's like a shock to their system. I can't help it, that's what I do when I'm incensed (it doesn't happen often, maybe once or twice a year). So later, when I've cooled down, I'll say "Sorry, I didn't mean it, I was just sooooo angry. Of course you're not stupid, and you know that."

However, for the most part, I am always praising the boys, telling them they are the best, the smartest, the cutest, the most gorgeous and so on. They know I'm exaggerating of course. If Sean climbs into my bed as he does almost every morning, the first thing I say to him while we cuddle is, "Seanie, you're the best." or "You're perfect." or "You're gorgeous." in a sing-song voice. He immediately goes, "No, I'm not." and I pretend to cry...and he goes, "Fine, I am." in mock exasperation. This is our standard joke which goes on throughout the day...he sometimes says "No, I'm not" in barely a whisper and I'll still bawl and he goes, "Fine, I am."  We giggle at our private joke.

Make sure they know how much I love them

If nothing else, I want the boys to know that I love them so much. I'm always hugging them and grabbing them and kissing them. This isn't really a conscious effort, it's just something I need to do, for myself, yes, I am that needy :). I'm always telling them how happy they make me, how perfect they are. Cos to me, they are! To others, they may be annoying little punks, but to me, they're my perfect sweethearts (except when they're annoying melah). So whatever others might think of them, they know they are No1 in at least one person's eyes, Mummy's!

Pray over them

Now I'm the last person to look to when it comes to spirituality/Christianity. I don't read the bible and I dislike organised religion and preachy people in general. I find many Christian acquaintances very judgmental, though my good friend Irene, a staunch Christian, likes to point out that I'm being jugdmental too by saying they are judgmental. Touche!

Anyway, one thing I do, though not as regularly as I should, is to pray over the boys. I pray over them when they're sick. I also pray over them when they're in bed and I make sure they hear my prayers. Eg, when Brian was going through a very rude and angry stage (which still resurfaces now and then), I would pray out loud while laying my hand on him, "Lord, Thank You for healing Brian of any hurt in his heart. Help him know that he is loved by all of us so much. Lord, I know he is a good boy with a good heart, and I pray for wisdom and understanding in raising Brian as he goes through the difficult adolescent years. Lord, Thank You for showing us the right way to go, and for strengthening our relationship every day. Thank You for giving us peace of mind that all will be well in the end. Thank You Lord for this wonderful and loving child. We love him so much. Amen" So far, he hasn't shown cynicism when I do this and whether it's coincidence or not, he's always much better behaved after I remember to pray over him.

No preaching; action speaks louder than words

I don't really talk to the boys much about values nor about religion. How can I talk about religion when I don't even read the bible nor go to church regularly? It would be hypocritical to do so. They know I pray and they know what I believe in; and when the time comes, they will choose for themselves what they believe.

Kids are smart; they'll know if you're faking it. When they ask me about creation and Big Bang, I tell them Christians believe this while scientists believe this. What do you think? If they say they think it was Big Bang, I tease them by going, "Whaaaat? You don't believe God created the world in 7 days??!!" Seriously, I can't pretend I know the answers to everything when I don't, least of all how the world was created.

Two words - BE KIND

I've told them they are to remember only one thing and everything else will fall into place - Be Kind. If there's just one value I want to impart to them, it's this. No long list of things to remember. Just be kind. And as it is, even with just one measly thing to remember, they often can't remember to be kind to each other, what more if I give them a long list of Dos and Don'ts.

So just as I want them to remember to Be Kind, at the crux of it all, my basic principle in parenting is also Be Kind. That and lots of prayers and faith that God will take care of everything.


I've learnt that the one thing I shouldn't do is to try to emulate my friends' parenting styles just cos I see their kids behaving so beautifully. Subconsciously, I'm trying to make my kids just like my friends' kids and it never works; cos my kids don't have the same parents and family and siblings and personalities as those kids. Trying to do this never fails to raise the stress level at home. Kids sense it when their parents think they aren't good enough.

I've accepted that my kids will never answer the phone in the cheeriest voice announcing, "Leong Residence, this is Brian/ Sean speaking, whom am I speaking to?" (I have friends whose kids do this) or say the sweetest hellos and how are yous to my friends and probably never take to brown rice and very little meat for meals.

I'm not gonna sweat the small stuff.  There is just one big stuff, BE KIND!  And while I'm sure I'll be picking up a parenting book in the near future that deals with angst-ridden teenagers, chances are I'll still fall back on BE KIND and the other principles outlined up there to guide me in this always surprising but exhilarating journey we call parenthood.


Tsu Lin + + said...

What an excellent post, Lilian. I really enjoyed reading it, every single word - it made me laughed, it made me think just how similar I feel about parenting style too (I don't really bother owning any parenting books - although I do read some websites for tips here & there).

Thanks for this post. So enlightening, to be able to read it out like that.

monlim said...

Wah, disappear behind your computer games for a long time then resurface with this long, thought-provoking post!

Excellent! It's honest, sincere and true. I totally agree that parenting books have a limit cos our kids are so unique and different. I too, have a strong motivation never to be like my mum. She was also authoritarian and irrationally so, like we had to do it her way all the time, even when we were old enough to see that some of her methods didn't make sense. As a questioning teen, it was very frustrating to be forced to follow robotic rules without thought.

I believe in the cane too, instead of hand. But I never used it much not because of philosophy but cos when L-A was growing up, she was generally very good and even a harsh word would get compliance. I used the cane on her a couple of times and it was so traumatic for her I never used it again. So when Andre came along, we didn't even have a cane, somehow never thought to use it. But I too, along with most of my peers, were caned and I'll say that we are not scarred in any way or have violent tendencies because of it.

I do think some are more intuitive parents than others, but it's always hard to prescribe a one-style-fits-all, I don't think there's such a thing. What's more important is the desire to be great, loving parents and then usually fuels action to either look up problem spots or try to be better. And at the end of the day, love is what matters most and your kids know that you love them deeply, so you're a terrific mum!!

Lilian said...

TsuLin: Thanks, your little one is at the stage where parenting tips can be mighty useful. Especially in the next one to two years. I call it the Terrible Twos and the Terrifying Threes! GOOD LUCK! hehe *evil cackle*

Mon: Yalah, felt so guilty even while playing computer games non-stop (thanks to a certain someone), so start thinking about myself and the kids while clicking clicking, saving oubas, building Rome, sweeping gems lor...

L-A sounds like an angel when she was young, so good and so sweet. Andre got lucky then! Imagine if he came first, your house would have been like mine, a cane in every room. Whack ah!

Terrific mum? Thanks! That's really something coming from someone I think is a superb mum who's sensible, loving, patient and KIND, and smart and productive ($$) too!

monlim said...

Yup, I think I got lucky with L-A first, otherwise sure become monster mum with cane everywhere! Cos as you can imagine, Andre was quite a handful (but then hor, he cry his big tears with his big sad eyes only, I cannot tahan already... K always says I give in to him).

We have to support each other (even if to convince ourselves that playing games doesn't cramp our parenting style LOL). I think generally, you can tell the parenting skills from the kids. And you know your kids are polite, responsible, mature and bright so that speaks volumes about you!

Lilian said...

Haha, I can imagine the big dollops of tears falling sadly from his huge puppy-dog eyes. Sean's different, when he cries or whines, wahhhh, that really triggers Mr Hyde in me, cos he just doesn't stop, just screams and cries and cannot be pacified. Try to sayang or pacify him, scream even harder. Sudahlah, cane appears, all tears disappear. And peace reigns supreme again.

Yup, must support one another. Parenting is hard enough without us having to second-guess and question and doubt our daily decisions.

Puzzled by Puzzles! said...

I read many parenting books just because I love to read but I don't put any into use except for the "What to Expect" series. :P I remember reading "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" and thought to myself "Hey! That's what I have been doing and I have not even read this yet!." I think parenting is passing on the values of what we believe in. I have not use the cane/ hand on the kids yet. I think I never will. It is something we hv chosen not to because of my and dh's childhood. With my temper, I think I would have used it wrongly.

monlim said...

You said it, Lilian! I always thought that if mothers were more supportive of each other instead of being competitive (even imaginary competitions), our kids would be all the better for it.

Lilian said...

The "What to expect" series is for younger years right? At the toddler age, kids' developments are quite similar, so such books are pretty useful.

I saw the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" but remember only browsing it. I think I need help with the "Listen So Kids Will Talk" portion :)

It's amazing that you've never physically punished your kids. My mum-in-law is like that and my husband never got any caning nor smacking.

I would definitely go for sparing the rod and hand if a mother's sanity can still remain intact. Your temper can't be that bad if you've managed to do without the cane all these years and still raise two wonderful kids.

Alcovelet said...

Very insightful, Lilian. Thank you so much for sharing and for being so honest about it. There are moments I've regretted whacking RK when he wouldn't stop screaming (and man, these kids can really scream!) - it was once only, with my hand on his bum, and I'm not sure who is more scarred!

I had really strict parents growing up, and I resolved never to be like them. Like Mon says - how to follow rules robotically when it doesn't make sense? So I resolved to parent by the book. I've read tonnes of parenting books, and the harder the problem, the more books I read! But all I've learnt though, is that every child is different, and that parenting style is more an evolution than an immediate know-it-all fix.

What can I say? I've found the experience to be humbling, but extremely gratifying as well. All my ideas of what it means to be a parent (from looking at my parents, it meant having absolute power), have been thrown out the window. I don't even relish being the dictator at all!

What Mon and you say is so true. Parenting is hard enough. We need support rather than a pointing finger to tell us we're wrong and that the person with the finger is the paragon of correctness. What absolute trash! But it's with the support of sensible people, and aiming to be sensible ourselves, that we can do right by our kids.

Lilian said...

Adeline, it's so obvious how much love you have for your little Ah Pek, so I know you won't go wrong no matter how many parenting tips you experiment with.

You've shared a lot too about your parenting struggles and we can see now your struggles bearing fruit.

Always remember no one knows our kids better than we do so how can anyone else think they'd know best how to bring up our kids?

I think as long as we remain grounded and not be part of the crazees, our kids will turn out okay.

Hsien Lei said...

Thanks for being so honest, Lilian. You and I are incredibly different in how we approach life! That's why I learn so much from you. I am really grateful for your friendship. xo

Lilian said...

I know Hsien, we really are so different :) You've taught me lots too; to be a stronger person, to have more confidence in myself and not to take (too much) sh*t from people. I also appreciate that you're always so open and honest about your daily struggles. I still have a long way to go in that respect, cos I don't really know how to talk things out like you do,and I often sweep things under the carpet, be like an ostrich, hoping the problem will resolve itself.

Thanks for your friendship buddy and you're one amazing mum...but you already know that!

breve1970 said...

Oh my goodness, Lilian. I see so much of myself in you! Haha.

Like what Monica has pointed out, this is a very thought-provoking post. My mum sounds very much like yours:).

I use the cane more often than I should on you know who... Hayley! Hannah is still quite compliant at the moment and the last time I used the rod on her was last year when the girls had a big fight.

Aiyah... Hayley drives me up the wall, very strong willed, doesn't listen to reasonings (maybe for her case, she doesn't understand, I don't know) and wants to have her own way ALL THE TIME! Even the Speech and Language Therapist reprimands her... "Don't zhe me" its very rude.... after Hayley grunted when she couldn't string a sentence properly after several repetitions etc etc.

I have also told myself repeatedly that I musn't be like mum when it comes to disciplining my kids... no yelling.. but realise that I am still as loud as her when I lose control.

I have to learn to be more patient...

Lilian said...

LOL@ Don't zhe me! Zhe is such a powerful way for one to indicate displeasure. Sean has never zhe before, but Brian has, and when he does that, I'll go, "You don't zhe zhe me ah..." hehe

The amazing part though is that while we yell and scream like our mums, our kids are more forgiving than we were, do you feel that way? I think cos we also shower them with lots of love.

But you're right, gotta watch ourselves too, and not let the screaming become a norm or kids will definitely tune out, and the screaming has to escalate, and the cycle goes on.

breve1970 said...

Hayley very rude hor?? So embarrassing.

Lilian said...

As a parent, you see as rudelah, but for onlookers like me, we'll think it's cute! Actually, I'm sure she picked it up from you...I know I zhe a heckuva lot at home. Zhe zhe zhe, shiok only, nothing else conveys my annoyance so succinctly and to the point.

breve1970 said...

Hahaha.. you are absolutely right... I zhe when I don't get thing right, I zhe when the gals don't listen to me, I zhe when I drive... zhe zhe zhe... shiok man!

Lilian said...

I wonder what other cultures have in place of Zhe! haha. I'm the biggest zhe-ker in the house, zhe at Sean, zhe at Brian and zhe at my husband, all the time.