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.