072 Counting Down The Remaining Days Of Our Lives

Our Days Are Numbered

I told a friend MM recently that my days were numbered.

“Probably no more than fifteen thousand day left,” I emphasised strong on the numeral.

MM was stumped for words.

I explained with a chuckle, “I am not dying. Just do your sums. It’s the same for everyone. Most of us do not live beyond 90, as much as I hope to live till 100.”

I continued, “My age has already passed the midway mark. Based on the simple calculation of 365 days a year, fifteen thousand days is probably as best as it can get. And it’s actually fewer if you count only the healthy years.”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

“Life feels really short after hearing the way you put it.” lamented MM, “All the more we should treasure our health and cherish every living day.”

Thirty Reams of Papers

Fifteen thousand days is indeed shorter than most of us can imagine.

I captured a powerful image of its brevity when I was in office one day: thirty reams of photocopy papers. That’s it!

Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/

With each ream containing five hundred papers, these thirty reams of papers exactly amounted to fifteen thousand pieces in total.

I thought to myself, “If one piece of paper represents a day, what I choose to write on each piece of paper is tantamount to how I decide to live each day.”

Every day counts only when you make deliberate decisions on how you wish to spend each day of your life.

Counting Down The Days Brings You Closer To Your Loved Ones

Counting down the remaining days of my life has certainly changed the way I spend time with my loved ones.

I decide to spend more time with my parents who are in their eighties. In addition to the fortnightly family gathering, I made it a point to have one-on-one conversation with them on every alternate Monday evenings.

I shared the reason with my thirteen year old son, Conan, “You have thirty thousand days more to go in life. Your dad here used up halved of that. And your grandparents are probably left with no more than three thousand. That realisation made me feel a pressing need to spend more time with them.”

A recent picture taken with my dad n mom at a family dinner on 3 Aug 2019.

Conan said, “I can understand why you are doing this. Time is running out faster than you think though. Even if you are visiting grandpa and grandma weekly, you have only one hundred and fifty times at best.”

I am heartened that Conan has taken to hearts these lessons of life. And I was surprised how a simple idea can trigger an action in me that made my parents happy. It probably also made me a better son, and perhaps, a better parent by example too.

Know What Matters To You Most

Out of curiosity, I wanted to find out how others would respond to the idea of counting down the remaining days of their lives. Interestingly, their responses were varied.

Some agreed that it also gave them an extra impetus to rethink and act on their life priorities quickly. Others rolled their eyes in disbelief at the silly idea and remarked nonchalantly, “Why worry about the inevitable? Life goes on all the same.”

A friend X made a most hilarious response. He said, “Imagine how many meals I would have left after counting the number of remaining days! I pledge myself to be a gourmand for the rest of my life!”

I laughed out aloud.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

Our response may all be different, but it certainly does not take a genius to figure out what matters to each of us most!

Taking a leaf out of the bible, know that your days are numbered and spend it with wisdom.

11 Aug 2019, Sunday

071 The Meaning Of Life Is In That Droplet Of Honey!

One of the greatest perks of parenting is to engage children in meaningful conversations. They set us thinking about important questions.

A Conversation About Pursuing Dreams

Several months ago, I had a conversation with my thirteen year old son, Conan, about “pursuing dreams”.

I said to him, “Before you turn fifteen, try to have a dream that makes you passionate enough to learn and do everything you can to realise that dream.”

To illustrate my point, I gave an example, “You love watching Youtube. Rather than spending many hours consuming the content as a viewer, wouldn’t it be more satisfying if you become a content creator? You are capable of that.”

And I went on, “Be a Youtuber!  Isn’t that an idea you had before? I’d rather you try working on your dreams even if it means compromising a little on your school grades.”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

Conan’s eyes lit up and remarked, ‘Dad, do you know that successful Youtubers make millions of dollars and influence millions of people?”

I nodded smilingly. “Yes, you told me that before.”

Then he challenged me, ‘But do you also know that only a few become that successful? Most people eventually give up their dreams, make do with a nine-to-five job, settle down with a family and lead a normal life like anyone else. So, what’s the point of pursuing a dream?”  

Ouch! That sounded like an insinuation at his old man. But I was impressed with what he said. Letting out a chuckle, I replied, “You have given an apt description of many people’s lives. And you spoke as if you have seen it all.”

Then, I continued, “Life does seem pointless if you look only at the sketches. Life becomes colourful only if you fill in the colours.”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

Conan pondered over my words quietly for a few moments while looking intently at me. 

I posed him a question, “If life is just the same thing for everyone, then you wouldn’t mind swopping your life with anyone else.  So is it okay that if I were to get you to study in another school that you don’t like, have a different set of friends or grow up in another family?”

Conan laughed at the absurdities of my hypothetical question.

I explained, “The truth is life may look the same for everyone, but it carries different meaning for different people.”

He replied, “I think I am okay with my life as it is now. It’s just that I lose interest in things so quickly that I don’t know what my dream is.”

“That’s a problem you have to solve fast. Do you remember you were very keen on playing soccer at primary four, and we supported you fully? But you eventually lost interest when things did not go well despite your best efforts.”

Conan gave an awry smile.

I said, “It’s not a bad experience actually. At least you found out that group sports is not the thing for you.  You get to know yourself better. And one day you will know what your dream really is and no hurdle can stop you from pursuing it. ”

What Is The Point Of Living?

Interestingly, Conan and I had a sequel to this conversation today when I told him about a friend’s seventeen year old daughter’s troubling question to her mother.

Her daughter questioned, “What is the point of life if all we do is to wake up, go to school, eat and sleep. And everyday we repeat the same routine!”

Conan said excitedly, “Dad, tell her this interesting story that I read. A man fell off a cliff and caught onto a tree branch. At the top, there were hungry tigers. And at the bottom were poisonous snakes. In that precarious situation, it’s a matter of time that he could not escape death. Suddenly, the man noticed a droplet of honey dripping off from the branch. And guess what he did? He leaned forward with all his might to lick the honey and cherish every bit of it. The meaning of life is in that droplet of honey.”  

Picture from WordPress Photo Library

That’s a tad too philosophical. I pressed Conan, “What do you think she should do?”

Conan replied, “Let her think through it herself.”

Let’s Hear What Children Have To Say

Growing up, it is only natural that children start to question the meaning of life. But some friends are having serious trouble dealing with the tough questions their children ask. They question the purpose of school life, work and family obligations.

The problem does not lie in our children. It is completely understandable that children who are going through rough patches in life to ask tough questions. The problem, perhaps, is in we adults.

Perhaps, we have become too caught up with dealing the imminent problems (the tigers and snakes) in our lives that we forget to look out for the things that make us feel alive. Or perhaps we have become so jaded that we forget to saviour the occasional honey in life.

Children remind us of important things in life. Let’s engage in meaningful conversation with our children even more. And hear what they have to teach us.

William W K Tan (aka Uncle William)

4 August 2019, Sunday

070 Practise Even More to Love and Feel Loved

NO Hugs, NO Kisses!

Last week, I spoke about teaching autistic children to be affectionate.  Many readers were touched by our family’s efforts to train our son to be warm and spontaneous. Some parents with autistic children, however, had their misgivings.

I was told of a story about a mother X who imposed strictly a “No hugs and no kisses” rule on her autistic son Y. She was concerned that the teenage boy would get into trouble someday if he displays affection inappropriately to strangers.  One day, the mother X even punished her boy Y by making him hug a tree for several hours after he had asked his mom for a hug.  The punishment was the mother’s way of protecting her son from getting into trouble.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

I felt troubled and told my wife about the story. She replied thoughtfully, “We’ve been through it ourselves. Let’s not be quick to judge others. She must have her reasons. Anyway, every family needs time to work their problems out.”

My wife is right.  There may be more than meets the eye to the story. Perhaps, the boy had gotten into some serious trouble. Or perhaps, the mom had done everything she could but failed to get the child to understand. We do not know the full story enough. But one thing I know for certain is, the suppression of the emotional needs may lead to dire consequences for the family.

Source: The Straits Times, 19 March 2016.

Three years ago, Singapore was shaken by the news of a mother, a primary caregiver of her seven year old autistic child, who threw the latter over the parapet to his death. The mother was depressed over her marital woes and physical exhaustion, which she believed was caused by her autistic son. And one could only imagine the desperation and pain the mother experienced for the murder to be committed one day before her 42nd birthday.

I trembled at the thought of seeing such tragedy recurring. For days, I thought hard about my family situation.  My family was nowhere near the brink of desperation, but the fatigue and stress had been mounting to a point where smiles and laughter at home had become scarce. I instinctively knew that more had to be done to bring happiness back. But I did not know how. 

Gleaning lessons from this tragedy, I became even more convinced that a spouse must share the burden of caregiving wholeheartedly. And parents must not suffer in silence or denial, hoping that their problems would just go away. I constantly reminded myself to learn and seek help from others whenever necessary. And most importantly, to stay hopeful always. Still, raising an autistic child remained a challenge as we had to cope with one problem after another.

Stop seeing the child as the problem

Finally one day, it dawned on me that parents must stop seeing their autistic child as the problem. Autism posed problems to the child and the family, but the child did not.  No child should be blamed for his or her medical condition.

If parents see their autistic child as a “problem”, there will be a limit to how much they can shoulder the lifelong heartache and grind of unremitting caregiving.  But if they can separate the child from the troubles they create, parents will be able to handle problems in their stride.  Over time, we have become more composed and skilful in dealing with all sorts of problems, from bizarre behaviour to severe meltdown that erupted at school and home.

The biggest encouragement came from the child himself. As we continued our efforts to train our boy to be affectionate, we began to experience more moments of joy. The son who was a constant worry becomes the wellspring of our family happiness.

Cherish joyous moments in daily life

Here is an episode of joyous moments that occured last Sunday. I found bouquets of beautiful flowers on sale in the supermarket.

Turning to my fifteen year old autistic son Kyan, I asked, “Do you want to buy flowers?”  

“Yes. I want to buy flowers.” Kyan replied.

I probed, “Who do you want to buy the flowers for?”

I was half-expecting his answer to be “Papa”.

Kyan replied without hesitation, “Mama!”  

I laughed and thought to myself, “Mom still comes first to the children no matter how hard I try.”

I knew my wife was not into flowers, but this was a not-to-be-missed opportunity for my boy to practise affection. I told Kyan, “Bring the flowers to mama and tell her!”

Picture taken at Fairprice Supermarket on 20 July 2019.

Kyan quickly grabbed a bouquet of flowers and ran to his mom who was preoccupied with buying grocery. Shoving the bouquet excitedly into his mom’s hands, Kyan remarked loudly, “I want to buy flowers for Mama!”

His mom, looking pleasantly surprised, thanked him and immediately gave the jubilant boy a hug while quietly slipping the bouquet to me.

“Now that you have given flowers to mama, what do you give papa?” I teased. 

Just as I was wondering what he would say, Kyan thought for a moment and said, “Kiss!”

With that, Kyan leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on my right cheek

I was overjoyed and felt blessed.

Make it a priority to help autistic children become affectionate

Contrary to the conventional belief that parental love is inexhaustible and unconditional, the agony of unrequited love from an autistic child does take a toll on caregivers. Make it a top priority to help your child become affectionate.

Do not let any concern that the child may display inappropriate affectionate behaviour with others get in the way between you with your child. Once your child feels loved and safe, it will be easier to teach him the boundaries.

For a start, practise often at home proper display of affection between you and your child. All it takes is just two persons to love and feel loved. It costs nothing and the reward is priceless.

William W K Tan (aka Uncle William)

26 July 2019, Friday

069: Autistic children can be warm and spontaneous!

Even if it’s just a smile, practise it!

Last Saturday, Conan remarked, “Kyan is so smiley nowadays. He always wears a smile on his face.”

His mom responded, “You used to be the more smiley one. Where has your smile gone?”

Conan shrugged his shoulder, and forced a big grin. Seeing that, Kyan responded with a warm smile. It was a beautiful smile. And it was a precious moment to me.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

Just a few days ago, Kyan was looking at me intently on the sofa. I was bemused when he returned every smile I made. We kept smiling at each other for umpteen times that day, until his smile turned somewhat stiff. I stopped and thought to myself, “I might have overdone it. Hopefully, it did not overkill his smile.”

At this moment, thankfully, Kyan’s smile was warm and spontaneous.

I am often driven by a simple idea. If there is a fleeting moment that the child can do it, create more opportunities for the child to become good at it. Even if it’s just a smile, practise it!

Even if it’s just a hug, practise it! 

I had nearly forgotten that Kyan used to be a boy who never smiled. Like many autistic children, Kyan avoided eye-contact with others, shunned away from physical touch and was inept in communication for many years.

For a long time, Kyan had a blank look as if he were lost in his own world. If he had a facial expression, it would be like a frightened mouse. All sorts of noises frightened him, such as the noise from a hands-dryer in a public toilet and the noise of a wailing child. Kyan never liked using hands-dryers but he eventually got used to using it. Till this day, Kyan has to cup his ears with both hands to shut out the cries of young kids.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

To make Kyan feel safe and loved, we hug him often. But we were initially taken aback when he would always turn his back and move away from every hug. Now, he gives me a good hug every night before bedtime. Hence, I was touched by the little hugging episode between the two brothers.

After lunch, Conan stood up and spread his outreached his arms in front of Kyan. Immediately, Kyan recognised that it was a gesture for hugs and moved forward to embrace his brother. Next, I heard Conan giving instructions to Kyan.

“You are taller than I am. You should place your arms over my shoulder,” Conan said as he moved Kyan’s arms to rest over his shoulders before continuing, “And I put my arms around your waist. Let’s do it again.”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

Kyan did as he was told. And the two brothers hugged for a second time before breaking into laughter.

It was a heart-warming sight to see the brothers getting along so well. Even if it’s just a hug, practise it!

Be enthusiastic in showering affection

It took me some serious reading of autism literature to appreciate that autistic children process sensory stimuli such as light, sound and touch very differently. The sensitivity towards these sensory stimuli impedes the autistic children’s ability to express affection. They need all the help they can get from others to adapt to new environment and people better.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library

But sadly, many people simply think that autistic children dislike going to new places, have a low tolerance for noise and hate to be touched. As a result, I observe that people who are unfamiliar with autistic children tend to keep a distance from them. Even caregivers become discouraged when they mistakenly believed that their years of efforts and love had gone wasted.

It would help tremendously if more people inject greater enthusiasm when they approach autistic children. Nearly all children respond positively to adult’s display of enthusiasm. Autistic children are no exception. They can feel the warmth and excitement in the person’s tone, facial expression and body language. They are very likely to respond positively too.

In case that they are unable to respond appropriately, do not judge immediately. Just accept that it’s alright for now. In time to come, you will be surprised that they can also learn to be warm and spontaneous.

Even if you are someone who claims not to be naturally enthusiastic, learn and practise it!

William W K Tan

18 July 2019, Thursday

 

068 Thanks Dad, You’re The Best!

A month had passed since my family returned from a memorable 8-day-vacation to Kyushu, Japan.

From the pictures, you can tell how much I enjoyed the places I visited.

We travelled with two other families of my wife’s siblings this time. There were eleven of us –two teenagers, three young adults, two middle-aged adults in their forties, and another four in their fifties. The age gap between the youngest and the oldest person is more than 40 years.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to plan an itinerary that would suit everyone. The thing that worried me most, however, was something else. On the day before departure, I sought help from my thirteen year-old son, Conan.

“Dad needs your help. I have done all my homework, but I have never been to any of those places. You know that I am bad at navigation even with the help of google map.

I have to be physically ahead of others to confirm if we are heading in the right direction. Can you imagine the scenario of ten people following behind a clueless person? Very much like a brood of headless chicken!”

I made an awry smile before continuing,

“Also, I have to double up as the tour guide and interpreter for everyone. So, I need your help in two ways:

  • Double check the route each time we are on the move.
  • Watch over your brother if he needs to go toilet at times when I am busy.”

Then turning to my wife, I added,

“There is just one last thing, please bear with me if I become flustered and overly-stressed when things go wrong. I will try to regain composure quickly.”

Hearing this, my wife said to Conan with a worried look, “Better help your dad out,” before whispering some words into his ears.

Conan laughed, “I remember Dad even held his mobile phone upside-down when using the google map the previous time. Better spare everyone from walking in circles.”

Source: WordPress Photo Library

To spare everyone from trouble, I researched the routes to every destination meticulously. I studied the various modes of transport in details to figure out how to minimise travelling time and cost.

Unlike in Tokyo and Osaka where you could count on the JR subway alone to go anywhere, we rode on bullet-trains, trams, buses and even ferries to get around in Kyushu.

The various forms of transport made the journey interesting.

The variety of transport options added a sense of novelty, but also increased the complexity in navigating places. Fortunately, my hard work of preparation paid off. We were able to get to almost all destinations without a glitch.

Most thankfully, the young people stepped up to ease my burden. My niece XH assisted me in organising the groups at every destination. Another niece YX quietly researched for recommended restaurants to book in advance. And my nephew SZ covered extra footwork as the advance party to check out the routes physically. It was comforting seeing how well these children have turned out to be.

Over the eight days, we enjoyed visiting great places.

Some of the beautiful places we visited from Fukuoka, Yufuin-Beppu, Kumamoto to Nagasaki.

Of the many places we visited, the exotic scenery created by the hot springs of Beppu Hells left the deepest impression on us.

“Hell-hopping” in Beppu

As for food, we were spoilt for choices.

We tried all kinds of Japanese delicacies.

But when I asked Conan about his most memorable moment on the whole trip, his reply was most unexpected,

“My mobile phone was lost and found!”

On day five, Conan had lost his newly bought mobile phone on the way to Nagasaki city. He thought it might be lost for good, but I quietly had good faith in the Japanese people.

I brought the sullen-looking boy to the Nagasaki Subway Station to make enquiry. Almost immediately, Conan broke into broad smiles as the amicable station staff retrieved his mobile phone from the “Lost and Found” counter.

Conan recovered his mobile phone.

“You are lucky that your dad speaks fluent Japanese. If not, it wouldn’t be that easy to find your phone back.” A relative said to Conan.

Conan exclaimed, “Thanks, Dad! You’re the best!”

Those words were perhaps the sweetest thing a son could say to his father. And his words of gratitude made my best moment on the trip.

William W K Tan

7 July 2019

Sunday

067 A Blog Hiatus

I have decided to take a break. A brief hiatus of two weeks from everything I usually do, including blogging.

It’s a month of school holidays for the children in June. And it’s also a time for the family to spend time doing something different.

Finally, after nearly a decade of patience, my wife has come around the idea that Japan’s fallout from Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 is unlikely to make our elder son’s autism any worse. Still, to play safe, we have decided on Kyushu, the southwestern most of Japan’s main islands, as our next holiday destination.

Source: https://wow-j.com/en/Allguides/kyushu/

We will be covering the cities of Fukuoka, Oita, Kumamoto and Nagasaki, which are thousands of kilometres away from Fukushima. I was clueless about all these places, but I have researched to the best of my efforts. Hopefully, all the travel plans I have made will work out smoothly.

Photo: Cover summary of my 13-page itinerary

As a person who is fond of the Japanese culture and proficient in the language, I’m hoping a visit to Japan will develop in Conan, an interest for a third language and its culture. Knowing one more foreign language opens an entire new world for a person. I really hope that the charms of Japan will rub off on him.

I shall resume blogging from 15 June onwards. If anyone misses reading my blogs, even just a little, would you let me know? Often, it is the comments from you that encourage me to think and write more.

I am especially grateful to those who read my blog regularly. It really helps to keep the connection between us strong. And it motivates me to write better with someone in mind.

Already, I have a hunch that I may end up writing more with the long flight hours. And hopefully, my writing style will evolve to a higher level after this break.

Have a good weekend! See you in two weeks’ time.

William W K Tan

31 May 2019

066 The Boy Who Brings Sunshine

Last evening , a friend VK asked me, “How is your elder son doing?

VK is a kind man who is temporarily taking care of a child in neglect. Out of concern, he asked how I coped with the challenges of raising a child with special needs.

My elder son, Kyan, aged fifteen, is a boy inflicted with autism, a lifelong developmental disability that is characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and limited by a fixation on repetitive activities.

Source: http://overthebrainbow.com/blog/

I told him, “I am thankful. He is doing great!” In fact, it gladdened me to hear others asking about him. Just last week, Kyan’s former school teacher, ST also told me, “I love to read about Kyan. It always brings sunshine to my heart just to see his name. ”

ST is so right. Kyan is a child who brings sunshine. Raising a child with special needs is challenging, but it also comes with rewarding moments.

My Reward: A Cup Of Sweet Corns

Last Saturday, I was engrossed in a novel while waiting for my children to finish their breakfasts at McDonald’s. All of a sudden, the reading spell on me was broken by the voice of my son.

“Papa, eat!” came a thunderous voice. It came from Kyan, who looked intently at me as he shoved me a half cupful of corn.

My heart was melted by his gesture to share his cup of corns with me. After all, it was uncommon for autistic children to show generosity and affection.

Excitedly, I sent a text to my wife, “Kyan just shared his cup corn with me on his own accord!”

“That’s just his habit,” came her reply.

I know my wife has always taught Kyan to split his cup of corns into two portions to share with his younger brother Conan, who gives him half a piece of hash brown in return. But that morning, Conan had bought his own cup of corns, so Kyan turned to me instead.

Even if it was just a habitual action, it made me feel good. At least he thought of me.

A Magic Moment

For a long time, I was worried that autism had incapacitated Kyan’s ability to think of others in their absence.  It seemed to me that when people are out of sight, they are out of his mind.

Over the last 15 years, four maids have come and gone. Some were close to him.  But he had never asked for anyone of them after they left. Even if he cared, he never showed. Or more rightly, he was unable to express how he felt.

Occasionally, when I was overseas, I would ask my wife, “Did Kyan ask for me?” Her answer was always a no. I stopped asking completely.

Then something happened in early March this year. I was on my way back home from airport when I received a text message from Conan. He wrote, “Dad, come back home quickly! Kyan has been asking for you.”

Accompanying the text message was a photograph that I would never forget.  My son was looking out for me behind the steel gate of the house.  It was the magic moment that I had been waiting for years.

Photo taken by Conan on 2 March 2019

Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks

Depending on the condition of the child, there is no telling how long it would take our child to give us these rewarding moments. But as the saying “little strokes fell great oaks’ goes, do not underestimate the power of persistent small efforts. Even dripping water can penetrate through rocks, it is just a matter of time that autistic children will show us that they can be as affectionate as any other children.

Perhaps, by now you can guess why I have been singing a self-composed song to Kyan all these years.  The lyrics go like this, “Papa loves you so. Papa loves you so. Papa loves you so much so.” 

I would always sing this part first, and my boy would always follow with, “Papa loves me so. Papa loves me so. Papa loves me so much so.”

One day I asked Kyan in front of his mom, “Who loves you most?”

He replied spontaneously, “Mama!”

Then on second thoughts, he quickly changed, “Papa loves me most!” to the chagrin of my wife.

My wife protested, ‘Conan, your dad has been brain-washing your brother!”

We all laughed heartily.

Raising a child is joyous as long as we never cease to look at the positives.

William W K Tan

25 May 2019, Saturday

065 Time to Clean Up Our Act

A Boy Who Thinks Cleaning Is Somebody Else’s Job 

One Sunday, a ten-year-old boy interrupted the swim coach, SC, who was giving my son Kyan individual coaching.

“Yucks!  Coach, there is tissue paper in the water over there.”

The coach replied, 

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. It’s so dirty! That’s why I tell you.”

Coach SC told him, “I am teaching now. You think of a way to solve it yourself.” 

The boy looked surprised. He probably thought that it was none of his business after alerting the coach. But, within seconds, he came up with an idea, “I will complain to the Management Office!”

SC looked at me with a helpless smile.

Thinking that a teaching moment had appeared, I suggested to the boy, 

“Why wait for someone else to solve it? Since it disturbs you so much, just pick it up and throw it away!”

“No way! I am not a cleaner!” The boy protested loudly. Then he added, “Anyway, my mother will not allow it!” before swimming away.

I felt troubled by the boy’s words. What kind of young man would he grow up to be if his attitude remains unchanged?

A Young Man Who Refused To Clean Up His Mess

The boy made me think of a real-life story a friend NS told me. 

NS, a science teacher in a secondary school, spoke of a student she remembered vividly,

“From the first day of lesson in the laboratory, I have told all students, ‘We are dealing with all sorts of chemicals here. If you have made a spillage, clean it up yourself immediately because no one else knows how hazardous it could be. Simple and clear, isn’t it?’

Yet, there was this young man who refused to clean up the mess he made no matter what. He looked at the mess and said, “That is the job of cleaners!” And he even added, “At home, all the cleaning is done by the maid.”

I was mad inside me, but decided to teach him the right thing.  I moved close to his ear and whispered gently in a very soft sweet voice, “Bring your maid with you the next time,” before saying firmly, “But today, your maid is not here, so clean up!”

The young man relented and cleared up quietly, to the surprise of everyone. 

NS smiled triumphantly, a tiny dimple playing at the corner of her lips. 

Perhaps, we can learn a thing or two from this plucky young teacher in her early thirties. 

Schools and Families Must Come Together

Schools are finally doing what they were supposed to do long ago. When the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to make it compulsory for all school-going children to help out with cleaning responsibilities in schools two years ago, many parents gave their thumbs up.

Photo: Straits Times Dec 12, 2016 “All schools to have cleaning activities daily from January”

I asked a secondary school boy, JC, about the cleaning duties he has to do in school.

He said, “Nothing much really. We have a duty roster that assigns us our duties which mainly involve cleaning the whiteboard and sweeping the floor.”

“That’s good. Everyone plays a part to keep the classroom clean.” I continued.

“Teachers just leave it to us. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not.” JC remarked.

“Did you do your duties?” I enquired, half expecting him to say he did.

“No…” He smiled sheepishly, “Many people did not do either. ”

“Teachers should check on you guys,” came my rebuttal.

“No. What is the point of having teachers  to check on us? It boils down to home training. It wouldn’t work if children are not expected to do the same at home.”

I mulled over his words. Yes, the boy is right. Double standards won’t work.

Lost Opportunities

Parents must play our part too. While most of us are generally in favour of imparting good living habits such as cleaning to children, some see cleaning duties as a distraction or burden.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Concerned that their children may be overloaded with school homework, and outside school activities such as tuition classes and sports, parents are reluctant to involve their children in housework.

A friend SM, who is a full-time home-maker, told me in a mix of resignation and jest, “My children used to help out more when they were young. It has become much harder to get them to do housework now. I have become the maid for the entire family.”

I laughed, but I am no better in getting my children do housework. Like many working families with young children in Singapore, we have a stay-in domestic helper who does all the cleaning and other household chores. The opportunities to impart values to children through housework become lost.

Be Considerate Towards Others

Perhaps, many parents and teachers missed the point about the value behind teaching cleaning responsibilities–to be considerate towards others.

Many years ago, at the end of a public seminar I conducted, I found a Japanese colleague KS going in between the rows of seats to pick up used plastic bottles and rubbish that were left behind by the participants. Embarrassed by the littering habits of fellow Singaporeans, I followed suit to clean up the place.

Source: http://www.zerowastesg.com

Later, KS told me, “Japanese are taught since young to think about others when we do cleaning at home and in schools. Imagine how the next person would feel and think if we do not clean up.”

Be considerate towards others — it’s such a simple and beautiful reason. Don’t you agree? 

William WK Tan

17 May 2019

064 What If Children Suddenly Dislike Reading?

Know Why Children Suddenly Dislike Reading

Parents are blamed for the things that their children do, and not do. When children do not read books, parents are told to read more books to them. And parents are questioned if they are setting a good example of reading books themselves.  But, has anyone observed children who enjoy reading up to a certain stage, but lose interest in reading all of the sudden? Surely, that cannot be the fault of parents.

Some parents are quick to point the fingers elsewhere. Electronic devices are pulling children away from books. School work is too much. Children have too many other things on their plates. For one reason or another, there is simply not enough time for book reading.  

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Few parents, however, take a closer look at their children’s reading situation. Too often, the reason for children to develop distaste for reading is simple — the text has surpassed children’s reading ability without anyone noticing.

That causes children to feel the burden of reading, hence they grow to dislike reading.  

The Joy of Reading One Book after Another

I have a soft spot for children who are labelled as poor readers. Several years ago, I volunteered to read to such children in my children’s primary school before going to work in the morning. I was told that these children did not like reading, had problems coping with school studies and their parents couldn’t help them.

I would always read a book to them animatedly, and chose books for each of them to read on their own. Without exception, these children smiled and read with joy when given books that matched their reading ability and interest.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

I knew how they felt. Like them, I picked up book reading late too. I had hardly read any books outside school before the age of nine. In those days, parents worked hard to eke out a living, and public libraries were few and in-between. Raised in an environment where Mandarin and Chinese dialects were spoken, my reading was limited to English textbooks. And I lacked even a single English storybook at home.

The turning point came at Primary Three, when my mom allowed me to return home from school by public bus on my own. I started dipping into a bookstore near the bus stop. Inside the bookstore, I became mesmerised by the collection of beautifully-illustrated books (the Ladybird series) of classic stories and nursery rhymes— The Gingerbread Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs etc. Each day, I picked up a book, stood there and finished the whole book.

Photo: The Gingerbread Man. Source: ladybird books list

Then, I went there again the next day to read another book. Day after day, I would go to that bookstore, until I finished the last book. And after I ran out of books I could read, I searched for more books in the school library during recess. My journey as a young book reader finally took off.

From my personal reading experience, I know first-hand how children feel about reading.  Whenever I meet adults who deride older kids for reading books that they deem as too easy, I would speak in the latter’s defence,

“Parents today are reading nursery rhymes to their children before the age of three. But I only started reading them when I was nine. And you know what, however easy that might seem to others, the joy I derived from reading one book after another on my own was so empowering. I felt that I could read any book of my choice! Do not take that joy of reading away from children.”

Always have children read at a level that matches their ability and interest. Not the other way round.

Two Golden Rules to Nurturing Readers

Still, many parents worry if their children cannot read books expected of their school grade.  Here are two rules that have worked very well on my children.

The first rule is not to be overly-worried with catching up with school grade.

I understand parent’s anxiety completely. I had placed my elder son, Kyan in a mainstream school for four and a half years before transferring him to a school for special needs students. During those years, however hard-working Kyan was, and no matter much progress he made, the gap between the school demands and his reading ability was a rift that could never be narrowed.

Look beyond the hurdles placed by schools, and focus on the well-being of your child. For a boy who used to be restless and clueless in the library for many years, Kyan now enjoys browsing his favourite books quietly in the library.  And the most dramatic progress he made is that he reads aloud with beaming confidence when given the right books.

Photo: Kyan reading in the library

Do not let others impose their views on your children. Just continue in encouraging your children to read.

The second rule is to make a deliberate effort in strengthening your child’s reading ability.

Like many parents who read to their children when they were young, I read the same books my children were reading, while searching for more interesting books ahead. One difference, perhaps, is I set exciting goals for book reading. I was driven by ideas like “It will be great to see my kid reading that classic someday!”

Conan enjoyed reading the illustrated versions of “Peter Pan” from a very young age. I intentionally bought several abridged versions of the same title, to the bewilderment of my wife who thought that I had mistakenly purchased the same books. We started with various abridged illustrated versions of Peter Pan by Disney and other publishers. From read-along story book with CD, to stickers, flap-ups and other interactive books of Peter Pan, Conan was enthralled by the world of Neverland, where he joined Wendy, John, and Michael on an adventure with Peter and Tinker Bell to battle the evil but hilarious Captain Hook.

Photo: An abridged version of Peter Pan I read to Conan. Source: Amazon

I also remembered reading to Conan retold versions like the Classics Starts, which were written like a griping adventure that made fantastic reading-aloud for the boy, who laughed and giggled at every turn and twist of the story. Step-by-step, Conan successfully advanced into reading editions that were wordy and complex.  He was one step short of reading the original unabridged version, which I felt heartrending to put him through, considering his tender age. That experience of reading books of the same title with incremental difficulty paved the way for him to make a quick and complete departure from illustrated books at around six years old.

Conan recounted the day that I brought him to the Young Adult (YA) Books section, “I remembered that you grabbed a few books from the shelves at the YA section and showed me. I loved those books and kept going back for more from that day onwards.”

He was barely nine years old when he “graduated” from the children section of the library that catered to children up to the age of twelve.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Be a lighthouse to let your children show you how far they can go.

William W K Tan

10 May 2019, Friday