075 Insights Into Making School Choices

Can you imagine how thankful I felt when the school teachers of my two children coincidentally made a similar remark at the teacher-and-parent meetings recently, “We have no worry about his academic performance. Your son is among the top students in his class.”

I mulled over the remark repeatedly and arrived at some insights that are hopefully useful to others:

    Never let others have the final say about you
    Do not end up like a dead fish
    The big fish in a small pond
    Do not seek success dictated by others

A family of two tales

Things weren’t always so rosy.

My elder son, Kyan, aged fifteen, now studies in a high school for special needs students. Prior to this, Kyan barely coped with the academic demands in a mainstream school for nearly five years despite making good progress. His academic ability turned out to be relatively better than his classmates in the new school. His special needs teacher said, ” Kyan is an exemplary student in Maths and reading for the other students in class.”

Picture: Kyan loves solving fractions.

His younger brother, Conan, aged thirteen, now studies in a junior high school for academically excellent students. He was consistently ranked among the top five students in his cohort up to primary three. But Conan went through a rough patch in Primary five, a year after he was transferred to another school that offered the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), a rigorous education programme designed for the most intellectually-gifted students in the country. Conan revealed, perhaps with a little exaggeration, “I felt driven to the brink of depression at one point of time.”

Never let others have the final say about you

After the recent teacher-and-parents meetings, I excitedly told Conan about the positive comments I received,

“Your teachers in the new high school spoke very well of you. But I was most surprised by what your Maths teacher said.”

Conan looked at me with anticipation.

“She was telling me how good and quick you are at Maths.” I said.

Conan replied with a triumphant smile, “Talking about that, I only took a small fraction of the allotted time to complete all the problems correctly in a recent test.”

Picture: WordPress Photo Library

“No wonder.” I said, “I was told that you would always finish all the homework on the spot even before she finished teaching the class. She revealed that you are one of the two students in this cohort, whom she observed, to be of high calibre.”

Conan was grinning from ear to ear. I continued,

“Do you know what my response was?” I paused, then teased him, “I was tempted to ask your teacher, ‘Excuse me, are you talking to the right parent?’”  

We both laughed. Conan understood why I made the remark.  His confidence in Maths plummeted badly after his performance repeatedly paled in comparison to his brighter classmates in Primary five. Since then, he saw Maths as his Achilles heel. 

Picture: WordPress Photo Library

Having worked in the education field for twenty years, it has always disturbed me how children’s confidence in studies is adversely affected by test scores, comparison with peers and teacher’s comments. I cautioned Conan,

“That’s what I have been telling you. Never let test results, or for that matter, anyone else to have the final say about you. Keep trying and learning to know yourself better.”

Do not end up like a dead fish

I think one of the most precious lessons for children is to have them learn to know themselves better. I was inspired by a wise statement that Einstein purportedly made,

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Source: https://www.tellwut.com/uploads/

As there is no substantial evidence to suggest that Einstein said these words, I made up a fable to tell Conan when he was younger.

“A tadpole and a fish were friends who grew up in the same pond.  One day, the fish saw the tadpole, which had turned into a frog, leaping to the land and hopping back into the water. The fish was envious and thought, “If my friend can do it, surely I can do so too.” So the fish leapt up high and far with all its might.  It successfully landed far away from the bank. What do you think happened to the fish in the end?”

Conan, amused by the story, replied, “It became a dead fish, of course. The fish couldn’t possibly leap back into the water.”

“Precisely, don’t be a dead fish, my son!” I added a cautionary note in laughter before saying, “Keep learning to know who you really are.”

Source: http://www.cndajin.com/

The big fish in a small pond

Conan apparently took the lesson of “know thy self” to heart.

Last year, Conan achieved a remarkable score of 270 at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a national examination for all primary six students in Singapore. Everyone expected he would opt for the prized school of Raffles Institution (RI) that top students were gunning for.  But he was adamant that the school would not be a good fit for him. He explained,

“Dad, I know myself. I am good at learning things quickly. But I am also laid back. That school’s competitive culture won’t suit me.”

I laughed, “I am glad that you know yourself well.” 

But I wanted him to know what he was giving up. I told him, “To many people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to enter RI. The school has produced two out of the three prime ministers since our country’s independence. And they also produce many successful people in all fields. It’s almost like a guarantee for success in life to gain admission to the school.”

Conan replied, “No thanks. I will probably struggle and lose motivation eventually.”

After much deliberation, Conan chose National Junior College (NJC,) a reputably good high school that matched his needs and aligned with our expectation. I asked Conan how he thought of the decision after nearly nine months in NJC. He explained

“It’s just the big-fish-in-a-small-pond effect that I am doing well now.”

Source: https://nationaltrotguide.com.au/

He elaborated, “I have compared with my GEP friends who are attending different junior high schools. Most of us are doing about the same kind of stuff, except for RI. You would be in awe of the “out-of-the-world” kind of questions my RI friends have to tackle.”

“So do you think you have made a good decision?” I asked.

Conan replied, “Well, the good thing is I am having an easy time. I have lots of free time to read, play games and do the stuff I like. ”

Do not seek success dictated by others

There were moments that I wondered if I have short-changed Conan’s future by not pushing him a little harder like what some Asian tiger moms would do.

But I thought quietly to myself, “I know NJC. It was my alma mater at senior high school level. It’s just the first year in the six-year programme. It’s a matter of time that Conan has to rise to bigger challenges in the subsequent years. Let’s see how things go as he grows older.”

In the meantime, I am heartened that Conan has found time to pick new hobbies such as reading Chinese novels this year. He has also become more engaged with the family, and even takes the initiative to take care of his autistic brother. These were things that he was less inclined to do when the school stress heated up two years ago. 

Picture: Conan reads to Kyan in the library.

We’d rather our children grow up holistically to become wholesome people who keep learning for the betterment of themselves and others, than to become people who are obsessed with pursuing success dictated by others. Don’t you agree?

Like, share, comment, follow or subscribe if u like to encourage me to keep writing ✍️. Thank you!

William W K Tan

(aka Uncle William)

15 Sep 2019, Sunday

074 Fighting Phone Addiction II: Are You Also In Trouble?

Is Your Child The Only One Having Problem?

Last week’s article titled “073 Insights Gathered From Fighting Phone Addiction” garnered much interest. Many friends shared with me more stories.

A father A was concerned that his three-year-old son was becoming restless, irritable or even agitated when the phone was taken away. A mother B was dismayed that she had to resort to texting her teenage daughter who preferred to shut herself behind closed doors. Another mother C was upset that her phone-obsessed teenage boy hardly talked to her except when he needed extra money. A mother D pushed back her teenage son’s repeated pleas for hand phone amidst concerns over the peer pressure the boy had to face.

As a parent myself, I understood their worries for their children. But as I listened to them more, a big question emerged, “Is your child really the only person with a phone addiction problem at home?”

Source: WordPress Photo Library

Why Do Adults Frown At Children’s Phone Habits?

It was a tempting question that I fell short of asking.

From my observation, more often than not, children are not alone in having a phone problem. But I have yet to meet any adult who admits to being a phone addict. They would say, “I am a heavy phone user.”

Many adults easily rattle off a list of reasons to use phones frequently: for work, social network and to keep abreast of news. And who can blame them for wanting to spend a little time on online entertainment after a long day of work?

Source: WordPress Photo Library

Well, children use hand phones for exactly the same reasons: for school work, to be in contact with friends and to be in the know of what’s happening around them. And they, too, need breaks from the monotony of school routine.

So why do adults frown at children’s phone habits then?  The way I see it, we adults have a terrible habit of being too lenient to ourselves, and too hard on others.  

A Pot Calling The Kettle Black

I am speaking from personal reflection.

At the height of my complaints about the then twelve year old son, Conan’s excessive phone habits, the boy retorted, “Well, I am not complaining that you use phone a lot too.”

I defended quickly, “There is a difference…” before saying, “I know when to stop. But you do not.”

Seeing that Conan made no rebuttal, I went on, “Before you get started on anything, you must have an idea when to stop. Always begin with an end in mind. ”

It was a cliche that you might have heard a thousand times. The truth is people are easily carried away when they catch on to doing something.

Admittedly, there were sporadic periods of time that I became engrossed in all sorts of online entertainment such as latest dramas from a variety of sources. And there was also a prolonged period of time that I was messaging with friends so intensively that I was constantly on a lookout for new messages. Even for blogging, there were also times that I woke up in the middle of the night to do editing.

I was like a pot calling the kettle black. That probably explained why my early efforts to correct my son’s phone habits failed miserably.

Source: WordPress Photo Library

Where Had All My Time Gone To?

I should have noticed that my phone habits were spiralling out of control. The red flags were obvious when it began to disrupt the normal routine in my daily life. It was until I abruptly stopped all the time-consuming activities on the phone for several months that I finally resumed control.

We adults tend to underestimate the adverse effects of excessive phone usage on ourselves. If you have been feeling time-deprived, and think that you have so little time for work and personal life, I suggest you do a quick estimate of the hours you are spending on the phone.

In a recent survey by a global consultancy firm TNS, young Singapore adults aged 16-30, spends 3.4 hours a day on mobile devices. That amounts to spending a whopping 24 hours a week!  And those aged 46-65 are no better. They spend 2.3 hours a day on their phones, with an additional 1.5 hours of video watching online daily!

Do you now know where all our time has gone to?

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/

Do Not Let Technology Consume You

More cause for alarm is how bad phone habits are hurting relationships between people.

A wife X derided her spouse as a useless father who only knows how to use his hand phone to babysit their toddler. A newly-wedded Y in her early thirties is dissatisfied with a husband who would rather spend long hours playing online games, than to cherish the evenings they have together. And a middle-age man Z stopped having conversations with his wife who is obsessed with watching Korean dramas.

Source: WordPress Photo Library

It’s an irony to see how people are becoming more disconnected with the proliferation of smart phone and social media apps that promise to connect people even more.

Technology promises progress, but it also comes with its downsides. Do not let technology consume you. Take charge of your life. Perhaps it’s time to heed a word of caution from Albert Einstein, the titan of modern science.

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

-Albert Einstein

William W K Tan

(aka Uncle William)

31 August 2019, Saturday

Remark:

Like, share, comment, follow or subscribe if u like to encourage me to keep writing ✍️. I am trying to achieve 100 subscribers in wordpress before I reach my 100th blogpost.

073 Insights Gathered From Fighting Phone Addiction

Troubles At Home

Recently a friend X confided that he is having trouble making conversation with his teenage boy.  Almost every recent conversation between the father and son ended up badly. X said remorsefully, “Somehow nothing good comes out of my mouth when I talk to him these days.”

“Perhaps, it’s time to hold back your words. Just listen. ” I said thoughtfully.

But it didn’t seem like useful advice to him.

X continued, “Our fights are always over his excessive use of his mobile phone!”

What’s there to listen when it comes to the issue of phone addiction? Parents think everything that their children say sounds like an excuse. And to the children, parents are making a mountain out of a molehill in a draconian attempt to control their lives.

Source: WordPress Photo Library

A Rift Is Created

I know how it was like. I had my own battles with my thirteen year old son, Conan, over his excessive use of mobile phone previously too.

I was often infuriated that Conan was always repeatedly saying “Wait, just one minute,” so that he could finish a text, browse down a web page further or play an online game a while longer with his friends. 

And it got worse. His hands were perpetually stuck to the phone, his eyes were constantly glued to the screen. Be it walking on the streets, travelling in commute, having his meals and even going to the bathroom, the mobile phone and the boy became inseparable! I had enough of telling him and finally threw down the gauntlet by issuing an ultimatum, “Stop it! Or this will be the last time you see that phone!”

Source: WordPress Photo Library

Conan would hurriedly keep his mobile phone away before tension escalated further. But it did nothing to alleviate the problem. My son continued to use mobile phone excessively behind my back. Quietly, Conan told his mom, “Ever since Dad had thyroid problems two years ago, his temper had become really weird and fiery. Better stay away from him.”

In my desperate efforts to solve problems quickly, I had unwittingly created a rift between my son and me.

Problem-solving Through Engagement

My wife became the one who had to constantly remind Conan, which I initially thought she was doing none the better than I. But gradually I noticed a crucial difference. My wife never allowed her relationship with the son to be soured by this issue, however much it tested her patience.

Their daily conversations continued unabated. On several occasions, my wife even managed to negotiate time-offs successfully.  Without his mobile phone, Conan became more engaged and conversational. My wife hugged him and teased, “Finally, my boy is back, escaped from the claws of your handphone. I really like how thoughtful you are. Please continue to keep your phone in your bag instead of holding it in your hand.”  

Source: WordPress Photo Library

There, I realised the wisdom of my wife’s give-and-take tactics and her gradual approach to improving our boy’s habits through engagement.

Find Opportunities To Think About Whys Together

Taking cue, I changed tack and stopped correcting the boy. Instead, I focused on having Conan think about the whys of setting ground rules at opportune moments.

I seized an opportunity in the midst of a lively conversation over family dinner one day to broach the topic,

“I really enjoy listening to your views at conversations. Now you know why I have imposed a no-handphone policy at the dinning table?”

Conan smiled and replied, “I know what you want to say.”

Then he stole my lines,

“Mealtimes are not just time to eat. They are also social time to enjoy food, each other’s company and make conversations.”

https://www.coupons.com/thegoodstuff/famly-dinner-ideas/

Conan has even become the person who enforces the rule these days. One Saturday, my wife unexpectedly placed her entertainment tablet on the dining table.

“Lunchtime is for family conversations. No gadgets please.” I said.

My wife argued, “I am just letting the drama run, like the TV, that’s all. I don’t have my earpieces plugged in, I’m listening to you.”

Hearing that, Conan, who was sitting next to his mom, remarked, “That means I can also do this then,”

Conan picked up a novel he was reading earlier and pretended to continue reading while digging into the food, murmuring, “I don’t have my earpieces on either, I’m listening.”

My wife acquiesced, “Alright, you father and son win this time. Don’t let me catch you in the same act!”

Conan and I laughed. True enough, we were the repeat offenders most of the time in the past.

From The Child’s Perspective

I told Conan, “I noticed that you have learnt to use handphone moderately. I am thinking of sharing your experiences with my friend X.”

Conan advised,

“Dad, tell your friend, ‘Don’t shove rules down your child’s throat. The more you stop them, the more they will resist. And feel they do not have enough.’ Give his child enough time to figure out how much is enough.”

“Wouldn’t things get worse? ” I asked, “That’s what worried me when you moved on from one thing to another on the web over the last two years as if you would never get enough.”

Conan put on his thinking cap and explained,

“Well, some ground rules are necessary. But your friend needs to find the opportune timing to discuss with his son; not threaten or preach, but bounce ideas like what are the appropriate situations to use and not to use phones.”

Conan elaborated,

“Ideas like no phone at dining table, while walking on the streets, and before completing homework make perfect sense. I am sure his son can figure it out too if the discussion is done at the right timing. Nobody likes to be told off.”

Then Conan added,

“Next, your friend must walk the talk. It is easier to pick up new habits as a family, rather than expecting the child to do it alone.” Conan continued,

“And the last step is to expand his interest in other things. As you can see, when I don’t have my phone, I simply switch to doing other things I like.”

Insights

Here are some precious insights I’ve gathered:

One: Don’t force your rules on children.

Two: Give children enough time to figure out what is best.

Three: Find opportune timing to work out the rules together.

Four: Walk the talk with children.

Five: Expand interest in other things.

Every child is different, so the approach may not be the same for everyone. Nevertheless, I hope that these hard-earned lessons may be of use to others. Do share this blogpost and let me know if it is of help.

William W K Tan

24 August 2019, Saturday

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

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