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

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

063 The Unfinished Business of Book Reading to Children

Are You Done With Reading To Children?

I thought the days of reading books to my children were over. I do not know how many parents still read books to their adolescent children. Like many parents, I read books to them when they were young. Now that they have grown up, the idea of reading books to them seems obsolete.

But that idea resurfaced recently when I lamented to a friend HJ that my younger son, Conan, only enjoys reading English books and displays scant interest in reading Chinese ones. Conan, who has just entered secondary school this year, dismissed Chinese books as “lame and boring” at my recent suggestion that he should read more.

 

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

HJ and I share a common concern over the low rate of reading Chinese books among children in Singapore. While I did nothing about the situation, HJ writes book reviews regularly to encourage her friends to read books to their children. She gave me a sound piece of advice,

“Reading books to children is highly important. Do not frighten them off with wordy books. Start with books that are filled with more illustrations and less words. Engage children with story-telling before passing them the book.”

The truth is I had done all that. Perhaps, a tad too much on English books and too little on Chinese books.

Conan could read books meant for pre-school children when he was barely three years old. By the time he entered primary school, Conan was making heads turn in school with the books he read. Today, Conan remained a voracious reader of English books, but the last time he read Chinese books was like in the yesteryears. That was when he was drawn to reading “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” 《酷虫学校》that I recommended him at Primary Three, more than three years ago.

Photo: “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies”

“The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” was a series of Chinese fiction that piqued his interest at that time. It was a delightful read written in simple Chinese prose that mixed science fiction, comedy and adventure all rolled into one for young readers. And every crawling creature was comically illustrated in the books.

Photo: A page taken from “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies”. Source: https://item.m.jd.com/

But Conan’s appetite for Chinese books ended the moment he finished the twelfth and the last book available in the library. Thereafter, the boy had had a 3-year-drought of Chinese books. From time to time, I borrowed other Chinese books for him to read, but only to see these books returned untouched.  

I thought that the problem lies in the dearth of interesting Chinese books for children in Singapore. But HJ’s advice of “reading to children is highly important” kept ringing in my ears. Above all, her efforts to encourage book reading moved me. It takes time, money and efforts to find, buy and read books first in order to write those excellent book reviews.

Photo: A book review written by HJ

Instantly, I saw the problem differently,

If my friend can do so much for others, surely I can do no less for my children.”

It’s Not Easy to Find The Right Book

At the Central Library’s Chinese books section, surrounded by thousands of books, I was clueless over what to choose. Apart from reading books about the healing methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I hardly read any other Chinese books nowadays. I had no idea what to recommend Conan. I thought hard to myself, “What will interest Conan to pick up reading Chinese books again?”

It has to be something uniquely Chinese that is not found in the English genres that he reads. And it must be interesting enough to keep him wanting to read more. The idea of recommending him to read wuxia novels (武侠小说) emerged.  

Photo: A collection of wuxia novels written by Jin Yong. Source: https://item.m.jd.com/

Wuxia, which literally means “martial art heroes”, is a genre of Chinese fiction that tells the adventures of martial art pugilists in ancient China.   This genre of Chinese novels has become so popular that its presence has spread to television series, movies, comics and video games in the Chinese-speaking world. This genre would be a safe bet to choose for young people!

Randomly, I picked up a book authored by Louis Cha Jing-yong, better known by his pen name Jin Yong (Chinese: 金庸), who was arguably the most reputed and favourite wuxia writer of all times. But I frowned at the first page I set my eyes upon.

The text was printed in Chinese characters of the traditional form (繁體字), which is more popularly used by people in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Singapore, we are more attuned to mainland China’s simplified form of Chinese characters (简体字). To make matters worse, the characters had to be read from top to bottom along vertical lines, and from right to left for each line of words.  That made the text look too formidable for a beginner reader of a new genre.

Source: https://dlsdc.com/blog

Find Something Interesting and Readable to the Child

I cast my own preference of authors and stories aside. There is only one consideration that matters: the book must be interesting and readable from the child’s perspective.  

In a stroke of luck, I found a wuxia novel that is printed for mainland Chinese readers. The Chinese characters were in simplified form, the words ran horizontally from left to right, and the lines went from the top to the bottom of the page. This looked much easier to read!  The novel was titled “A Step into the Past”, xunqinji《寻秦记》 written by Wong Yik (黄易). I had neither heard of this author nor read this novel before.

Photo: “A Step Into The Past” by Wong Yip. Source: https://www.kanunu8.com/wuxia/

But I remembered vividly a 2001 Hong Kong television series of the same Chinese title. That TV drama told an intriguing story of a protagonist, Xiang Shao Long (项少龙), a top-notched special agent who was teleported into the Warring States period of ancient China some 2000 years ago. Armed with the knowledge of ancient historical facts and the modern world, combined with his intelligence in military strategy and prowess in martial arts, Xiang quickly became an invaluable player in a warring game to unite China under a single kingdom.

Photo: A poster of the television drama “A Step Into The Past”. Source: https://www.tvb55.com/video/detail/64.html

I borrowed the entire collection of six books under the same title without hesitation. Conan shrugged his shoulders when I told him these Chinese books were meant for him.  He beckoned me to look at the thick English books he had borrowed, “Look, I already have four books to read. They have to come first.”  

Turn It Into A Memorable Reading Experience

I expected it to be an uphill task, but I came prepared. I said to Conan,

 “No worries, I am the one reading. All you need to do is to sit back and listen. Then tell me if the book is a good read.”

To capture his interest, I had to tell the story well with plenty of expression and emphasis. I had read through chapter one beforehand and deliberated on how and where to modulate my voice like an experienced audio-book narrator. And I considered carefully where to place pauses and how to engage him.

Conan was at first sitting across me. But as the plot thickened, he quickly jumped to my side, leaning close enough to read the book along with me. Encouraged, I continued reading and chuckled along with him at the parts when Xiang walloped up the bad guys in a brawl. Then I hesitated whether to continue reading aloud. Conan gazed at me, puzzled.  

 “Are you sure you really want me to continue reading this?” I asked him intently.

Photo: a page taken from ” A Step Into The Past”

Conan sensed something amiss and quickly searched down the lines below. Before he could reply me, I deliberately raise my voice loud enough for everyone to hear me,

Xiang pulled the nightclub beauty queen Zhou out of the pub. Zhou asked him flirtatiously, ‘Where are you taking me to?”

Xiang lifted her into the seat next to the driver seat of his Jeep, and laughed, “Where else? Home, of course! I can’t afford to pay for expensive hotel room.”

Conan blushed and stopped me before I could read the next line. “Dad, I think it’s better that I read the rest in silence myself!”

I laughed heartily. Next, I found my son continuing to read the story on his own.

Photo: Conan continued reading the Chinese novel on his own.

And he continued to read the book over the next few days, taking it with him to school. A week later, we had a conversation about the book. I asked Conan,

“Don’t you find the storyline of this novel strikingly similar to the Games of Thrones? The plot surrounds powerful men and pretty women– playing a deadly game of life and death to seize control of an unified kingdom.”

Conan beamed in smiles, ” Absolutely so!”

Reading to children is an unfinished business. If anyone thinks that you have done enough, perhaps you might want to rethink.

William W K Tan

3 May 2019

Friday

059 The Biggest Worry of Caregivers

What’ll happen to my child after I pass on?

The worry of leaving behind a child who may not survive alone in the outside world weighs heavily on the minds of parents with special needs children. I have the same worry. My elder son Kyan, aged fifteen, is diagnosed with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) and dyspraxia.

Last Sunday, I read in the papers about a seventy-two-year-old father Clement, who is the sole caregiver of his forty-three-year-old son Conrad, making preparation for his son’s life in the event that he passes on.

Source: The Straits Times on 31st March 2019.

Clement has arranged for his son to live away from home twice a week in a facility to prepare him for a future without his father. And he has prepared the legal papers to have someone appointed as Conrad’s caregiver after he passes on. But even after these measures have been put in place, the father’s lingering wish is, “Whoever we take care of should go before us.”

Clement’s words speak volumes of parents’ anxiety. We fear that our child cannot fend for himself or herself. We fear that no one else knows or cares for our child as much as we do. And we fear that even the best-laid plan is not foolproof to keep our child safe. Despite our best efforts to prepare our child for tomorrow, how the child will survive without us remains our biggest worry.

Do not lose sight of yourself

For a long time, I put that biggest worry on the back burner. Over the years, there was just too much on the plate already:

When will my child talk? Will he ever make eye-contact? How to toilet train him? Does he know what to do in class and during recess? Will he wander out of the school when nobody is watching? Can he cope with his school work? How much does he understand what is going on? Why is he getting sick so often? Why is he sleeping so little? How to deal with his meltdowns when he grows older? Will he be employable after he completes schooling at 18?

Picture from WordPress Photo Library

This list of worries goes on and on. Caregiving can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. The years went past so fast in the blink of an eye. In the rush to do everything we could for our children, parents easily lose sight of themselves.

Many caregivers live in constant stress and fatigue, thus aging very quickly. Sometimes when I meet parents who look tired, I would think of myself in the past. I am tempted to say, “Do not be a burning candle to light up your child’s life. Be the sun in their life.”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library

Try to outlive your child

Sun emits energy. And energy comes from inner strength. In retrospect, the single most important lesson I wish to tell everyone is to live a life filled with energy. Aim to live happier, better and longer!

My friends know that I became totally withdrawn from social life for thirteen years. It was only two years ago that it dawned onto me that I must learn to take care of myself first. Since then, I have made the switch to place priority on taking care of myself better. I changed my dietary habits and physical exercise routine, sought balance in work and family, and made efforts to enjoy what I do to the fullest.

Picture from WordPress Photo Library

These changes have given me the composure to do more for my parents, spouse and children. And friends fit in well in this new-found formula where I draw strength, inspiration and support.

Rather than worrying about that fateful day when I can no longer be there for our children, I made an audacious goal to outlive my children. Try to live till 💯! Just this belief alone gives me strength to do things that I used to think not possible.

You should give it a try too!

William W K Tan

5 April 2019

To read more about Clement and his son, click the link below:

Inclusive society makes caregivers’ task easier

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/inclusive-society-makes-caregivers-task-easier?xtor=CS3-18&utm_source=STiPhone&utm_medium=share&utm_term=2019-04-01%208%3A04%3A41