Sunday, 12 July 2015

romance, intimacy, sex

It's been a while since I blogged.
actually I had wanted to stop altogether.
some experiences over the last few months stirred up some reflections about parenting again and so ...
it is about how hard it is for couples to develop and maintain healthy intimacy in their marriage. And by implication, harder still to teach that to our children so that they too develop strong and loving marriage relationships.

My belief is that (a) intimacy, including sex, is a beautiful thing (b) only within the bond of marriage. But I think that these are not learnt naturally by our children., especially when the views of intimacy 'out there' swing from the extreme of 'intimacy is responsible-free all-pleasure' to that of 'eee, so yucky'.

Thus, there is surely a place for explicit parental teaching on "intimacy". But I think a stronger teaching method is really parental example. By this, I mean that parents should not avoid displaying loving acts of affection to one another in front of their children. In fact, we ought to actively find opportunities to demonstrate suitable forms of intimacy to them. They include the use of affectionate words and tone when speaking to one another, natural body contact when sitting next to one another,  kiss or embrace on suitable occasions such as leaving home for work or returning home from work.

why? How else do our children learn what intimacy between married couples look like? What better way is available for our children to learn (a) above? Yes, surely we would not demonstrate sex to our children; but if they see parental intimacy on a day to day basis and learn from their actions that intimacy is a beautiful thing, surely they can understand by extension that sex between their parents is also a wonderful expression of their genuine love to one abother.

I should think that parental demonstration of intimacy has the effect of implicitly  teaching (b) as well. You see, children are very observant. They can see that the intimacy that their parents display at home is an exclusive intimacy - ie,it is reserved solely for one another and to no one else. The conclusion can then be made even in their little minds: this kind of intimacy is specially reserved for dad and mum, and thus for married couples only.

Now I know that many Singaporeans like me are very conservative with regards to showing conjugal affections openly. Kissing between couples - even married couples - are greeted with 'choy, choy!' (Cantonese?); they are considered indecent acts. But what is so indecent about a husband giving his wife a loving smooch in front of his children in the privacy of his home? [Of course, doing so in a crowded mrt train is an altogether different matter ...]. Even so, I know we have to cross our internal cultural and psychological barriers to do such 'western' things. Frankly, to me, it doesnt matter whether it is eastern nor western so long as it is the right thing to do. In the case of teaching our children the right view of intimacy, I believe parental demonstration of intimacy is necessary - both for our children and for strengthening our marriage.

This is my current stage of amateurish practice of this 'art': my youngest boy greeted me when I came home one day; I threw open my arms in anticipation that he would leap onto them in warm welcoming embrace; he took a few steps and the stopped, "Dad, you forget something; you need to kiss mummy first!"

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Enjoying a happy Number 4

Some 7 years ago, my wife and I received the news that she was pregnant with our 4th child. The initial mixed feelings - between joy and apprehension about whether we can cope with one more - soon gave way to an expectancy and resolution: We want to make this a happy child! The stress on happiness was against the backdrop then of many stresses that we could see our first 3 children endured - constantly under high stress state of meeting academic and behavioral standards. A typical day then for our children was studies-at-school and homework-at-home. The weekends were not spared from the presence of additional homework. It did not help that when the children were not self-motivated, we felt the need to remind them to work hard, which usually kick started cycles of scold-sour mood-poor work-more scolding-unhappiness...We knew that our monitoring (or nagging) breeds a mood of negativeness and unhappiness for everyone; yet we could not leave them alone in their ill-discipline and lack of concentration in their studies. We were convinced we had to break this unhappiness trap for our no. 4. We think the key was in shifting the focus from negativeness (constant scolding and corrections) to positiveness (enjoying him and surround him with warmth/laughter). This, of course, did not mean an abandonment of one for the others; it was a case of rebalancing of emphasis. For the last 6 years, the time spent with him was with the main view of enjoying him, with training in behavior and character done as positive as we could. We also thought that, for our first three children, we were too absorbed in the work of parenting - the teaching, monitoring, correction, and disciplining - that we had forgotten to enjoy the time we spent with them. For them, the years seemed to roll by so quickly that, before we knew it,their childhood was over in a jiffy. For the no.4 then, we were intend to enjoy his childhood before we live to regret again. [thankfully, we had another chance to 'right the wrong'] I am looking at him now as I write. He is indeed a happy child. We thank God for that. We hope he will look back at his childhood with many fond memories. Just a while ago, he picked a twig and wrote some words on the playground sandpit, "Seth loves my family". We know full well the challenges that may shake this happy state when he goes to school in half a year's time. But for now, we savour a moment of enjoyment - a treasure from God.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

How not to nag ...

I have always wondered, "How nice if my children can exercise more ownership of their duties - wash the dishes, clear their laundry, do their homework, practise self-discipline - all these without reminders from parents!" It is certainly much better if these are personally-owned and internalized rather than externally imposed responsibilities. It is very tiring (not to mention anger-inducing) for parents to have to keep track of whether their work is done and to follow-up with reminders (or naggings). Moreover, this constant cajoling is counter-productive if the goal is to instill in them the initiative from within themselves to carry these duties cheerfully. The question is: how can we help programme in their systems these routines so that it becomes part of them and hence achieve the state of internal motivation? We tried a number of things - with mixed results. One principle we hold on to is that we do not do for them something they can do for themselves. i recognize that the instinct for us parents is to quickly rush to the aid of our children when we see them struggling with something - such as tying shoelaces for very young children or facing difficulties with a maths problem for older children. I guess this instinct arises from our wanting to help our children. It is further accentuated in busy Singapore - we are always rushing so we reckon (perhaps unconsciously) that if we do it for them, it is much faster and so we save time. So, it was very hard when we initially tried out this principle in practice. We are always tempted to do it for them or to give them the answers straightaway. But we became convinced that, in the long run, rushing to their help stunts their learning to own the problems (and the solutions) for themselves. For example, if we plan their weekend schedule for them all the time, it takes from them the opportunity to learn to prioritize their commitments and take responsibility for what they plan. Of course, when they are too young, they may not be able to carry out very complicated tasks completely independently. We are happy to provide consultation whenever they need. On the domestic front, we also tried to give them household duties - such as wiping the dinner table, loading the dishwasher, cutting fruits, clearing the sink - as early as possible. My 6-year old, for example, starts with setting the table and mopping the floor. The intention is that these duties would help anchor them to a stake in the home - that they have a responsibility to the family and should learn to contribute to its working. But none of these methods are always effective. There are (many times) when we ended up in a who-blinks-first situation; that is, when certain duties we expect the child to do but he/she has neglected it for some time - in the spirit of self-ownership we should refrain from nagging but we struggle within ourselves to live with the mess and bad consequences that such negligence results. This will be the case so long as there exists value misalignment: the values of the child is not aligned to the values of the parents. For example, the value of the parent places neatness in a high priority; the value of the child is such that neatness is unimportant; result: child's room is messy, parents want him/her to learn ownership and so refrain from tidying it for the child, the child can live with the messiness, the parents can't take it and so clean it up, thus feeding on the vicious cycle of parent-child value misalignment, since the child knows that it will always be sorted out in the end. Thus, ultimately, the values alignment must take place in the heart of the child. He must come to learn that something is more important than others and they should thus be organized according to their priorities. Parents may try to hasten this process of learning by instruction, repetitions, rewards (or even punishments), but we can't directly force it upon them else it defeats the very purpose of them imbibing these routines as personally owned. In short, I recognize the need of patient prayer and waiting in this long process of learning responsibility in our children. Meanwhile, I read them this verse whenever I am down, "My son, give me thine heart ..." (Prov 23:26).

Friday, 29 March 2013

What is the most important 'virtue' I like to see in my children?

A few days ago, my younger daughter popped a question to me, "Dad, what do you think is the most important virtue?" I was caught by the question but gave an instinctive answer, "Obedience". She looked a little surprised, perhaps both by how 'uncool' the answer was and how different it was from her set of anticipated answers. I probably gave that answer because I had been emphasizing to my 5-year old for some time now that obedience from him was the most pleasing thing that he could give to us. I guess it was natural, after all those repetitions to him, that "obedience" just surfaced prominently when I answered my daughter. But that exchange didn't stop there; it got me thinking over the last few days about whether obedience is indeed one of the most important 'virtues' we want to inculcate in our children. Is obedience important only when they are very young and less so when they grow older? Is obedience out-of-fashion these days, since I hardly hear it mentioned anymore? I guess if you ask teachers who have been teaching for some years and have personally experienced growing defiance by their students, they might secretly confide their wish for their charges to learn more obedience. I am aware that the word "obedience" may in our current individualistic climate be associated with more negative interpretations such as passive compliance, blind following of instructions, mindless learning by rote etc. to me, obedience and sense-making need not be mutually exclusive: the desire to understand the "why"s of rules/instructions can be consistent with a healthy respect for and obedience of authority. My concern is that the popular culture today has swung the pendulum to an extreme: a default suspicion of authority and a refusal to obey it unless the reasons can be understood immediately without delay. There is no need, of course, to swing to the other extreme. I think a healthy balance is one where we obey lawful authority (e.g., parents and teachers) cheerfully; and in cases where the instructions are not obviously sensible to us, to seek clarity respectfully. I guess the home is a natural starting place to teach and expect obedience. The ideal situation is that children learn obedience and healthy respect for their parents from an early age so that this view-of-life can be translated to other lawful authorities throughout their lives. The reality, though, is quite different. Many parents (including me, which is why I am now reflecting on it ...) focused on other 'virtues' and neglecting the training of obedience only to discover later - sometimes too late - that once the children have developed a habit of disobedience, it is hard to unwind. The fact is that teaching obedience is hard work and one that you will face constant resistance. Obedience is not the natural disposition of children; self will is. As such, training obedience requires much discipline and consistency. I am convinced it is worth the effort. Do I think that obedience will remain a good 'virtue' as the children grow older, even into adulthood? I guess the question can be asked in another way, "as an adult now, do I consider obedience as my defining attribute?" I think of an obedient disposition in adults as a kind of constant recognition that we are not autonomous but "men under authority". If so, my answer is an unquestionably "yes". I acknowledge that I am under God's authority and His law-word, and that obedience to His ways is the best way to life, because I know no better. I am happy if others view me as obedient in this way. And I pray it will be the same for my children too, now and when they grow up.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Saying "no" to my children

One of the most painful thing I do as a father is to say "no" (and all its variants, including "not yet") to my children. It is painful because no matter how I sugarcoat the "no" and explain why I cannot accede, they go away with a disappointed look - and it is painful to sadden your children. It is also painful because of the irony - I say "no" because I believe, out of love, "no" is in their best interest; but it is often interpreted by them as the very opposite, that is, I do not care what is in their best interest and therefore I say "no" to them. It is heart-wrenching to see that what is intended as an act of love be interpreted on the other end as an uncaring decision, no matter how hard I try to understand their position and to explain mine. This is especially so when it touches on spiritual matters. As a Christian father, many of my decisions are made on the grounds of what is morally right from a Christian perspective. But the children, when they have not personally owned the faith, may not yet share these same moral standards. For example, when my children were younger, some of them could not understand why I am insistent on not allowing them to skip family worship even when they were very tired and felt like sleeping instead. In times like these, you can see from the body language that they become reluctant participants. It is painful because you feel that what we believe is best for them is taken as unimportant and burdensome. In such occasions, we lean on God and trust that He will honor our "no" and will give us the courage to continue persevering - that the children will one day understand the true love and good behind our "no"s. But there is yet another kind of pain involved. It is this: very often, especially in the BIG decisions that is not so clearly on moral grounds, I am not very sure if "no" was really a better decision because we cannot ascertain how future events would unfold; but because we need to make a decision (and the buck stops at me), we had to choose one option. We do so painfully aware that a wrong decision can adversely affect them in significant ways further down the road in their lives. We can think of many such examples: "dad, should I enrol in the poly instead of JC?" "Dad I don't like to go to school, can I be homeschooled instead?" "Dad I prefer to study in school with friends. I want to come home later." "Dad, can I have a personal laptop? More and and more schoolwork are now online and I will be disadvantaged because most of my friends have their own computers. And I have to share with 3 siblings ..." "How about smartfones? My friends can't contact me through watsapp if dont have one and I will be socially cut off from them." These are hard questions for me and for my children. Taking a decision one way can result in significant career/social/lifestyle options open/close to them later on. It is also humbling because - up till now - we do not know if the decisions we made for each child is really working better for them. We just have to confess our inadequacy to our children and ask them to join us in trusting God for each turn in life. Despite the pains and uncertainties surrounding decision-making as a father, I am thankful for encouragement along the way. And it is most heart-warming when you hear it from your children. Recently, my eldest son shared this to me: a friend of his was complaining to him that he finds himself always running short of money despite getting significantly more pocket money than my son. He was curious to find out how my son coped with what he considered an unbelievably inadequate amount of pocket money. In the course of their mutual chats about money, his friend discovered that since very early days, I had said "no" to my son when he asked to have an ATM card as a way to help him manage his expenses. At that point of the 'story', my son paused and looked at me with a smile, "you know what dad, he says that there is wisdom in that decision". I thank God for these encouragements along the way. It does give me strength to continue these oft-unappreciated role of father-as-tough-decision-maker.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Father as leader of the family

In my casual chats with my children, I sometimes pop this question to them, "your friends in school - how do they they view their father?" On the whole, the portrait is one where the father is one they go to for money, and one enters into their lives when there are important events - like outings, holidays, birthdays etc. at its worst, some of them do not even wish to talk about their father. It is quite sad. It sounds like they do not think that their fathers have a significant part to play in their everyday lives. I had thought that this passive, hands-off approach to fathering belonged only to a bygone era. Perhaps the strain of juggling with work and family, not to mention the great challenge of communicating with teenage children, is a cause of the father-children relationship chill. This reminds me of how important it is to stay engaged with my children. It also means that active fathering cannot remain as a wish - it has to be a priority, one that has to be accompanied with a deliberate plan and concrete action. But this also prompts a more personal question,"how would I want my children to view me as a father?" I have never asked this question to my children (and, since my older children read this blog, they can perhaps answer this question as comments) nor to myself before. I took a while to reflect on this question. Many words such as decision-maker, carer, visionary for the family, protector, shepherd, stabilizer etc came to mind. But I suppose "leader" sums it all up. I would like my children (and my wife) to see me as one who provides leadership for the family - along spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional planes. But as soon as you accept this role, you know why it is so tough - leaders have to solve problems, think a few steps ahead, set the example, chart the direction, do unpopular things sometimes, provide a stable environment, do all the above without getting appreciation, and get the blame for any mishaps. I must confess there are times I feel like shirking from it and just let the family glide along without direction and correction. But I know the cost is too great for them and for me. Above all, I believe it is God's calling for me to be a father-leader and He will give me strength despite my inadequacies.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

On smartfones - again

For friends who have been following this blog, I can understand if your first impression is: talking about smartfones AGAIN? I can also understand if you read no further ... It is "again" because my family felt the need to revisit this topic a few days ago. It just occurred to me that, for many years, I had been insisting on putting the desktop computer out in the open in the living room for two reasons: (1) everyone else can see what we are doing - the sites that we are visiting - and that enhances accountability; and (2) others can help us keep track of the time we spend, especially on unproductive things, and so help to remind us not to over-indulge in computer time. But I just realized that the children's use of smartfones (and the easy wifi access anywhere in the house, not to mention 3G service everywhere else) directly sabotages the principles mentioned above. So while the home computer still sits in the living room as a semblance of accountability, smartfones are used everywhere all over the house and at all times without accountability. I was glad that we (parents and the two older children) could sit down and have a nice calm meeting to talk through our concerns and counter-concerns regarding smartfone-use in the home. In the end, we arrived at these 'rules': 1. Use of phones only in 'public' spaces in the home such as in the living room and kitchen, not in toilets and bedrooms; 2. Bedroom doors should remain open (of course, except when we need to change) so we can help each other in the monitoring; 3. No use of phones after 10pm; 4. When not in use, phones should be placed at a common space 5. When found to contravene these rules above, we should be prepared to give up the use of the fone without putting up a resistance. These rules apply to all, including me. So friends, if you send me a message after 10, you now know why you may only get a reply the next morning. I can understand a reader may find this too restrictive and even counter productive in the long term - one may argue for a case that this is replacing the self-discipline that children should inculcate for themselves in the long run. For me, I have seen that gadget-addiction knows no boundaries - it afflicts both children as well as adults (including me). I think it helps to maintain a discipline right from the start. What do you think?