Softer around the edges

A reluctant change brings an unexpected result . 

I live with a mini me. She is unashamedly goal orientated, organised, fiercely independent, easily annoyed by inefficiency and sticks to what she does well. This child came into our lives preloaded with a whole bunch of software that is ideal for a schooling and learning environment that values structured learning, revisable testing and predictable scoring.

If we believed in rewarding her materially for performance or dangling highly attractive “carrots” she would certainly kick all those goals and more. In fact she sets her own targets and I’ve been presented with percentage scores before exams on a post-it note. It is not uncommon for these targets to be revised and adjusted to a more realistic number after she completes her tests. She is an accurate predictor of her own performance.

When her father and I introduced the idea of moving her to educational environment that valued a broader learning scope, without scheduled revisable testing, she bawled. She fought us with passion. Tears of anger were shed and she produced arguments like a champion debater. She pleaded for a few more years of no-change, adding “…..some people don’t like exams, but it’s ok for me. I know how to do well in them.”

Being reminded of my younger self, I knew she had a different side to her, yet to be unleashed, possibly even unaware to herself. And I truly wanted her to experience and explore that. It was essential for her to calibrate a balance.

We went ahead with our plans for to change her school. I spent three weeks over an open word document on my computer, drafting and redrafting our pitch to her. It was also decided that her father should break the news. He asked her to stay open, to give it her best and we promised we would review how she felt after an agreed time frame.

Within weeks into the new term, I noticed flowers being left for me by my bedside table, beside my breakfast plate. I was often showered with butterfly kisses and greeted with unsolicited hugs. When facing off with her siblings I noticed she would voluntarily back off, even offer a compromise that didn’t necessarily benefit her.

While her passion for learning is evident and she is determined to keep up to date with homework deliverables and enthusiastic about exploring extra curricular activities, I am most proud that she has just softened around the edges.

I am excited for what is in store for her. She is well on her journey of exploration, discovery and developing diverse spheres around her. She is no longer sprinting along a familiar, beaten track.

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The Calm after the Storm

The quiet moments of closure are often where we learn most about each other. 

This week has been one of those weeks of wonderful fellowship with family, friends & acquaintances. Amongst varied discussions & stories shared were travel & adventure, pushing personal boundaries, work demands and of course, “raising adults” – parenthood.

Whilst we shed tears, laughed hysterically, nodded frantically, shared frustrations, swapped methods & tips of how to circumnavigate parenting situations, I realise we didn’t speak about the less exciting and dramatic aspect – that of closure & learning.

The most wonderful times I’ve shared in building relationships are during the calm after the storm, the de-briefing, the closure, the post mortem of what initially seemed like an act of astonishing bad judgement or uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of either our children or ourselves.

I love having this opportunity to delve deeper into the “why”. I sit and listen. Sometimes we huddle together in embrace, faces still wet, hearts still pounding, emotions still heightened. At other times, physically from a distance as if we are discussing a case and not ourselves, speaking in third person & discussing hypotheticals & playing out different scenarios. We exchange without judgement, without ego. And we may agree to disagree, apologise for “jumping the gun” or accept consequences gracefully.

The outcome seems so much less important at this moment. We understand each other and ourselves, just that little bit better. We celebrate our individuality and mutual respect.

My patience has been trained to wait for this golden moment – hours, days, weeks or sometimes months after. I observe. I self reflect. I wait.

I’m often asked, “…when will you return to work ?”. I have one and I choose every day to be employed in it. I am still learning “on the job”. These are the unscheduled 360 degree feedback sessions and if I am lucky, happens more often than once a year.

A Want versus A Need 

Economics, baking and trying my darndest not to eat my words. 

I was recently at the household section of a department store picking up a gift for a friend. As it was during the half term holidays, I had my children with me.  One of them is a keen baker and has often lamented that she wished we had a stand mixer rather than just the handheld machine to work with.  I would dismiss the request and reply that our trusty handheld has served me well for over 20 years and does all that we need to cater for their lunch box treats, celebration and tea cakes.  This afternoon we walked by the Kitchen Aid counter and she noticed the machine she coveted in the exact Ice Blue colour was discounted. Her eyes opened almost as widely as her mouth! I just shook my head and kept our group walking.

Early the next morning, I found her clicking away on the computer. She had decided to start a pop up baking business during her half term holidays to save for a Kitchen Aid. It was a cleverly designed flyer that featured her baked goods, taglines, a blurb “About me”, menu and an assurance that any other proceeds collected would go to charity.  I left her alone for a few hours.  She then approached me to help her with marketing her flyer naming some specific individuals she would like me to message with her advertisement. And so I did.

For the next few hours I fueled messages from some excited friends complimenting her on this enterprising initiative and enthusiastically placing their orders. I also received calls from curious friends asking why I wouldn’t just buy the machine for her or offer a loan, which she could pay back with an installment plan from pocket money.

Our family has always tried to differentiate between “wants and needs”. This was a perfect opportunity for us as parents to walk the talk and stay true to this principle. It would have been much easier to just swipe the credit card and taken full credit for being a generous “you’re the best !” parent and bathe in the short-lived gratitude from our child. Instead I took on the role as her cheerleader, consultant, kitchen assistant, call centre operator and driver. In five full baking days she worked like no one has ever seen her do, she persisted with a vengeance we never believed she had and with such energy and passion that awed us. It was a wonderful opportunity for her to learn simple product costing, production planning, bookkeeping and more, apart from an improved level of baking as she had paying customers this time.  She did reach her goal and we were thrilled for her.

I will be forever changed and eternally grateful. Not because she is kindly sharing her shiny wonderful kitchen appliance with us but for what I observed and learnt about my child and the human spirit.  Some of these more meaningful observations were: she remains calm under pressure, she’s much quicker in arithmetic when it’s contextual, her passion for baking gives her great courage to “just try”, she’s a perfectionist for things she truly cares about and is able to commit to a structured thinking approach not usually seen in her academic projects.  I learnt that as a parent, it was terribly difficult to resist the temptation to overprotect, bail my child out financially, hand hold every step or even take over completely, make excuses for a poor quality product being delivered.

Children are innocently optimistic.  While I found myself anticipating every possible pitfall and quietly preparing Plan Bs, she just worked to her plan. It was refreshing to be reminded of such simple resolve. It was inspiring.

She’s ten years old, I would remind myself while I put one foot in front of the other, dragging my spirit along with my body away from the kitchen. A voice in my heart urged me to leave her to this privilege to learn, grow and discover. And allowed myself that too. I want to continue being an observant guardian.

Protected by a Hulk

Dedicated to all those spirited and fiercely passionate beings. 

I feel blessed to have the wisdom and capacity to sit in quiet detachment, observe and listen when my child is crying hysterically or yelling uncontrollably.  When they were babies, I would deliberately let them cry. At least cry for long enough to tune into what they were trying to say to me.  Picking them up immediately and soothing them, felt to me like I was cutting them off mid-sentence, while they were passionately expressing their views.  Before they were able to communicate through words, in my opinion, crying allowed them to express a range of feelings.  Not necessarily just sad or negative emotions.

Although it would break my heart, I would choose to remain in their space as they howled and bawled, careful not to touch them. I would eventually hear them communicate their message as a feeling in my gut, a flutter in my heart, an idea popping into my head. Some people call this intuition.  We all have it. Some choose to ignore it. Others don’t give it a chance to be spoken.

As my children grew I deployed a similar strategy when they expressed their feelings in manners that are often associated with negativity.  Tantrums, outbursts, yelling, feet stomping, smacking others, rolling on the floor – I’ve been a parent to children who have done it all, tried it all.  It is not unusual for me to detach myself as a party to this emotion yet stay right in the eye of the storm – breathe, observe and feel. It was not easy to do. But it was worth the heartbreaking pause. Sometimes these outbursts were motivated by plain ego and pride or mischief, at other times a feeling of injustice, or fueled by fatigue, hunger or other circumstances.

I have noticed however, that with one of my children, a feeling of pain, injustice and hurt can sometimes trigger an extremely passionate and physical blast of emotion. She employs the “attack is the best way to defend” strategy and spins into a flamboyant temper tantrum of self-preservation. Other personalities may react in a more acceptable, subdued fashion such as to sit down and cry helplessly in emotional pain.  The latter evokes a quicker empathetic response from most people.  Her explosive reaction instead is often misunderstood for obstinacy, rebellion and challenge of authority.

I have worked with her over the years to understand how she instinctively reacts and in the process, she too has gained a better insight into the triggers. As she matures, she has been able to articulate with greater clarity and depth how she feels and why she reacted the way she did.  More often these days, she is able to manage her feelings of hurt by communicating it verbally rather than spinning into a rage. Experience has taught her that when she reacts with such craze, she can get even more frustrated from having lost her audience to their own negative biases that she is on the attack, plain “naughty” and uncontrollable.  In fact, this is where she is misunderstood. She is only attacking because she feels a deep sense of emotional hurt.  And when she is hurt, she doesn’t react quietly.

Last week one of her teachers commented that she had put in a very poor effort with a piece of story writing, while she actually felt she had tried her best. Immediately she spun into a tantrum. She yelled, cried angrily, stomped her feet and refused stubbornly to cooperate on a redraft. Unaware that this frenzy arose from her intense sense of hurt, the teacher then began berating her reaction and labeled her an uncooperative and ineffective student.  That compounded the level of injury and I don’t have to tell you how the rest of the scenario played out.

I felt the teacher expected me to back her up, tick my child off for her uncontrolled outburst and was possibly horrified that I didn’t.  Instead I spoke nothing of it for the next few hours.  We went out to a lovely lunch and an ice cream treat afterwards. Once she was happy, calm and felt restored I asked if we could talk about the incident.  I know her well enough that if she had hinted or said no outright, I would have left it to revisit at another time.  Today she was open and nodded.  We sat cross legged, facing each other. I offered my open palms to her, she took them in both her hands and I started listening.  Asked if there was a better way to react, she didn’t deny it.  I then repeated the strategy she has heard since she was a “terrible two” (year old) : “ Use your words, not your hands. Use your calm voice and people will listen.”  Tears of regret flowed and some leftover anger of being misunderstood.

My prayer for my child is that she continues to understand and accept who she is yet learns ways to communicate her feelings of hurt, so others realise that underneath that tough, fighting spirit is a heart so soft it needs a Hulk to protect.

Mother doesn’t always know best

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One of parenting’s greatest challenges is learning to trust and have faith. 

We all have very different working styles. Rationally we know this to be true. We have dealt with colleagues and with enough work teams to know individuals have their own way of delivering outcomes. Somehow this rational understanding flew out the window when I started to coach my children through their homework.

“Get your stuff done before you go off to play.”

“Are you sure you’ve finished everything? Show me!”

Rewards of outings, play, relaxation or any other activity deemed to be non-productive could only happen after they got through their list of responsibilities.

For years this was the modus operandi in our home. Some quickly fell into line and operated effectively under this regime. Others however, struggled and there we fought endlessly. Being ever persistent, I pushed on, even harder. Feeling utterly convinced in my heart that an integral part of my role as a parent was to impart best practice in managing work & deliverables so as to form good habits: an effective work ethic that will take them from the age of 6 to adulthood. It had to be one of the most critical KPIs for me in this role a parent.

We would kick off each after-school afternoon with each child writing up a “to do list” on the whiteboard, prioritized in order of what was due first or tomorrow. They would tick that list off on completion and only have free time to chill and play afterwards. The team outlier however, for years was a reluctant participant and challenged the effectiveness of this system. We had many calm discussions – me espousing the importance of this full proof method and her nodding in agreement. At other times we yelled at each other disrespectfully, threatened each other with extreme forms of “You will never ever…” and “I don’t care…”. Sometimes there would be quiet pleas of “But mom, I promise …” and on days when these promises weren’t kept, I would either respond with the silent treatment or explode in uncontrollable rage.

This year I made a decision to let my child lead. She is at the cusp of middle school and this just was not working for her and for me. I took a deep breath and let go. It has been several weeks and I was curious to find out her perspective. Last week I found an opportune moment to ask. This was what I learnt. She appreciated the power of choice and preferred to decide if she would start her work, even if it was after playtime, an outing or activity. Enjoying these rewards first then meant she didn’t spend the time dreaming about it, distracted and slowing her down while at her task. Delayed gratification is not for everyone. It was at times, counterproductive, as was my nagging or reminding albeit with the best of intentions. Apparently my “gentle reminders” created anxiety.

We have our good days where work is diligently and enthusiastically completed and other days where I bite hard on my lip and not comment on the items left unfinished on her list. Instead I remind myself of these wise words:

“At the center of your being

You have the answer;

You know who you are

and You know what You want.” Lao Tzu

Mother doesn’t always know best. Time for me to step away so that self knowledge can shine through.

The Upside of Living in this Grey

Drawing connections for our children who will inherit this Earth. 

When we plead with our children to finish their food because somewhere in the world there are people starving, we often receive blank stares and some inkling there’s another conversation going on in their heads that goes like this:

“Here she goes again …. bla bla bla… ”

Living in this haze the past few weeks has given me the perfect opportunity to deal with the “R”s. To Remind, Reiterate, Reintroduce & Rant about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

“Did you know that if you keep buying stuff you don’t really need, from the (colorful hip-stationery store-that’s at every mall on this island), you’re indirectly contributing to this haze ?!” Now that definitely got their attention. “What do you mean?!”

There’s enough material out there on climate change, pollution, consumerism & its impact. I chose instead to exercise my own discretion and parental licence and concoct a story woven with facts and non-facts. While my audience is still young, I take advantage of the “mom (kinda – sorta) knows everything” privilege, I describe an intricate link between their favourite donut scented pencil from that (colorful hip-stationery store-that’s at every mall on this island) to mega factories, felling of trees, pollution, El Nino and palm oil plantations in Sumatra. I share photos of the devastation and suffering of the people living in these blazing communities. Eyes wide, ears perked, minds processing, connections are quickly being made. They look regretfully at that no longer innocent donut scented pencil.

I realize, of course, my days of stringing unrelated and unsubstantiated facts together to suit my own preaching & agenda are numbered.

I am waiting for that what’s app message from mom friends asking me to explain why her kid says he can’t buy anything from this (colorful hip-stationery store-that’s at every mall on this island) because they are responsible for this haze. Or a legal letter suing me for libel.

For the moment though, I have made my point. Think before you buy. Consider what is a want versus a need. Children will inheirit this planet. They must be reminded of their responsibility. Will you contribute to the problem or decide to be part of the climate change solution. Even Pope Francis says so !

From the Naughty Corner to the Choke Chain

Be unafraid to parent and take credit for this courage.   

“Do you want me to call Aunty and….”

When friends tell me they quote my name as a threat to get their kids to fall into line, I’m not sure whether to feel honoured or horrified. In reality, I feel a bit of both and each time, my inner voice mutters an “Awwwww… did it really need to come to that?”

When our kids were babies & toddlers we did insist they self settle, self feed, put away their toys, we had a good “feed, play, sleep” routine and yes, we used the naughty corner too. They also had an early bedtime of 7:30pm in addition to daytime naps lasting 2-3 hours. This consistency and routine was our choice of parenting and it worked for us. It was certainly not a form of torture, or punishment or intended for them, as adults to spend hours mulling over on a therapist’s couch.

As our children mature in age, self-confidence, ability & capability the way we deal with boundaries and behavior is certainly less black & white, less about action & consequence. It is because they have now learnt about physical dangers and the like. The issues we are faced with as a parent are more about differing opinions, varied motivations, opposing perspectives and contrasting working styles. These debates are grey & subjective. There really isn’t often a right or wrong. The boundaries they push aren’t necessarily going to land us all in the emergency room at 2am in the morning.

In keeping with my “Scary Aunty” persona, I would like to describe that at times, our parenting strategy today is equivalent to using a lead and a choke chain when walking a pet. We are all in agreement of our route & have set an optimal pace. They understand the physical dangers along the way. They are cognizant of the consequences of their actions or inactions. We give them their space to run ahead, around or behind us, as they please. We observe. We remind. We sound out during moments when we are out of sight or not in contact for a while, so they know we are there.

At times, however due to a lapse of judgement or a moment of unbridled passion they may veer too far from the agreed safe zone. We apply, gently and with unconditional, no-ego love, a slight choke on the chain. In that pause, there is realization, a reminder for both of us, connected by that lead. We catch up with each other. We converse. We re-group. We re-assess. And we continue our journey together. For the moment, we are still their leader and they still want to be led. Very soon we will relinquish that role & renegotiate another.

Some call it Tough Love. I say, be Courageous in your parenting. While it is not easy, we are all just doing our best. I would suggest, you consider using your own name proudly in setting boundaries and own those moments. You’re welcome to borrow my name, however for those who do, I will ask to be credited for your child’s exemplary behaviour.