On Friday 3 June 2016, I launched my book Brainchild at Garden International School.
On Becoming a Writer
My writing journey began some 30 years ago on an ancient computer known as the Apple IIe but it wasn’t until 2005, when I was first introduced to blogging, that I started publishing my work online. In 2007, my writing took on a whole new direction as I struggled to cope with motherhood and being a parent. For the last 9 years, much of my writing has focused around the subject of education and child development largely inspired by the journey I have taken with my own children. Some time last year, I received a wonderful opportunity with MPH which led to a book, a talk at Garden International School, and this book launch.
My Gratitude to the Many People Who Helped
I’ve never realised just how many people it takes to make a book happen until I started to list out the names of the people involved in my book. Words cannot express just how grateful I am to these awesome individuals for their tremendous support. The only thing I can do is list their names in acknowledgement.
- My gorgeous photo models and their awesome mothers who endured the ungodly hours and the heat – Sharon Chan, Falz Pilos, Karen Loong Thomas, Karen Warren, Lisa Yap, Gavin Goh, Gareth Goh, Ahsen Jauhar, Asyiqah Tsara Nicholas, Iyesha Rhiannon Nicholas, Kaeden Luqmann Nicholas, Chris Quinn, Emily Quinn, Cahaya Rain Thomas, Matthew Warren, Alyssa Warren, and Natasha Yeo.
- Li Goh and Nikki Goh – my super supportive sisters-in-law – thank you for indulging the countless discussions, providing endless advice, and sharing your brilliant ideas.
- Charlie Goh – my awesomely patient husband who endured terrible neglect when I went off to write this book.
- Vicky O’Callaghan – thank you for generously offering your time and expertise to review my drafts.
- Daisy Ng – the catalyst whom, without, there would have been no book.
- The MPH team: Oon Yeoh, Kuah Sze Mei, and Lilian Ng – for making this book possible.
There were a few names that did not get a mention in the book, but I could not sleep without mentioning them here:
- Sammie Tan – the photographer who took our photos with her magic eye that intuitively knew just how to capture each photo perfectly.
- Karen Warren – for too many things to list here.
- Garden International School, especially Catherine Lambert and her team, Colter Watt, Ashley Cornfoot, and Mariella Vittetoe Castillo – for all their efforts in supporting my book launch.
And, of course, everyone who took the time to attend my book launch – thank you!
The Inspiration for Brainchild
Before I become a parent, one of my hobbies was rock climbing. I spent many an evening at the rock climbing gym, honing my climbing skills for the outdoor terrain. One of the things that climbers do is called bouldering. It involves climbing a short but difficult section of a wall. Usually, one climber will set the route by restricting the holds you can use and the goal is to reach the end hold without falling off.
One evening, there were a group of climbers working on a bouldering problem. It was so hard that none of the climbers could solve it. They kept taking turns to try without success. Eventually, one by one, they started to give up, walking away and muttering that it was “impossible”.
Everyone left except for one climber who stayed on and continued to work on the problem on his own. He spent half the evening on that boulder problem and eventually worked it out. When he did, the other climbers came rushing back. They were incredulous at first but once they saw it could be done, they started trying it for themselves. Within minutes, they could all do it. Suddenly, it seemed so easy when before it was “impossible”. The fact that they could all master the problem within minutes meant that their defeat was not because they didn’t have the ability. What they lacked was the belief that it could be done.
That story has stayed with me for years. Now, as a parent, I ask myself: how do I raise a child like that first climber? When it comes to educating our children, there is a tendency to focus a lot on developing ability (which is not a bad thing), but as we can see from the rock climbing example, the group of climbers were all of the same ability. What set them apart was something that the first climber had that the others did not. Back when I was climbing, I used to call it having “heart”. In sports, they refer to it as “mental toughness“. Angela Duckworth calls it “grit“.
How do you teach that to a child? One might ask if it is even possible. Some people might say that it is innate – either you’re born with it or you’re not. Thankfully, science disagrees – well, sort of. Data from 29 million twins reveals that we’re pretty much 50% what we’re born with and 50% the result of our environment. So there you go – we can influence up to 50% of how our children turn out. All things considered, that’s pretty good odds!
My journey as a parent and what inspires me to write about it is continually evolving but time and again, I find myself coming back to the example above as I try to understand more about optimal child development and helping children to fulfill their potential.
Why Did I Write Brainchild?
During my crash course in parenting, someone remarked that it wasn’t necessary to read so much because parenting was just common sense. The problem with common sense is that there are times when it really isn’t that common.
In my final year of secondary school – you know that all important year that decides what course and University you can get into depending on how well you do? – I was learning the piano as a hobby. Although I enjoyed it, I remember deciding to quit piano for a year so I could focus on what mattered more – studying for that final year. I didn’t want to waste time on the piano because I though my time would be better spent on studying.
It was common sense. If I made more time to study, I could learn more and do better. Unfortunately, that’s not how entirely how the brain works. Neurocience says that taking breaks from studying and doing other “unrelated” activities that we enjoy, like piano lessons, is good for the brain. It even helps us to learn more effectively! Unfortunately, I didn’t know that.
That wasn’t the only misconception I had about the way the brain worked. I was also oblivious to the fact that exercise and physical activity play an important role in the function and development of the brain. Growing up, I saw many stereotypes of the “dumb jock” and the “physically-challenged nerd” and it led me to believe that physical and intellectual abilities were opposite faces on a coin, having little bearing on each other. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The more I thought about it, the more things I remembered doing when I was growing up that weren’t very conducive to learning, like the all-nighters before an exam. I cringe whenever I think back to the number of hours I slept during exam season. Now every article tells us that a good night’s rest is what children need to help them prepare for their exams.
It is these little things that we overlook because they don’t seem that important which have the greatest impact on how well our children perform in school and in life. When I was growing up, we could say, but we didn’t know! Now, we do know and it is my hope that I can increase awareness with my book so that children in this generation might grow up in an environment that gives them the best chance of reaching their full potential.
During the book launch, there were two other speakers:
- Ashley Cornfoot, Head of Primary, who spoke about “Lighting the Mind – Understanding Yourself as a Learner”
- Mariella Vittetoe Castillo, Head of Counselling, who spoke about “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Preschool – The Importance of Play”
I’m afraid I was too nervous worrying about my own talk to take notes, but I have some old posts that cover some of what they talked about:
- Metacognition – getting better at learning by understanding how we think
- Let’s Play – why children need to play
Q&A from the Book Launch
I’m afraid I have never been very eloquent speaking off the top of my head so I am reviewing some of the questions that were asked during the book launch. Hopefully, I can provide a little more clarity with written words.
What’s your view on enrichment classes? In Singapore, the children are always in classes for English, Maths, etc. and they never play and it happens here, too, so I wondered what was your view on that?
Firstly, I thought we should clarify what an enrichment class is. I’ve always thought of them as any activity outside of school – which could be academic, like Math and English, or it could be extra-curricular, like a sport, music, or art. When I looked it up, I noticed that some definitions were a lot more narrow:
Enrichment classes are 20- to 60-minute sessions that are taught year-round in four- to five-week sessions. With small class sizes, personalized experiences and individual attention, your child can quickly gain new skills that accelerate beyond our standards-based core curriculum.
I’m definitely big on extra-curricular activities because they have so much to offer our children. My only caution is moderation. We can send our children to far more activities than they have hours in a day for and it is easy to go overboard. We’ve made that mistake a few times when I’ve said “yes” to too many things and realised that our week has gone crazy. As much as I would love for them to do everything, I need to remember that I’m the parent and it is my responsibility to maintain the balance especially while my children are still young.
Regarding academic enrichment classes… Before my children started school, they had all day, everyday with me and I did include academic enrichment into their daily activities. I came from a strongly academic family so it seemed a natural progression. Once school started, many of those hours disappeared and I had to rethink our time management.
Why send children to academic enrichment classes? I would consider them for two reasons:
- My child is advanced and feels insufficiently challenged at school
- My child is struggling to keep up in school and would benefit from extra attention
Before signing up for any academic enrichment classes I would ask what support does the school offer children that fall into either of the above categories? Is that support enough for these children? If more support is required, I would then ask what exactly do these academic enrichment classes offer and how beneficial it would be for my child.
I admit that I am a kiasu parent. I don’t want my children to be busy for the sake of being busy. While I like for them to participate in extra-curricular activities that will provide all-rounded development, I also believe in allowing them to have free time to choose what they want to do with that time – and yes, that includes the dress-ups in capes, play fighting with swords and shields. In a world where time is a precious commodity, I dislike squandering my children’s time on “busy” activities. If they must be busy, I prefer for it to be something meaningful for them.
Especially when you’re a working parent, when we discuss about the importance of sleep we talked about how some parents decide to keep their kids up later so they can catch up with them during the day. I feel like a not-so-good Mum because I sleep with them in bed at 7 and I come back at 6 – 6:30 and I want them to sleep even though in our case they don’t see me as much. How do you deal with that guilt when you work but you want your kids to have a routine and having quality time with you as a family?
We want to have meaningful relationships with our children but we want to observe their sleep needs and we want to feel like we’re good parents to our children. In a perfect world, we could all of this and more. But it is not a perfect world and we are not perfect people. We can only what we are capable of given the time constraints in our lives and that may often fall short of our expectations on what we should be doing.
I do not want this book to highlight how we fail our children because of what we can’t do. I want it to be an idea book of little things we can change to make our children’s growing environment a little better. That might mean adopting only one or two ideas because that’s all you can do but that’s okay. The goal is not perfection, it is continuous improvement.
What I would suggest is to identify what is most important to you and your family and to work towards adopting those ideas first. This will be different for every family and may change over time as the family grows. Then there will be times when we make exceptions for a special occasion, for instance, a later bedtime during a holiday trip overseas.
In the example above – how do you deal with the guilt of wanting your children to get enough sleep but not having enough time to spend with you because you work late? I would let my children go to sleep early and if I’m back early enough, I would spend a bit of time in bed with the kids for cuddles and a 10 minute bedtime story, or a chat about the best thing that happened for them on that day. I would squeeze in little things during the day, like a hug in the morning, a message in the lunch box, a surprise kiss on the cheek, or talking in the car on the way to school.
On the weekend, I would make up for it with a family day where we ride our bikes together, go for a romp in the park, enjoy a meal at a restaurant, play a board game together, have an imaginary sword fight, or “insert fun activity with your child”. There are many ways to connect with your child without having to spend hours you don’t have and still maintain the routine that they need.
What are the major things that you discovered you had to overcome or unlearn during your 9 years journey?
Three things come to mind – the kiasuism (“fear of losing”), the need to always be right with my kids, and the need to be a perfect parent.
If there is one failing I have always had, it is that I hate to lose. It was difficult to listen to what other parents do with their children and not feel like I had to do that, too. Or perhaps second guess if I am doing the right thing by my children with the path I have chosen. It has taken me a while, but I have learned to be more in tune with my children’s needs and not to be swayed by what others are doing if I don’t believe it is right for us.
On the Need to Always be Right
I grew up in a world where parents were omnipotent and it gave me the impression that I had to be the same. We’re human and that means we are going to make mistakes. Far better than to create that illusion of being omnipotent in front of our children, I believe they stand to benefit a great deal more by knowing how we fail, how we pick ourselves up and start all over again. We need to be the model for our children so they can see that we know how to admit to being wrong, how to apologise for our mistakes, and to want to be better. It is the things that make us more human that our children will identify with the most.
On the Need to be a Perfect Parent
I blame social media for this. We often only see the perfect images in other people’s lives and assume that that is how our lives ought to be. What we see is only a snapshot in time of life at its sweetest. Like the need to always be right, we should let go of the idea that we need to be perfect parents for everything to be good. Striving to be better than we are now is always a good thing. Desiring to be perfect is unrealistic.
Parenting is a Journey of Growth and Learning
At the end of my launch, one parent aptly summed it up: you’re a parent on a journey growing and learning with your children.
Facebook Brainchild Group
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