Kenny Toh
Wed, Jan 09, 2008
Mind Your Body, The Straits Times
Parents, don't add to your kids' stress

As a father of two school-going children, I cannot help but be amazed at how the educational environment has become far more exciting, stimulating and engaging, compared with the days when I was a student.

During the first week of school, my nine-year-old son Sean gets to run around his new school in an Amazing Race-style induction programme while his seven-year-old brother Dylan plays the role of an Orientation Buddy for a Primary 1 student.

However, I have also noticed how life as a student is getting increasingly sophisticated, demanding and possibly stressful.

Failure to meet rising expectations from teachers and parents can often result in stress that manifests itself in symptoms such as anxiety, depression and even physical illnesses.

Being aware of the rising demands on our children helps my wife and I realise the importance of our role as the source of love, support, guidance and encouragement, instead of being another cause of their distress.

We believe that children deserve a happy childhood and that their well-being must not be compromised in the name of doing what we think is best for them.

Here are some personal stories on how we help our children deal with the inevitable challenges of growing up in an increasingly demanding environment.

> Know your child

During a meet-the-parent session at Dylan's preschool, his teacher once commented that he was not speaking up enough in class.

When he was in Primary 1, his teacher said the same thing and suggested that we encourage him to be more pro-active in answering the teacher's questions.

It seemed that keeping quiet in class, once a virtue held in high regard, is now considered a developmental need.

While it was tempting to conclude that he might need some help, a little fact gathering revealed a different picture. His Chinese teacher said that Dylan was always the first to raise his hand, and that she often had to ignore him to give others a chance.

When I asked him about his behaviour in class, he said he had chosen to keep quiet even though he knew the answers - so he could give other students a chance, especially when the questions were easy.

We learnt that getting to know our children's unique natures and the underlying intentions behind their behaviour can help avoid unnecessary stress, both for our children as well as for ourselves.

> Provide exposure and support

But even as we avoid causing unnecessary stress in our children, we must recognise that stressful experiences are part of the normal course of their lives.

The best we could do is to prepare them well to meet those challenges and to support them when needed.

That reminds me of Dylan's experience in his first national chess tournament when he was still in preschool.

We suspected that while he possessed the cognitive ability to compete effectively, he might not be mentally ready to handle the chaos of a massive event held at the Indoor Stadium, but we took the risk anyway.

He looked rather apprehensive as we left him at his table amidst a few hundred other children. Finally, a few minutes before the tournament began, he broke down and cried when the tip of his pencil snapped as he was writing his name on the game sheet.

We took him out of the hall immediately and comforted him. We had learnt our lesson and decided to give him gradual exposure, starting with smaller tournaments. He returned the following year and emerged as the first runner-up in his age group, and still continues to enjoy the game today.

> Give your child ample play time

Too much homework and organised enrichment activities can impoverish children, depriving them of time to play, daydream, and pursue their interests.

While many young children spend a significant portion of their after-school hours and weekends on tuition and enrichment classes, we seek to maximise our boys' free time by keeping additional commitments to a minimum.

Tuition is limited to occasional review sessions with Mum if needed, while soccer and chess fill the usual weekend playtime with Dad. Apart from that, they are free to play so long as they have finished their homework.

We believe free or unstructured play is crucial for our children's learning and development, and that it helps develop their resilience and strengthens their ability to cope with potentially stressful situations.

Perhaps the best antidote for stress is PLAY!

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