Best present: Play with your kids

Best present: Play with your kids

With the Christmas season upon us, 'tis the season for giving and receiving presents, along with some reminders that what our children want from us, more than presents, is our presence.

The telco StarHub has been running a TV commercial about a father and his son who go toy-shopping only to end the day empty-handed and the dad still clueless about what his son wants. Checking his smartphone after the boy goes to bed, he finds a message from the little one that says the best present was spending a day with dad.

For sure, it is a poignant message, if a little blatant in promoting its heartstrings-tugging agenda. But it also feels unnecessary in this age of baby-wearing, diaper-changing, milk-feeding dads who enjoy paternity leave and know that starting a family involves more than donating some DNA to their wives.

Worse, "Presence, not presents" is a truth that has become a slogan and, now, a truism - a cliche that obscures the fact that our presence is not enough.

In the past couple of weeks while I've been on leave, I've encountered a handful of children I don't know come to me wanting to talk to me or play with me. Their parents are around, somewhere, just not playing with them at the indoor playground or swimming pool they've been taken to.

Why they would want to approach me is beyond me. With my bald pate and craggy complexion, I can look stern, menacing even, perhaps the kind of strangers I would warn my two daughters about. Plus, as I have said in this space before, I don't even like children much, only my own seven- and four-year-old girls, Faith and Sarah.

Still, I guess the sight of a man goofing around with his daughters triggers something in kids who are left on their own to have fun while their parents are busy being present elsewhere.

If they have siblings or friends to play with, they don't mind their parents' "absent" presence as much. Otherwise, what young kids seem to want is for their parents to join them in their favourite, most important activity - play.

You may feed your children, bathe them, supervise their homework and be considered a hands-on parent. But as important as those tasks are, children would far prefer spending time with their favourite people doing their favourite thing.

And it's not just children. Wouldn't a dating couple do things either or both of them love? Would it suffice that one party ferries the other to work and collects clothes from the dry-cleaners and performs various other chores for the other?

Love in any relationship is expressed by caring for the other and also doing things the other loves.

Make no mistake, the bar is high for parents. Being present is better than being absent, but it is nothing compared to being involved in the day-to-day minutiae of child-raising. Then, beyond being involved in the daily chores of childcare, there is the time you invest in understanding your children's personalities and preferences through play.

You learn almost nothing about your children from driving them to and picking them up from enrichment classes. You learn even less from sitting with your iPad in a quiet corner of an indoor playground you've taken your children to.

There are shelves upon shelves of books teaching parents how to discipline their children. There is virtually none that I know of that teaches parents how to meaningfully spend time with their children when there are no activities planned.

Many fathers I know make much time to be with their families, secure only in the knowledge that there are vacations to be organised and tasks to be accomplished, be they football practice, ballet lessons, tuition or a trip to Disneyland.

Every so often, perhaps what parents should ask themselves is not what they can do for their children, but ask the children what the family can all do together.

I used to be terrified of taking a long period of leave from work when there is no overseas holiday on the family agenda. The instinct was to look for classes to sign up Faith and Sarah for.

For my three weeks' leave this month, I've been largely content with waking every morning not exactly knowing what I shall do with my wife, Faith and Sarah, except that we shall be together.

There could a stamp workshop at the Singapore Philatelic Museum one morning but nothing else planned apart from that. We would do whatever caught our fancy.

Even our few days' staycation on Sentosa had nothing arranged beyond accommodation. Swim? Ride the Luge? Try the Segway? Swim again? Swim some more? Sure, definitely, why not, certainly and heck, yeah. Whatever we did, we did it together, even when we were just chilling out or feeling bored when the monsoon showers came.

At bedtime, we said our prayers, thanking God that we had spent yet another day together as a family.

This article was first published on Dec 15, 2014.
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