Hugs or yikes?

Ms Grace Tan, 29, has not been hugged or kissed by her parents since she was 12.

"They just stopped," the public relations officer says, referring to the hugs and kisses.

Even on her wedding day 21/2 years ago, she recalls that the photographer had to request that her parents put their arms around her. "If not, they would have just stood stiffly next to me," she says, with a laugh. "We are a very traditional Chinese family."

Singaporeans aged 30 and older whom SundayLife! spoke to also described their parents as "conservative", "old school" and, in some cases, "typical Chinese" to explain why they have received little physical affection from their parents.

Customer relationship management consultant Andy Lee, 40, recalls receiving just one hug from his mother in his life thus far - the day he returned home with good results for his Primary School Leaving Examination.

On his wedding day, he received a mere "congratulatory pat on the shoulder" from her.

Parenting blogger Meiling Wong-Chainani, 42, initiates hugs with her mother, but the older lady maintains "space in between them". Explains her mother, housewife Elsie Siew, 68: "My parents used to project a very serious demeanour, so I also feel the need to maintain an authoritative, serious air with my children."

Actor Edmund Chen, 52, has such memories of his parents too. "I grew up in a typical Chinese family, where my mother cooked and worked, and my father put bread on the table. In my mind, he was this highly intimidating, stern figure who kept words to a minimum.

There was very little physical contact."

Mr William Wan, 66, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, cannot recall his parents giving him any physical affection. "They were busy and I was left to my own devices," he says.

While it may be a sweeping generalisation to suggest that older Singaporeans are not demonstrative in expressing their love for their children, experts agree that parents today are more expressive than in previous generations.

Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist and a Families for Life council member, says younger, better educated parents are less inhibited in expressing their love physically.

Ms Fazlinda Faroo, a member of the Family Life Education Expert Panel and centre manager of PPIS Vista Sakinah, which runs marriage preparation classes for remarrying couples, agrees things are changing.

"In today's context, with parents being more exposed to different parenting styles, we do find that parents, even fathers, are a lot more open in expressing their love for their children through hugging and kissing.

Today's generation of parents are more inclined to engage, interact and play with their children."

Mr Lee, who grew up in a "conservative Chinese family" where open displays of affection were absent, now hugs and kisses his four children often and also holds their hands.

"I see these acts as a form of assurance to my children, to let them know I am there for them," says Mr Lee, who also runs the blog Sengkang Babies.

Prof Tan says these transitions could be a result of parents' exposure to "huggy" cultures through the media, travel and cross-cultural interactions.

For Mr Lee, he feels the lack of affection from his parents is what propels him to express physical affection to his wife and children today.

Mrs Rachel Lee Siang Ju, 46, senior assistant director at Fei Yue Family Service Centres, says physical touch is important. It is one of the five love languages described in the book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. She says: "People respond to hugs and kisses as they are comforting and show care and love for the person."

In some younger generation families, physical affection is given not only to the children, but also to the spouses.

Public relations executive Kamsina Alfia Jumari, 44, and her driver husband Ramlan Ishak, 46, hold hands in front of their two daughters.

"We want to show our children we are still in love and that this is what a family is about," she says.

Mrs Wong-Chainani and her husband go one step further. They hug and kiss each other on the lips in front of their two children.

She says: "I believe this prepares them for future discussions on intimacy in a relationship."

Quips her son Krysh, 10: "I've seen movies where the couples kiss on the lips anyway, so it's okay."

The children of Mr Ching Wei Hong, chairman of the Families for Life Council, say their parents' open displays of affection for each other and for them have helped them be "cohesive" as a family.

Says his son Christian Ching, 17: "While most guys shy away from physical contact with their parents, I am not as awkward about it."

For some families, the hugs and kisses that younger generations exchange with their children have warmed the older generations up to those practices.

Actor Chen, who likes to kiss his wife and two children on their lips, says the "ice has been melting" between him and his parents, who do not display physical affection. Over the last few years, his parents have been receptive to his hugs and even an occasional kiss on their foreheads.

Another person who reaches out to her parents is civil servant Kimberly Chia, 31. Together with her two sisters, they envelop their mother regularly in a group hug.

She says: "My mother is usually the one who puts an end to these hugs by saying, 'It's very suffocating'. I guess she is a little shy, but this is my way of letting her know I'm here for her."

Corporate communications head Patricia Campbell, 46, has a different experience growing up. Her mother has been giving her good-night hugs and morning kisses for as long as she can remember.

She says: "Until today, even though the roles are reversed and I help to change her diapers, she still gives me hugs."

Her mother is frail and suffers from heart failure. Ms Campbell showers the same type of affection on her 13-year-old daughter.

On the other end of the spectrumfrom Ms Chia and Chen are a handful of younger Singaporeans, such as public relations associate Jerlyn Long, 24, who are not demonstrative.

Ms Long's parents say they try to initiate hugs with her, but she usually receives them awkwardly and always looks uncomfortable.

Her housewife mother Shirley Long, 58, attributes it to her daughter's personality being "more reserved". In response, Ms Long says: "I'm just not the 'huggy' sort. I prefer to show my love and care through gifts."

Mrs Lee says a family can still have a "healthy and warm relationship" without physical touch, as long as family members are able to feel the love from one another in other ways.

Agreeing with her, Prof Tan says: "Hugging and kissing are just expressions of love. Different cultures may express love differently."

There are those who say it is never too late to initiate physical affection.

Dr Thang Leng Leng, 49, president of Fei Yue Family Service Centre, recalls hugging her late father-in-law only once.

"To this day, I still have a tinge of regret for not expressing my affection for him. The one time we hugged was when I found out my mother-in-law died. I don't remember ever hugging him again after that."

Her father-in-law died 10 years after her mother-in-law's death.

"While we held hands quite often and I would pat him on the shoulder as he turned frail, I could have given him a kiss on the cheek and told him 'I love you' in his final moments in intensive care."

This article was published on May 18 in The Straits Times.

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