Mum's not helping

An hour after my son left for school recently, I spotted something that made my heart sink. He had left his art bag at home.

His class was starting a leaf printing project for art that day and the teacher had issued a long list of materials they were to bring. We had spent the previous afternoon gathering the items, including an array of leaves.

But there the neatly packed bag sat, abandoned by its forgetful owner, its purpose unfulfilled.

More importantly, it also contained some props for an English storytelling assignment on which my son was to be graded that day.

My first instinct was to try recalling his timetable to see if I could deliver the bag to him in time for those lessons.

But what sprang to mind next was a line in an orientation handout that parents were given when our boys entered Primary 1 last year: If they forgot any items that were required for the day, we were "strongly discouraged" from acting as couriers.

This, the school explained, was to instil a sense of responsibility in the kids.

"I like your style," I remember thinking then, as I read other pointers in the handout that advised against mollycoddling our boys so they can learn from their mistakes and fight their own battles.

Yet when it came to the test, I was still all set to fly to my son's aid.

The bag contained items that were needed for nearly half of his school day and I imagined him being buffeted all morning by waves of panic.

Eventually, I set the bag down.

Too bad, I thought. He turns eight this year and will have to learn to pay more heed, while it is time I start to let go.

It's just Primary 2 art and English. I should be thankful that our first major lesson together is one that will leave an impression and not indelible scars.

As American parenting expert and author Amy McCready puts it: "A popular expression in parenting education circles is, 'A child who always forgets has a parent who always remembers.'

"If we rescue kids from their repeated forgetfulness, we rob them of the opportunity to take personal responsibility and learn from their missteps. Who will be there to rescue them in college or at their first job?"

Still, a low-grade anxiety gnawed at me the rest of that morning. I half-expected my son to ring me pleading for help and I wondered if I would cave in if he did.

I never found out, for the call never came.

When I went to pick him up a few hours later, I was surprised to see him running towards me with a half smile on his face. "I forgot my art bag," he chirped.

"I know," I replied, wondering if I should be pleased that he seemed to have weathered the mini crisis well or bothered that he appeared indifferent towards his own culpability.

"Were you scared?" I wanted to know.

A pause. "A bit. I thought Madam Y would scold me."

She didn't, but neither did she allow his classmates to share their art materials with him.

"She said we are responsible for bringing our own things," he reported.

I nodded approvingly. I like her style.

He would have to play catch-up at the next lesson when his friends move on to another stage in the art project.

The good news was, the English storytelling assignment had been pushed to the next day so his props were not missed.

Touted as the antithesis of helicopter parenting, "no-rescue policy" prescribes holding off assistance in cases of repeated forgetfulness or laziness, instead of hovering and dropping aid supplies constantly. The aim is to teach accountability.

Well and good. But I have to tell you, sitting back and not lifting a finger is a lot harder than you might think.

It takes nerves of steel to withhold help when seeing (or just imagining) your child struggle. This probably explains why many parents swoop down at the slightest hint of trouble or distress that besets their kids.

My son is no stranger to being punished for misdeeds born of sheer carelessness.

He has had to write lines, give up TV or make do with less pocket money for repeated offences such as misplacing or forgetting various school essentials.

After losing/breaking three water bottles in a year, he is now stuck with an old, "uncool" one that belonged to his dad while he saves up for a new one.

The art bag episode was the first time I had punished him by simply doing nothing.

That night, I found a sticky note he'd left on the dining table before going to bed.

"Bring props for storytelling," he'd scrawled.

Pleased, I told him the next day that I would have no qualms taking this "no-rescue" route again since it seems to be working.

My resolve was tested again just a week later.

This time, he left a folder containing his Chinese spelling list in school and the class was due to be tested the next day.

"Don't expect me to ask your friends' mums for help," I told him, after fighting the impulse to text my mummy buddies asking for a picture of the list of words.

He was equally calm.

"It's okay. I will revise it in school tomorrow."

That night, he stuck another reminder for himself: "Bring back Chinese folder!!"

I don't know how many sticky notes he's going to need in the years ahead, but I have to say, I'm beginning to like his style.

This article was first published on April 26, 2015.
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