May 3

How to make your child smart and confident


So, you want your child to be smart, confident, and probably a million other qualities, right?

It’s not that easy.

Let me start with my own story, before you see if you want that for your child.

In Singapore, it’s common for kids as young as 2 year olds, to start going for enrichment classes.

I’m not kidding.

When I was 4, my mum started sending me for swimming classes.

I also started art classes, even though all I did was paint splotches on the drawing block, with my art teacher nodding at the Van Gogh like nature of my art. (I’m kidding, but it was definitely easier for that teacher to make money than teaching a real artist.)

Oh my teacher did encourage me to draw better, but we just never made it.
Oh my teacher did encourage me to draw better, but we just never made it.

For every young 12-year-old in Singapore, they are subject to this high stakes examination called the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

For that, my mum would buy me coffee every morning at 4am, to enable my studying. Kudos to my mum. And nothing against her, because it was me who wanted to wake up early.

I eventually landed up in the most elite secondary school in Singapore, named Hwa Chong Institution.

What exactly did my parents do to help me to grow my confidence and my intellect?

They taught me good habits, and then left me alone

One of my earliest memories of spending time with my dad was jogging with him. Granted, we weren’t Asian Usain Bolts, but we tried our best.

At that time, I was overweight and in Singapore’s education system’s nicely named TAF (Trim and Fit) Club. They would organise these morning activities for those who were overweight.

My dad wanted to help.

It was during this time that I fell in love with exercise, and ended up going to the nearby park often.

It was there that I played soccer with random kids from the neighbourhood. My parents didn’t worry much. They wouldn’t call me, or warn me that I had to return home earlier.

It was on the street soccer court that I learnt to scream at other children to run faster, kick harder, and defend better.

If you’re worried about your child’s safety, you can use playground-esque kits such as Avdar Gyms for your child at home, so that he can play.

Get your child climbing at home, rather than out in the open
Get your child climbing at home, rather than out in the open

But when I look back, this was hugely important for my growth as a well-adjusted kid.

Soccer taught me socio-emotional skills.

This is something that perhaps we, as helicopter parents today need to learn.

To live and let live. To learn to let go.

Rather than worrying that our children are going to be stabbed on the streets, we can just keep a watchful eye, when they go out.

I would say that you should watch over them until they are 12, before the teenage hormones starts pushing them to yank at the leash that you’ve set on them.

They taught me outside of the home, away from the screen

My parents were very strict about screen-time.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was too.

In an interview following the success of the iPad, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton, asked him,

“Your kids must love the iPad, right?”

Jobs replied,

“They haven’t used it. We limit the amount of technology our children use at home.”

When I was a social worker, parents I worked with used to complain about how to control their child’s screen time.

Think of it as a drug.

You’d rather not get your child hooked on it. So if they are not hooked, don’t give it to them.

I think the approach here isn’t about just saying that

Oh, we live in a different world now and we need to ready our kids for this technology.

Rather, I think it should be more like an approach you take towards letting your kids try drugs.

You shouldn’t even let them try it.

And you should present better alternatives to screen time, such as having real, meaningful time spent with you.

Some ways I’ve seen successful families do this:

  1. Make it a ritual to have daily dinners with the child (one spouse makes it, if the other can’t)
  2. Bring their child out to the parks to play
  3. Insist that the child cannot touch the device at all, and even if it’s for ‘study’, it’s under strict conditions with Screen Time locks enabled

Focus on toys away from the screen

For all the benefits of technology, there’s still a beauty in the touchy, feely toys that you can give your child.

One reason why I’m a writer today was because of my mum’s first gift to me as an 8-year-old. A paper diary.

My mum gave me a paper diary to play with.
My mum gave me a paper diary to play with.

For the first time, I realised that your thoughts could be immortalised on paper.

She also spent thousands on paper encyclopaedias, and bringing us to bookstores.

Today, toys like Modu can help your child to explore the boundaries of their creativity. With the ability to create whatever they want, it’s simply beautiful to see.

Modu offers great imaginative pieces for your child
Modu offers great imaginative pieces for your child

Hold onto your grounds around screen-time if they are already used to it

If they already have access, it’s going to be much tougher.

I didn’t manage this well when I was with clients who were parents, but this is what I suggested to them.

  1. Ideally go cold turkey for a week, insist, hold your ground even if your child reacts badly
  2. If your child ends up hurting himself or hurting others, reconsider whether a more phased approach might work.
    1. You might change their phones entirely to Nokia, or a non-Internet enabled phone
    2. Set strict restriction timings that they cannot change
  3. Build new alternatives that are more fun, such as a new hobby – like soccer, or running, or climbing. They often want something that can be as adrenaline-pumping as a mobile game, and this is where it makes sense to find a challenge that will excite them.

It’s the small things like weekly dinners

One of my most cherished memories was every Saturday evening, after church. My family would sit together for dinner.

Sure, you may be busy, but can you give some time and protect that time for your child?
Sure, you may be busy, but can you give some time and protect that time for your child?

Rain or shine. Under the hot and humid Singapore weather, we would sit in a place with no air conditioning, and then talk about un-serious things, like how bad the food was. But it also meant that they were always there.

This might sound simple.

But in today’s busy context, you might not have time.

Protect the people you cherish, and the time you have with them. Make it a ritual, that is unshakeable.

Yes, even if the Earth does come crashing down.

You would realise that things become much easier that way.

Ultimately, it’s recognising your child’s value

Know this.

You will never grow up being the perfect parent.

Would you rather die being a good enough parent, or the perfect one?
Would you rather die being a good enough parent, or the perfect one?

Nor should you foist your broken dreams onto your child.

Whether your child becomes confident, or smart, is partly to do with you, but also partly to do with him, your child.

What matters is that you recognise that whatever matters, your child is still your child.



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