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Monday, February 23, 2015

Unstructured Play: Lessons in Leadership

Smelly Boy managed to find his way onto a research project mentored by an Industry Expert in some sort of engineering science. The team has chosen to develop a thermal suit.

Again, Smelly Boy is the group leader. It occurred to me that this was too much of a coincidence. In the past 2 years, Smelly Boy has been ...

(1) team leader in 2 charity fund raisers (1 of which topped the class)
(2) class chairman (re-elected again and again)
(3) CCA Vice Captain
(4) Deconstruct Team Leader (the team built a 3D scanner and was 1st Runner Up)
(5) Team Leader for Construction of Self-Cleaning Table
(6) Team Leader in every academic group project (except 1)
(7) Team Leader for the Applied Research Project (even though he had told me that he did not want to take on any leadership role in Sec 3)

When I thought back to primary school, I realised that Smelly Boy had already demonstrated leadership skills in...

(1) Organising a HW Group
Smelly Boy was very upset that I kept forbidding him to do this or that HW. It became quite embarrassing to explain to friends and teachers that he had not done his HW and wave his mother's excuse letter at them. By about middle P5, he would come home and announce, "I finished all my HW in school Mom!

In Sec 1, he confessed to me, "Actually, I got 7 friends together. We each took charge of one small part of the HW load. We met in the mornings in the school hall, sat in a circle, and did large scale copying."

(2) Organising Class Rankings
Smelly Boy's class decided to do open reporting of exam results. 3 girls took it upon themselves to ask for every single classmate's mark for every part of every exam at every CA or SA. All the data was keyed into a spreadsheet. Smelly Boy facilitated the process by encouraging his classmates to contribute their marks. It had to be done in a non-threatening way and in a way that preserved the self-esteem of ALL the students. Smelly Boy's class had great chemistry.

If you can copy each other's HW and have each other's backs whilst you go around shooting girls' backsides and playing Virus, there has to be some class chemistry right? No bullying. No demeaning other kids. No blatant boasting. Just plain and simple friendship, no matter what your test scores are.

The result was that every time I asked what his class ranking was in whatever the subject, Smelly Boy knew. And hey... I had to ask because the PSLE t-scores were and are still in effect. It is a competitive system based on a single number. I needed to know where he stood vis-a-vis the rest of the cohort so that I could calibrate how much to NOT push him. Push him enough and no more because there are other important things in the education of a child.

How Did He Learn To Organise People?
The more I thought of it, the more impressed I was. This aspect of Smelly Boy had completely flown under my radar. It was not something I taught him. Naturally, I wondered where and how Smelly Boy learnt to organise people and get them to pull together.

Then it hit me!

All through P4, P5 and P6, Smelly Boy spent all Sunday next door with 15 cousins. They played ALL DAY! As was to be expected, there were the usual dramas of kids crying... quarrels... etc... Smelly Boy was the 2nd oldest in that gaggle of kids. So, I guess he had to pull more than his fair share of duty in peace-making, organising, getting things done.

A lot got done. The kids organised themselves to make guns out of A4 paper, play Princess Rapunzel with empty house removal boxes (errr... they had to make the castle first), play War Games when a small van came to visit the driveway...

Results of the On-the-Job Leadership Training
Curious about HOW Smelly Boy leads, I asked him to explain to me how he delegated tasks to his team. This is what he said.

"The Industry Expert Mentor gave us a deadline by end of the month. I decided to give us some buffer so I set an internal deadline for middle of the month. The Mentor and I developed the task list. I met with my team and gave them the task list. Then I asked them, "How ah?"

Nobody said anything so I volunteered to take this task and this task. Then I asked them which tasks they wanted. At this time, the very responsible ones picked out most of the tasks they thought they could handle well. 

I have 1 piece of deadwood so I picked some non-critical tasks and told him to do them. I don't need the fella anyway. He is with me because no one else wants him. We'll be fine even if he does nothing. I will just make sure he does not join my team in future projects."

The only thing I taught Smelly Boy was talent recruitment. Projects are important in secondary school, especially in IP. So, already in Sec 1, I had had a word with Smelly Boy to scan the class for talent. Hardworking and responsible students who would work well in a group. At the same time, I made it clear that Smelly Boy had to himself behave in a way that made him attractive for top talent to work with.

By end of Sec 1, Smelly Boy had assembled a loose group of friends who worked well together and played well together.  They always tried to work together through Sec 2. This rather stable group across projects allowed Smelly Boy more flexibility in assigning tasks. The boys had different strengths and weaknesses. Smelly Boy single-handedly built the self-cleaning table for 1 project. In the music project, his classmates accepted Smelly Boy as deadwood because he is tone-deaf. His only duty was to ring a bell. Other people were deadwood in other projects.

Managing Upwards
What I was really impressed with, was the way he managed UPWARDS! His teacher had written off the Self-Cleaning Table Project as "too complex to implement". Smelly Boy built the table and got permission to do that topic.

His current mentor was not keen on the Thermal Suit idea but Smelly Boy had done some pre-work with his team. They had read up and found out, and Smelly Boy was in a position to convince his mentor that it was doable and a good idea.

Now, how did my little Gong Gong figure out that to get Boss to say "Yes" to anything, one must first respond to Boss' fears and sweep those away? Smelly Boy did not just lead his friends. He lead his Teachers too!

Unstructured Play teaches lessons important in life. Let the children play in large groups of 10 to 20. It teaches them...
(1) initiative
(2) problem-solving
(3) negotiation
(4) kindness
(5) consideration
(6) .... so much more...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Memories of My Little Girl

She does not look anything like this now... but ohhh... she was such a pretty little thing!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Impoverishing Effects of Academic Excellence

"Does your child have a play day?"

This is a very simple Yes/No question. I ask this question to every parent that I have encountered. The answers are telling.

(1) Errrr... what do you mean by play day? 
(2) Errr... she sleeps at 10pm every night (infer that the child works up to 10pm every night and sleep is the only relaxation the child has)
(3) Yes... he plays from 6pm to 10pm on Sunday (infer that the child works from 9am to 6pm on Sundays too)

I used to think that I overworked Smelly Boy in Primary 4, 5 & 6. These days, I actually think I was a very humane parent. Throughout Primary 4, 5 and 6, Smelly Boy had 1.5 play days a week ALWAYS. When it came to Smelly Boy's work schedule, I managed my own kiasu spirit with an iron fist. 

Of course I wanted him to do well at his exams. Of course I worried that he was failing Chinese. Of course I feared that he would not get into a good secondary school. I faced down my own fears and upheld the 1.5 play days every week for 3 years.

I like money. I like to see money accumulate in my bank account. However, I would stop short of robbing and stealing and drug dealing to see my money grow. It is a price I refuse to pay.

I badly want to drive a baby Mercedes, and can afford it, but it is sold at a price I refuse to pay.

I badly wanted my son to do well at the PSLE and I could afford to make him work much longer hours than I did, but it was a price I refused to pay.

What Goes Around Comes Around
You see, what goes around, comes around. Lying, cheating and drug dealing to get rich would catch up with me one day. Spending money indiscriminately on fancy cars and flashy accessories places my retirement in jeopardy. Filling a child's days with a never-ending stream of worksheets in the name of academic excellence impoverishes the child in ways that parents will not realise till 10 years later. The child who has insufficient unstructured time to decide what he/she wants to do, 

(1) does not learn initiative... 

(2) learns to give every worksheet minimal effort, and develops the habit of doing sloppy work... once this happens, the child can be made to do hundreds of worksheets and compositions... but learns nothing at all...

(3) develops sloppiness into a lifelong habit

(4) develops half-attentiveness into a lifelong habit

Watch your habits for they become your character. 
Watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

Zac Tan's Time Lapse Video. He was only 10 years old when he made this.

In 3 years of teaching English, I have only met ONE parent with the wisdom and self-control to allow her child unstructured play time. This child was allowed to discover his passion, and in that discovery, he produced a time lapse video in Primary 4. This child joined me with an impressive ability to focus on work. He gives quality HW. He is enthusiastic about the writing skills I teach him. He is not afraid to enjoy the program.

It is hard to make good apple pie from spoilt apples. Intelligent children whose parents have taught them through a stream of never-ending worksheets since pre-school, absorb things very slowly. It is almost as if they know that they have to practise a lot anyway, so why the hurry to learn? Such kids can do a lot of HW and still learn very little.

Please, Moms and Dads, don't even start your children on the road to this bad habit. Once the habit is learnt, it is a nightmare to un-learn. Techniques to break the habit are brutal and unkind.

It is such a waste. These intelligent kids can do their HW dutifully every week without improving a jot over 9 months. More importantly, they learn poor life habits that will see them into the workforce. They will get themselves sacked for giving sub-par work. And all that focus on worksheets and academic results will just be wiped out.

Academic excellence the Singapore way impoverishes children. 

I am so glad that my son did not score at the top of the top of the top. At the very least, I know that he loves to learn, loves to give effort, has goals and the discipline to work towards them. He taught himself Autocad. He taught himself how to etch an electronic circuit board. He taught himself html programming and some other computer language.

The little Zac Tan, who made the video above, he taught himself how to make a time lapse video. Kids like my Smelly Boy and Zac Tan will figure things out, survive and thrive when the world changes around them. What will happen to all the other zombie children who half-heartedly do what their parents tell them to do every minute of every day, when the world they grow into is not what their parents expected?

Little Zac Tan is not the top of the top of the top either. That is not important to his Mom.

This said, until MOE does something drastic to the way kids are streamed into secondary schools, I think most parents will not have the strength of character (or the sheer mule-headedness) to do what I did simply because what I did made sense... and die-die also I wasn't gonna conform to the system.

For me, even if it meant getting into Normal Stream, my son was gonna have his 1.5 days of play day. But well... I dared to make that decision because I had lined up an expensive contingency. If Smelly Boy did do poorly at PSLE, I was gonna give him an overseas education. Parents who cannot afford an overseas education, may have less leeway for mule-headedness.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Valentine's Day 2015

We decided to celebrate Valentine's day early and "en famille". We all agreed that it was a wonderful Valentine's Day. The places were not crowded with lovey doveys. The flowers were not overpriced and celebrating with the kids gave this special day a special flavour.

In any case, The Daughter has always been a vocal advocate of celebrating Valentine's Day "en famille". Ever since age 7 (when we were short on babysitting help and had to trundle a new born in his pram and our 7 year old daughter along with us to Vis-à-Vis) The Daughter has never taken well to be excluded from our Valentine's Day celebrations. After all, Valentine's Day is a celebration of love, no?

Where else to find the richest and purest love than "en famille"? So, we went to Kushi Dining Bar at Hotel Royal, and then to Privé at CHIJMES. All of us thought it was the best Valentine's Day EVER... until I told Smelly Boy that henceforth, Family Valentine's Day would be a family tradition and when he got himself a girlfriend, she would have to spend it with us.

There was a minute of stunned silence and then Smelly Boy grinned at me the grin that said, "Yeah right!"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Emotional Leeches

Heh! Heh! Heh!

I recently learnt a new term: "emotional leech". I know it sounds ummmm... perverted, but I feel like I have managed to discover a series of secret compartments in a Chippendale miniature writing desk. See HERE. You know, it is that feeling of repressed excitement that is about to bubble over in a giggle or two because you found something useful hidden in plain sight.

What are emotional leeches?
These are the people that are always in need, always come to you for advice, phone you up, and even after you have provided hours of advice, they don't do what is required to solve their problems. They feed off of your sympathy, kindness and attention, coming back for more. They can be friends, co-workers or family. They take up time that one could use in other productive pursuits.

I never knew emotional leeches existed because my old job did not require me to coach parents. In my current job, I need to help children. The process of helping children sometimes requires me to coach parents on specific action steps. I must say that most parents are quite normal. Once they grasp the action steps and principles, they act and resolve their children's issues quickly. Parents are busy people. They can be forgetful or distracted. Nonetheless, the large majority of them are able to follow the step-by-step instructions I provide where necessary.

There are the odd few parents whose lives are fraught with problems and issues. Such parents misinterpret my parent coaching as "emotional support" and then I am saddled with Too Much Information about the woes in parent lives that form seemingly daunting obstacles to their being able to work successfully to address their children's issues.

How To Recognise an Emotional Leech
(1) They like to mention "friendship" as an excuse for their own poor behaviour (tardy fees, expectations of 24 by 7 service levels from Dr Pet, expectations that Dr Pet will be available for all sorts of types of consultations). I have come to a point where all my warning bells ring when a parent tells me "We are friends, no?" ***** Ahhhhhhh! Run screaming down the dark tunnel****** Even worse is the phrase "We are GOOD friends, no?" Luckily, no one has presumed to be my bestie as yet.
(2) They lay on the guilt trip when you try to put down boundaries.
(3) They have a series of recurrent SAME problems.
(4) They have a lot of small problems.

How To Manage an Emotional Leech
(1) Minimise contact.
(2) Never feel guilty.
(3) Never give advice more than once. Preferably, do so in writing.
(4) Ignore all requests for advice on small problems irrelevant to work... or even big problems relevant to work, if these get too time consuming and energy consuming and advice has already been given.
(5) Set boundaries and enforce.

After a while, when a leech does not get what he/she wants, he/she quits bothering you and moves on to someone else. For more on how to deal with emotional leeches, go HERE.

I have discovered that emotional leeching is contagious! If you hang around an emotional leech long enough, you will run out of emotional resources and then you yourself will go find someone to leech onto. It is like vampirism. A vampire who sucks you dry turns you into a vampire.

Eww! Eww! Eww! I don't want to turn into an emotional leech. That will SO not happen to me. I know how to deal with emotional leeches now and I will. Ruthlessly.