My son Mark went to a lovely kindergarten where students addressed teachers by their first names and there was a strong emphasis on music and drama. Despite being fully aware my peers were sending their young children to multiple enrichment classes to prepare them (and by ‘them’ I mean both the kids and their parents) for the rigours of primary school, I steered clear of this as I wanted to be a different sort of parent — one who emphasises the colours of life, play and wonder.
Well, I think I traded peer pressure for sheer pressure because the transition was certainly painful. By the end of the first day, my exhausted and ashen son had written in his first piece of homework that the most important thing in the world was listening to his teacher. I was aghast. I pleaded with him to write instead that his baby brother, husky, or turtle was the most important thing in the world to him, but he remained adamant. By the end of the first week, he was pale and I was a whiter shade.
Don’t misunderstand me, Mark’s primary school is wonderful; I respect the principal and there’s a fantastic parent support group. Many of the reasons behind the difficult transition were bad habits that I had to break: notably an inability to get my children to bed at a socially acceptable time and my lackadaisical attitude to homework. I blame shift work, which gives me so little time to see my children that I actually delight in them being up when I return at witching hours. We regale one another with silly tales inside tents made of pillows and blankets until someone falls asleep first, usually myself. The last thing I want to do with them is homework, even when it’s at kindergarten level, so it remains undone with stern reminders inked firmly into polite corners by their responsible teachers.
So with my poor son barely surviving the first week of formal school, I felt compelled to make amends. I didn’t mind if he couldn’t ace the weekly Chinese and English spelling tests, or if he goofed his daily homework. I just really didn’t want him to be a sad, pale ghost anymore. I asked him what was important in his life (other than listening to his teacher) and he said he enjoyed cooking and gardening.
Determined to be a better mum, I charged into a nursery and bought a stash of seeds that would bear what the owners fondly referred to as ‘makan plants’, with the intention of letting Mark eventually cook with the fruits of his labour, literally. Mark’s face shone when he came home from school and saw the balcony full of pots, bags of soil and a colourful set of tools.
From that point on, the first thing he woke up to was not the dreary routine of getting ready for school, but the morning ward-round in his roof-top garden. After school, he would tear up the stairs to check on his seedlings. When I went away for a ski vacation with his older siblings, I received daily situation reports on the state of the plants. One day, he left multiple messages on my telephone that his sunflower had bloomed. Last week, we made a salad that included his mint leaves, as well as a herbal tonic using his oregano and calamansi.
Mark’s just completed his first term in primary school. His spirits are high, he’s made friends and discovered new games such as ‘eraser flip’. Homework is no longer a chore and he’s coping reasonably well with the weekly tests. On some nights, when the children are fast asleep in bed, I sit in Mark’s garden enjoying the silence although I miss the peals of laughter at witching-hour tales. I love the floral freshness that wafts along the cool breeze. I love the colours the garden has brought to our home, but more than that, the colour it has decidedly added to our cheeks.
This story is a part of a series of columns by Dr Jade Kua (left), documenting her life with her legendary six Ms. The paediatric emergency specialist is also the programme director of DARE which stands for Dispatcher Assisted first REsponder. It is a community project that aims to educate the general public on how to save the lives of cardiac arrest victims by teaching them basic resuscitation. Follow her on Instagram @drjadekua.
To read Dr Jade’s previous column, Daughter Of A Better Age, click here.