I know you "shouldn't" compare your kids, but I'm sure we all do. Hopefully the comparisons we make are constructive and positive at best, or neutral at worst. He responds to this kind of parenting, and she to that. He likes red best, but she likes yellow. And so on. The older Surprise Baby grows, the more I begin to realise how... well, "spirited" The Prata Boy really is and has been. She is just able to roll with what's happening in a way The Prata Boy never has been. And all of a sudden I'm gaining a new perspective into some of the strange looks, comments and advice I've received or overheard in the last four years.

The friend (a parent) who wanted to organise a ski holiday, who blinked at me strangely when I said PB, at nine months or so, probably wasn't "old enough" to be left with his father for several hours whilst I went out on the snow fields (and that therefore I might be more interested next season). I now understand that not all babies display signs of deep traumatisation when separated from their mother for those lengths of time, and that therefore some parents are actually able to enjoy several hours spent apart, instead of spending the whole time feeling as if they're committing some form of child abuse (in this case, at great financial expense, and under conditions of severe sleep deprivation).

The person who tried to convince me that balance bikes were best, full stop, and just couldn't understand my continued belief that a traditional training-wheel version was best for PB. I wanted to buy PB one of those trendy new bikes like all the hip parents buy because I wanted to be a trendy, hip parent, but was forced to admit that the old-fashioned training wheels were probably the go for a boy who was too scared to use a three-wheeled foot scooter. I now understand that some people have kids who love to use foot scooters, even as young as sixteen months, which is when Surprise Baby started using her older brother's. PB loves his training-wheels bike. But he is still freaked out by his foot scooter. At least one of my children is using it.

The person who loftily said she didn't childproof her house, choosing instead to teach her baby not to touch things that weren't meant to be touched. I now understand that some children can be redirected from their goals through the simple act of telling them no and giving them a substitute activity. Who knew?

The woman who told me I should come shopping at the mall with her all day and we could see a movie during nap time, and when I suggested a modified plan in order to avoid all the sleeplessness and screaming meltdowns and the several days of miserable, post-outing recovery (not to mention the wrath of all the other cinema patrons), tutted at me and told me I just had to get PB used to it. I now understand that some people have kids who get used to things like shopping malls and sleeping through movies. True fact!

Oh my goodness: everyone who ever said anything to me about getting kids to sleep. Apparently some kids do respond to sleep techniques. Some kids sleep easily even before you use them! Although neither of mine are in that latter category... or, really, the former - so I mainly believe it these days because I have now witnessed everything else to be true.

The list goes on, but I won't.

Surprise Baby has taught me a lot about other people's advice, looks, and comments. In a nutshell, she has made me believe in my soul what I have long been telling myself in my head - that it is not bad advice on their part, or clueless parenting on my part, but simply a mismatch between patient and medicine. A person saying, "I used aloe vera cream and changed my cleanser and my rash cleared right up!" to a person whose skin is breaking out from peanut allergies. (Which, in one sense, is the very definition of bad advice... but is perfectly reasonable in the sense that aloe vera and a change of cleanser can be a very good treatment in the right circumstances. I assume.)

She has also made me realise I'm not less competent or more highly strung than the next parent (although I'm doubtless less competent and more highly strung than some). I do have a child who demands more parenting than (some) other children. And of course, it's not all him. Some parents aren't as bothered by clinging, or crying, or they don't need their children to adapt to new plans or situations as much as we do. Some people are organised and enjoy organising. Some kids have personalities that don't tax their parents' weaknesses, only their strengths, and vice versa. All I know is that - so far - SB is so much easier for me to deal with than her older brother. And it's not just me - it's Mr Bea, too.

I have to stop Mr Bea making unfair comparisons. "C [who lives nearby] is ten times more socially adjusted than PB," he says.

"Yes, C is nine months older, and is the younger sibling of a highly charismatic family of extraverts," I counter. PB doesn't have to be the most popular kid in school, he just has to get along and have friends. And in terms of the social development of a four year old, nine months is a long time. Anyway, you're on a different curve if you were born with an older sibling.

Recently, I read Raising Your Spirited Child and I wished I had read it sooner. There is a fine balance between accepting your child as they are, and encouraging them to fit in with the society around them. It seems, sometimes, there are two competing camps, both too extreme to be the wise choice. One group is so keen to use therapeutic interventions that their definition of "normal behaviour" seems dangerously narrow. When I was in my final year of university, about a week before the oral exams which would be the end-all of our academic careers to date, I was studying with a group of about six of my friends. After a couple of hours, I sat back in my chair, put my hands over my face, and sighed deeply. Within thirty seconds I had been offered valium, prozac, prescription amphetamines, and professional counselling.

So, ok, feeling stressed and/or fed up is a normal part of the human experience - especially for a university student about a week before final exams. And sighing about it is a normal reaction. You need therapeutic intervention if you are having trouble coping, functioning, or recovering (for reasonable periods of time between episodes) from your stress or fed-uppedness. You do not need therapeutic intervention because you sighed deeply and covered your face with your hands. Society has no right to demand that everyone is super-dapper-happy about everything all the time. Society should be able to deal with the fact that people's moods oscillate up and down, and that people have different likes, dislikes, and ways of relating - otherwise it is just a little too Brave New World for my comfort. 

On the other hand is the person who believes so hard in respecting the feelings and individuality of others that they leave absolutely no responsibility in the lap of the person in question. People do have a responsibility to use tools - therapeutic or otherwise - to manage their emotional reactions in order to fit in with others. Else we give ourselves nervous breakdowns walking over all the eggshells, or we spend all day sitting around picking the metaphorical lint out of our metaphorical navels and giving each other hugs instead of putting our backs into it and getting the job done. And I say this as someone who is obviously a big fan of metaphorical navel lint, as evidenced by this post alone. (Perhaps I should get to the point.)

I feel like my own mother spent her parenting days swinging wildly between the belief that she should be the giving, accepting mother, loving us for who we are and making all the necessary allowances to do so, and the knowledge that she'd pretty much had it up to here with everyone's "quirks". To me, Raising Your Spirited Child hits the balance better. We celebrate our children's character traits, but we are allowed - in fact, encouraged - to shape and channel them for good instead of exasperation and tears. The two ideas do not exist in direct opposition to each other.

But I am hanging out for the time when PB can meet me half way. Today, we managed to get ready for kindy without a fight, but it was a draining experience for me - one highly-distractible parent trying to keep one highly-distractible child on track. I was just celebrating our achievements, when PB asked me to go a different route to school on his bike. "Sure," I said chirpily. "We can do that." But of course, once we'd gone half way the other way, he decided all this newness was too upsetting, and he now wanted to go back and re-start, this time going the usual way. "You can go back to the usual way tomorrow," I assured him. "We'll run late if we go back now. Besides, we only went this way because it was what you wanted, so I don't think it's fair that I should have do it all over again when I was actually trying to give you what you asked for in the first place."

PB pouted. "Come on," I said firmly, "let's keep going." That's when he rode his training-wheeled bike right smack into the back of me. Having been pushed to the full length of my tether just trying to get peacefully out of the door, and now with a painful calf, I officially snapped. I ordered him off his bike, put it aside in a nearby bike rack, and informed him that he had just lost the privilege of riding to school.

Wow. Just wow. His response defies description.

All I can cling to (in the face of all the looks I got) is the knowledge that I did, in fact, get him to walk there in the end, and we weren't even that late. A year ago (thanks so very much to Mel for the meme that reminded me, just when I needed it) I sometimes resorted to carrying him kicking and screaming at times like these. As it happened, I was able to get everyone calmed down using breathing techniques, followed by a short jog. After that, we were able to discuss things sensibly as we walked, although I am still not convinced we understand each other. Maybe he's just tired or restless because it's the end of term. Maybe the novelty of the upcoming holidays will do the trick. As long as I'm careful not to make it too novel. You know.

Wish me luck.

Recently, I decided to bite the bullet and update my wardrobe before my mother-in-law could. Bless the woman, she is just nuts about buying people gifts, especially clothes. For the kids, it's great - we have spent an average of about $6 per child, ever, out of our own money, putting coverings on their little bodies. For me? Well, hm.

Here is the problem, and I have faced it all my life. People who know me know that I am quiet, shy, a bit scatty, fairly laid back, and firmly unromantic under most definitions of the word. They have a tendency, therefore, to assume I like clothes that are neutral, practical, and casual. In fact, I do not. In fact, I am attracted to clothes that act as a counterpoint to my personality. I like bold patterns and colours. I like trim, tailored elegance. I like floaty, feminine pieces. I like cartoon shoes. You know - shoes that look like they were designed for the set of a live-action adaptation of a children's cartoon. I want my clothes to say the things I struggle to show in other ways. When it comes to "quiet"? I pretty much have that angle covered. When it comes to "zany" I need to be wearing it on my feet.

But as a child, my mother used to take me on the most colossally awful, traumatic, clothes-shopping expeditions which would result, without fail, in a wardrobe which was neutral, practical, and casual. Such was her incredulity that I would actually wear anything bold, bright, feminine or elegant that she would refuse outright to spend the money on it, writing it off as a waste ahead of time, despite my being pushed to actual tears in the fitting rooms on most of our trips. I just "wasn't that person". Correction - we just "weren't that person". My mother is a frugal sort, and aside from her fear that I would never wear such "unsuitable" clothes, practical, casual and neutral has a tendency to be cost-effective.

In my late teens, I resorted to pilfering my sister's dance costumes for outfits to wear to university and out on the town. Sparkly. But by that stage the damage had been done. One of the downsides of marrying your high school sweetheart is having a mother-in-law who formed her opinion of you (and what sort of clothes you like) when your own mother was still torturing you into wearing items that were neutral, practical and casual. Every year, for my birthday, my mother-in-law buys me enough neutral, practical and casual clothes to make my own shopping expeditions more or less unjustifiable. Here's the thing, though: I am getting old.

No, I mean, really people: I am getting old. I have lately been struck with the fact of my own aging. I can no longer ignore it or brush it off. I might not literally feel it in my ovaries, but all the fertility research in the world assures me it's there. I am of advanced maternal age. My chances of conception are taking a nosedive from here, not to mention the statistics on miscarriage, pregnancy complications, and congenital abnormalities. Old, people. If I don't buy a pair of luridly-coloured, MC-Hammer-style pants right now, I never will. Although mentioning MC Hammer during the process will probably only serve to highlight the problem, leading some to conclude it's already too late. I suppose this might be your typical, low-level midlife crisis, in which case, I'm not sure why they call it a "crisis". In a lot of ways, it's fun! Break it down!

We had a long weekend here for Hari Raya, which gave us non-Muslims some spare time for shopping. The Prata Boy turned out to be a surprisingly good companion. In one fitting room, he tried on a black, collared, A-line dress - backwards - and was quite taken with the way he looked in it (like a little Jesuit priest). "I want to get this one for me!" he said in that tone of voice he uses when he's not going to be easily deterred.

"We... can't," I informed him regretfully, wondering how I was going to walk the delicate walk of "don't let cultural stereotypes tell you who to be but by the way you're a boy so you might not want to wear a dress", especially on a trip set to overturn the lingering after-effects of my own, painful conditioning. As I frantically considered my options in the face of the inevitable demand for an explanation, a young Muslim boy in traditional dress popped out from behind a clothes stand. He and PB grinned at each other, silently admired the other's flowing threads (do we still say "threads"?), grinned again, and disappeared into another rack of clothing.

"Because you have enough clothes at the moment," I responded firmly, at the same time realising that, but for this excuse, I was totally going to be buying him the dress. Anyway, it's good enough for Jesuit priests, right? Aren't they manly?

I bought a floaty, pink, feminine top, and an elegantly-tailored black one. And I bought a pair of luridly-coloured, MC-Hammer-style pants, and yes I have spent a lot of time since then trying to perform the Hammer-slide, and I also somehow promised to (learn to) sew some "matching" shorts in patchwork for PB. My biggest problem is the practical neutral-ness of my former wardrobe. If I want luridly-coloured scraps for my patchwork, I am going to have to mine the throw-out pile of my more outwardly-zany friends.

But the real reward came the next day, when I was wandering around in my new 'robe. (Yeah, the kids are totally using "'robe".) "I like you in bright colours," PB told me reflectively, out of nowhere. And I think that's all the excuse I need to order a pair of cartoon-shoes.


I had the conversation I wrote about in my last post about a week before I wrote the post. The Prata Boy had been following the plan rather reluctantly, with a great deal of effort on my part in the form of constant reminders and daily reiterations of the entire train of logic from the top down. Then, a couple of days ago, he appeared at the door wearing his bike helmet.

"You're wearing your bike helmet," I observed casually.

"Yes," he agreed. "I'm wearing it to defend myself against people who want to take me away. When they look at it they will see the fire and they will stay away so they don't get burned into tiny little shrivelled pieces."

I nodded, simultaneously feeling a) dubious that many strangers would fear the cheerful sun motif which now adorned his head, b) stupid at not having thought of the idea myself when similar techniques have worked with PB so many times before, c) overjoyed that he'd independently worked out a way to manage his stress and keep with the program, and d) uneasy at the continued, if now latent, violence of his theme.

Once we were safely seated on our bus, I had a go at tweaking the concept. "PB," I started, "you know how you're a pilot?" (A little background: The Prata Boy has not actually been The Prata Boy since he was about two years old. Instead, he has expressed a variety of personas, both human and non-human, the latest of which is Captain Prata Boy - a pilot who flies with Emirates Airlines on their passenger routes in and out of Tokyo. It's a fairly specific fantasy.)

"Yes," he replied, fiddling with his chin strap. "This is my helmet." (More background: he has not yet ironed out all the subtle differences between military and commercial aircraft operations. But he will.)

"A great helmet it is, too," I enthused. "I was just wondering, though, what you think is the best way of greeting your passengers." I cast my hand around the bus to indicate 'his passengers'. "You know, as the pilot of a commercial aircraft, with paying guests on board."A look of realisation spread across his face, and he stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. After a long pause I continued. "I mean, you'd have to treat them politely, wouldn't you? Otherwise they wouldn't fly with your airline any more. And if nobody flies on your airline, well, pretty soon they won't need a pilot any more. You'll be out of a job and instead of flying planes you'll have to... well, I don't know what you'd do. Do you have a backup plan?"

"No! I'm a pilot!" he insisted.

"Well then." We sat in silence for a while.

"How do pilots greet their passengers?" I prompted at length.

"Very nicely," he replied. I nodded silently. We rode along, looking out the window.

Later that day, he started blowing kisses to everyone who met eyes with him. ("Is he piloting The Love Plane?" Mr Bea asked, when I recounted events to him later that night. "The pendulum may have swung a little far on the first stroke," I agreed.) And you know, though part of me still feels I should have thought of it sooner - way sooner - there's this growing gladness he was forced to put some of the work in himself. I can't always be on hand to write his life's screenplay, or cast everyone into their correct roles.

So if you're wandering around Singapore and you see a woman whose four-year-old is wearing a bike helmet for no discernible reason, you'll know it's me. You can wave hi, but maybe leave the little guy alone. His air kisses are much sweeter than his air kicks, but he still finds the interactions exhausting.

The Prata Boy has long had a problem with strangers. When he was a baby, it manifested itself in screaming when someone took him from me - even, at times, his own father. As a preschooler it manifests in shrieking at people whenever they glance his way.

"Don't look at me!" he screams, pointing an accusing finger at the offender. Then he supplies them - at similar volume - with an exhaustive list of the people who are allowed to look at him. It's quite embarrassing.

When he was younger, I tried to supportively acknowledge his feelings, and give him alternative ways to react. "You could cover your eyes and look away," I suggested once, to his apparent agreement.Ten seconds later someone looked at him and he screamed, "Hey! Cover your eyes and look away!"


Also? Sometimes he hits or kicks at them. (He doesn't tend to connect - it is a warning only, like a dog baring his teeth.) And? He has the same reaction when somebody looks at his sister, even though she, herself, doesn't mind. Woe betide anybody touch her.


I've got to admit, it is tough for him. He gets looked at way more than a lot of four-year-olds. For a start, people coo over young children in this country more than they do in The Old one. And although caucasians aren't exactly rare around here, we're definitely not the majority, so there's a touch of novelty about him. Then there's the old Chinese superstition that rubbing "golden" hair will bring wealth and prosperity. It persists amongst the older generation. ("Don't pat my head! I am not a dog!" he screamed at a kindly old grandmother when he was three years old. The woman didn't speak English, but she sure spoke Angry Toddler and she was definitely taken aback with what she heard.) So I feel for him, because it's tough enough being a shy kid without being in the spotlight every time you leave the house.

As he grows older, however, his actions not only become less excusable, but my tactics begin to look more and more futile. Lately, his ability to decode and express his feelings has become more sophisticated, so I decided to take it right back to square one to see if there was anything new he could tell me.

"Why do you yell at people to stop looking at you?" I asked, once again.

"Because I don't like it," he answered, as usual. But I persisted (again), hoping for something more.

"Why don't you like it?"

"Because I only want you and Dad and..."

"Yes, I know, but why only those people? How do you feel when people look at you?"

"Not good."

"Not good how? In what way? Describe the feeling to me." This time he paused, and I could tell he was digging as deep as he could, trying to explain himself so I could finally understand. I hoped, this time, he could find the words.

"I feel threatened."

"You feel threatened?" I wasn't expecting that. "Why threatened?"

"I think they're going to take me away from you."

I was stunned. "Why?"

"Because they're looking at me."

"Well, yes, but... where did you get the idea that people who look at you might take you away?" He paused again, and I let him think.

"I don't know," he said finally.

"You can't remember? Not at all?" He thought again.


"I think I do. Want to hear my idea?" He did. In addition to patting golden-haired children on the head, locals like to joke that they're going to steal your offspring. 'Oh, so cute!' they'll gush. 'Come, I bring you my house. Say, 'Bye bye, Mummy!' You come stay with me.' It's supposed to be a compliment. Sometimes, with SB, they offer PB an exchange - a lolly, maybe, or a small toy. 'I give you candy, you give me your baby sister, can?' Apparently PB has never seen the humour in this.

And you know, up til now I've been basing my actions on this idea that what he feels is completely ok to feel. It's a popular assumption in Western culture, after all - almost heretical to infer otherwise. But as I digested this new information, it struck me: I am totally not ok with him feeling like this. I don't just want to change the way he expresses himself - I want to change what he has to express. The trouble is, I'm pretty certain this fear of being stolen is just the skin of the bogeyman. He's shy - social interaction wears him out, causes him stress - and he's (presumably) taken this joke and constructed a fear of kidnapping around it. How do you make a shy person un-shy?

Conventional wisdom tells us this sort of change can only come from within. People say, "He has to want to change," as if that dismisses the responsibility from anyone around him, and places it squarely within his power. My experiences with infertility have taught me otherwise. I now know that wanting to change is simply one step on the path to healing - one you can be guided towards, though not via a shortcut. One you may have trouble finding on your own.

I thought hard. What comes before wanting to heal? According to this post, it is whining, and moaning, and crying, and getting depressed, and feeding a highly-developed ability to stress over things which are a) unlikely to happen and b) not under one's control anyway. What brought me from there forward? Well - it was you. It was the type of useful, constructive validation that allows one to take stock and gather perspective.

"Well, you know," I found myself saying to PB, "there really are nasty people out there who steal kids away." I've got to admit - from a certain angle, confirming to a kid who is afraid of being stolen that this kind of thing actually really happens seemed a bit counter-intuitive. PB looked at me seriously.

"What do they do with them?" he wanted to know. And I spared the goriest details, but there was certainly enough left to keep any four-year-old up at night. Eventually, I felt I'd answered all his questions to the best of my abilities, and we sat for a moment in silence.

"Maybe what we need," I suggested eventually, "is a plan to reduce your risk of getting taken by strangers." PB readily agreed. "Well, let's look at what we know about kids who get kidnapped by strangers, and kids who almost get kidnapped, but get away." And we examined the two groups closely, looking for commonalities and differences. And what we decided, in the end, is that PB should spend as much time as possible interacting with strangers (under my supervision, of course) because this way he will build up the kind of tacit knowledge about normal social interactions that you need before you can get that "funny feeling" when someone is acting suspiciously, but you can't quite put your finger on how.

He agreed to the plan. I don't believe it's going to change him from an introvert into an extrovert, but I'm hoping it'll motivate him to overcome his fear of strangers (starting with the aggressive displays) and allow him to practice to the point where he no longer finds interactions hugely stressful. And at that point, the bogeyman will finally be dispelled.

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