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SINGAPORE: We are heading into the first term break of the year and I can almost hear every parent heaving a sigh of relief. No more spelling, homework and ting xie to contend with. No need to wake before dawn for an entire week.

Sometimes I wonder who’s really looking forward to the holidays – the kids or the parents.

While most of us can’t wait to catch up on rest, the super-planner in us has probably also kicked in. We’ve probably shortlisted and signed up our little ones for a few holiday camps.

If you’re not busy planning, you may be busy worrying. Questions such as “How do I keep my child entertained or suitably engaged?” may flood your mind.

The day I learned to relax about the holidays was the day I realised two things. First, it is not my responsibility to keep my children entertained. Second, the holidays are not empty slots that you must rush to fill in.

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CURB THE SUPER PLANNER-PARENT IN YOU

Even as I write this, I’ve already planned for my eldest to attend an art holiday programme. We also have an excursion to a museum planned with their Chinese tutor. Plus a couple of play dates.

The week looks set to be meaningfully engaging but also with a couple of free hours each day.

Singaporeans tend to wear busy-ness as a badge of honour. As if some idle time is going to get us slapped with the label “lazy”.

Perhaps a deep fear of missing out has been hardwired in our parental brains. Perhaps it’s the Singaporean productivity mindset – we must always keep moving and learning otherwise we risk being left behind. 

Two children playing in a playground

Two boys at a playground. (Photo: Unsplash/Hisu lee)

But what about balance? What about the value of rest? 

After working hard for an entire term, surely our kids deserve a good break? 

That said, I too struggle with leaving their holidays alone, untouched. 

Will they get into my hair when I’m rushing for a deadline? Will they start fighting among themselves? Will they keep bargaining for extra screen time?

All these “hassles” and “what-ifs” do make the idea of a completely empty holiday schedule seem utterly unpalatable.

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COPING WITH BOREDOM

The biggest bugbear of the holiday season has to be boredom. Whenever my kids finish their stash of fresh library books, they start to get fidgety and restless. 

They start asking for more screen time, more snacks or another trip to the library. 

They start to irritate one another; tempers rise and fall.

But I see good things as well being born out of boredom.

My kids are avid collectors of Book Bug cards from the library. One fine day, all of them didn’t any have homework so my elder two decided to design their own Book Bug characters. It was nice watching them conjure up their own unique characters, each with different superpowers.

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Playing with blocks can help children develop many skills. (Photo: AFP/Yoshikazu Tsuno)

At other times, they may start to deconstruct their old Lego sets and make new creations.

Or they’d ask me to look up the Internet for new cake or cookie recipes so we can whip up a storm in the kitchen.

As a child, I recall having to accompany my godmother to the office and staying alone with a book or activity pad in a meeting room for hours. I had no idea at the time and probably complained, but those hours may well have honed my patience and uncanny ability to self-entertain.

What happens when their schedules are filled to the brim with classes, meet-ups, and all manner of activities?

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Fast forward some 30 years and our children’s schedules are looking even busier than their parents’.

How did we get here?

Yes, the activities are fun and beneficial no doubt, but I do wonder: What happens when a child is rushed through childhood at the speed of a Tokyo bullet train? How does this wire their brains to seek life experiences as a grown-up.

File photo child using iPad

File photo of children using tablet computers. (Photo: AFP / FREDERICK FLORIN)

THE ABILITY TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES

This holiday break, it might be interesting to try out this challenge: Leave a day or two untouched and get the kids to plan what to do on those days.

Obviously some boundaries will need to be drawn so that they don’t end up watching TV or playing games from morning till night.

For the younger set or for children who are at a loss as to where to start, you can provide some ideas for them to choose from. Maybe there’s a project that they really want to do, like dabbling in a science experiment or illustrating their own comic book. Or a place of interest they’d like to explore. If it’s within reasonable limits, why not?

While they’re at it, get them to think about the time they’ll likely need to complete the task, as well as the things to prepare or buy in advance. 

This will activate their planning and organisational skills, and give them a chance to be in charge. 

If there are siblings, then all the better as negotiation and perspective taking comes into play. After all, as a family we need to work as a team and find solutions acceptable to everyone.

When the day is over, we can also ask them how they felt about being able to plan and direct their day’s activities. This will encourage them to reflect on their choices and imagine what they’d do differently in the future.

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In her book Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky visited three early childhood programmes in America that were deemed “gold standard”.

These programmes took in high-risk children from low-income families, but longitudinal studies have found that they (now adults) demonstrate better grade retention, higher high school graduation rates, and higher employment rates and monthly earnings than children from similar backgrounds who did not participate in the programmes.

Her discovery? Each of the programmes presupposed children to be active learners who were expected to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. They made their own plans, carried them out, and then reviewed them at the end of the day.

students classroom Singapore

Students participating in a mathematics class. (File photo: TODAY)

This kind of goal-directed behaviour helps children grow to become self-directed adults – which are the kind of people we’d want to see leaving our nests 10 to 20 years down the road.

As 21st century parents, we have shown remarkable prowess at planning and structuring our children’s lives, down to a T.

But starting from this holiday, let’s choose to exercise some restraint and leave some space for our children to take over the reins. It might result in a couple of delightful creations and important life skills learnt along the way.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

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