SINGAPORE: What is a big adventure to pre-schoolers? Going to the supermarket on their own to buy groceries? Walking around in the neighbourhood to run an errand for their parents?
What if that errand was to a destination one kilometre away? What if it was further, and entailed taking the bus and train to the financial district – 17 MRT stations away – by themselves?
Whether children in Singapore are too pampered or sheltered has been a matter of perennial debate. Now, some parents are finding out the answers for themselves as they send their tiny tots out on their own for the first time.
In the case of Nathanael, an only child aged five years and one month, his mother Serena Ong sent him from their home in Simei to his father’s office in Marina One.
“I don’t want him to be spoilt or to overly depend on us for stuff,” she said.
He is one of six boys and three girls aged two to five years old who were given a chance to be independent by running errands alone, with their missions captured on camera by the programme On The Red Dot.
They included children who were crossing traffic junctions by themselves for the first time, with a production crew of 12 disguised as passers-by to follow their every move and ensure each child’s safety.
And as their parents learnt, in confronting the question of whether a child is old enough to do something, there would be doubts and surprises. (Watch the episodes here.)
THE BLANKET BRAVO
Ms Ong had her reservations even before her son left home.
The set-up had been simple enough: Nathanael thought his father had left his laptop behind and needed it urgently, but mum could not leave home because someone was repairing the television. And the boy initially volunteered to help.
Then he changed his mind and started wailing, even as Ms Ong told him to bring along his favourite blanket. She said: “At this point, my heart started to (go) like, ‘Should I still carry on with this task?’”
Her son would have to walk about 400 metres to take a bus, alight after two stops and take the train from Upper Changi station to Downtown station. From there, it is about 200m to his father’s workplace.
He did not get far in his first attempt and ran home scared, which made his mother’s heart “ache”.
“But I know if I push him a little, he can do better,” said Ms Ong, who eventually had to take him to the bus stop before he agreed to soldier on by himself for the rest of the journey.
Once he reached the MRT station, he was back to his normal self, saying aloud as he was on the escalator: “Oh, first time. So fun.”
Listening out for the train announcements, he was able to alight at the right station – which impressed his mother – and then get to the right office building, where he asked the concierge to call his father, Mr Yong Kai Keong.
While admitting to his dad that he “took very long to cry and cry”, Nathanael let on that he felt proud of his efforts, and said: “So, in times of emergency, I can help.”
Reviewing the footage of her son made Ms Ong cry a little.
“I think he’s grown up. This brought me back to the first day when he had to go to pre-school, when … the teacher said, ‘No, you can go home. He’s fine,’” she recounted.
So that moment was like, ‘Huh? He doesn’t need me any more.’ Sometimes I think the separation anxiety is from the mother and not the child.
He has since become more independent, she added, “so to me, it’s like, ‘wow’; that boost of confidence really helped him a lot, and I’m glad I didn’t give up and pressed on”.
For Ms Atiqah Halim, she wondered whether her son Dani, aged three years and 11 months, should have been given his task – to pass his father’s mobile phone to him – after it was over.
While she would not have called him an independent child, as he always wanted to do the same thing his brother did, she reckoned: “Maybe he can; it’s just that he has never had the chance to (be independent).”
Last year, the family welcomed their third child, and Dani has been adjusting to his new role – from baby of the family for three years to elder sibling.
It is a familiar scenario for families. And that was why another parent, Mrs Uma Jacob, decided to give her four-and-a-half-year-old son Noel the task of buying some things from the supermarket while taking care of his visiting two-year-old cousin.
Noel recently became a big brother, and with Mrs Jacob having her hands full with two boys now, the working mum needed him to be more independent.
“I wanted Noel to step out of his comfort zone, where he feels as if he can accomplish this task on his own,” she said.
In Noel’s case, the supermarket was 160m away. Dani, meanwhile, was asked to buy lunch first and take the food, along with his father’s mobile phone, to their new flat almost 1km away from their current Tampines home.
“It’s not just a test for Dani, but I think it’s a test for us as well,” said Ms Atiqah.
“It’s interesting because Singapore is quite a safe country, yet we’re very protective of our kids. So to let go of our kids is quite a challenge.”
Running his first errand alone was a challenge for Dani too. And it was not long before he found himself inconsolable and heading back to his mother.
She persuaded him to give it another go. And he did, talking to himself to keep going. “How do I go to my house?” he asked at one point.
He figured it out and delivered the phone to his father, Mr Suhardi Suradi, but forgot to buy lunch. After he went back to his mother – by himself again – she asked him if he was scared, and he said yes.
That was what made her wonder about his task. But in the end, she thought that asking him to buy food from a specific cafeteria may have been the only unnecessary complication.
“He’s quite proud of the fact that he managed to send the phone to his father. We probably will remind him, ‘Hey, you did this … That means you’re a big boy,’” she said. “It’s a proud moment for the family.”
THE GRANDPARENTS REACT
Dani’s maternal grandparents were among the senior family members who watched the footage of these children in action. And grandpa Ab Halim Huzir was waiting for that moment when his grandson mustered the confidence to set off by himself.
“During our days, we were different. We were really independent. But nowadays, because children are a bit more pampered, I can say they lack confidence,” he said.
Mdm Ana Lim, who looks after twin grandsons Mingyu and Mingzheng – aged four years and four months – during the day while their mother works, did not think such young children could do such tasks.
The two boys were told to buy bread, cheese, and ham from a supermarket 50m from their block, and then go to a playground that is a two-minute walk away to prepare a picnic for their mum Serene On.
“Asking them to buy stuff is something they can’t do. They always stick close to their mother. How can they be on their own?” questioned Mdm Lim.
But that was why single mum Ms On thought it would be a good experience and hoped to see “how they respond to the challenges and how they behave because ... they rely on me a lot.”
Grandpa Wan Bock Thiaw, on the other hand, felt that his grandson Ninja, aged two years and 11 months, had got a chance to do something special.
The boy’s mother Chelsea is a second-generation owner of a frog farm in Lim Chu Kang, and she thought her son could start helping out with simple things.
So she asked him to scrub a frog pen and feed the fish in two ponds while navigating around the one-hectare farm without his parents, as well as deliver frog meat to a neighbouring farm.
And when Mr Wan saw him feeding the fish, and singing to himself while doing so, he said: “I bet no one else (so young) in Singapore does this. When I was his age … I was probably sitting around, waiting to be fed.”
His daughter added: “As parents, we let our fears kind of cloud our judgement on what we think a kid going on three years old might be able to understand or what they can do.”
YES, THE GIRLS CAN
Although most children do not grow up on a farm, they do have to adapt to different situations during their childhood as parents would know.
Charlotte, aged four years and 10 months, had to deal with that when her family returned from the United States last year. And mum Min Poh thinks she did better than expected. Still, “new situations are tough for her”.
“Sometimes she’s a little bit like a deer caught in the headlights,” said Ms Poh. “I wanted her to be more comfortable with situations she doesn’t know or can’t really predict.”
Her challenge was to bring her brother’s jiu-jitsu belt to his class 470m away in Katong, and walk another 400m to retrieve a library book from her grandmother’s place.
It tested not only her resolve – she ran back home panicking at first – but also her road safety skills, as she had to cross a junction by herself for the first time.
Like Dani, she waited for others to cross before she started across. “I was impressed and happy that whatever I said a million times sunk in,” said her mother. “She’s also braver than I thought. So that was reassuring.”
Charlotte proudly told her grandmother that she made the trip by herself, and said to her mother after returning: “I was scared the first time, but I was happy. It was fun at the last (part).”
That was enough for dad Peck Choon Hong to want her to continue doing errands, since “she’s definitely capable of it”.
For Ms Yoong Ying Ying, whose family has a small restaurant at The Grandstand on Turf Club Road, she was also glad she could task her five-year-old daughter Joy with delivering food within the shopping complex.
“It made me realise that if I had given her opportunities earlier, she’d have become a more confident child,” said Ms Yoong.
Among the parents, perhaps Ms Yvonne Lian had more reasons than most for wanting her five-year-old daughter Chloe, who had never gone anywhere unaccompanied, to become self-reliant.
“She might be dyslexic, so I hope that she can learn from young to open up … and adapt to things more easily,” said Ms Lian.
“I hope she can discover more about herself. At the same time, I can discover more about her capabilities.”
If Chloe has dyslexia, it may impair her sense of direction and affect how well she remembers instructions. And her task had several steps.
At the Aranda Country Club, she had to find the fish pond and the shop close to it, buy a fish tank and decorate it, and catch 10 fishes to bring back to her mother in the lobby.
She did forget, but was so determined the second time round that she spent two hours on her task. Stretched mentally and physically at the end, she could not secure the lid of the tank or carry it further.
But the little trooper made it back eventually – sobbing from the effort – into her mother’s embrace. The experience showed Ms Lian, who had imagined Chloe would give up halfway, how far her daughter could go.
“This is like 1,000 per cent power up. My daughter has grown up,” she said. “I can see that she can run more errands by herself. That’s enough for Mummy.”
RESISTING THE URGE TO HELP
To close her fish tank’s lid, Chloe had sought the help of an “uncle” passing by, or so she thought. In actual fact it was a cameraman.
But when the tank started to weigh her down, just two minutes away from her mother, the production crew resisted the urge to help, to give her a chance of completing the task on her own terms.
And such decisions on whether to intervene by assisting a lost or crying child were challenging ones for the team to make, said series producer Mak C K.
“Having consulted with child psychologists and the Japanese production team behind the original Old Enough! series (with 29 years of experience making the programme), we learnt not to simply give in to our natural instincts to help a child showing any signs of discomfort,” he said.
If the child wasn’t in any form of physical danger, we kept a close watch and tried to give him/her the opportunity to overcome any setbacks by himself/herself.
“In doing so, the children are given the opportunity to gain confidence … and feel proud of themselves for helping out their parents successfully," he added.
Asked what surprised him the most, Mr Mak cited the way the children behaved when seemingly unsupervised. “Almost of all them rose to the occasion and pursued their tasks single-mindedly. Even their parents themselves were surprised,” he said.
“Sometimes we witnessed the children growing up right before the camera lens. That’s a magical moment captured for their parents (and the children) to cherish forever.”
Watch the series here, an adaptation of the Japanese hit television show Old Enough! New episodes of On The Red Dot air on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.