SINGAPORE: When Victoria’s parents, Mr Silas Yip and Mdm Elisha Yap, are away at work, the four-year-old sometimes takes advantage of their soft-spoken Myanmar helper’s patience - like dragging her feet when it comes to putting on her clothes or finishing her food.
Asked if she scolds Victoria, 26-year-old Za Za shakes her head: “No, cannot. She will cry and she will tell me to ‘go away’.”
She is not authorised to discipline Victoria or her brother, Jethro, six. Ms Za Za’s employers prefer to take on that task themselves. Said Mdm Yap, 37: “I get her to always report to me when Victoria is not doing things properly or is throwing a tantrum.”
“She’s only allowed to tell the kids what they can and cannot do… I or Silas will take the approach to educate the kids ourselves,” she said, adding that if the situation were serious enough, it might include caning or grounding.
“The helper might not be capable enough to understand what kind of punishment is required.”
At the same, Mdm Yap admits that her daughter can be a handful, even though they set boundaries and insist she picks up after herself. “I am more worried about how she bullies Za Za... I remember she bit Za Za once; I scolded her quite badly.”
But, Mdm Yap also notes the special bond between her daughter and her helper. “My little girl really loves her, even hugs her and kisses her. I am actually quite happy I found a helper who really loves my kids.”
The family’s story is captured in the observational documentary series The Family Affair, which in its recently-aired second series, explores life and norms in four Asian families in these changing times. (Watch the series here)
A HELPER ‘ISN’T BLOOD RELATION’
The couple, who work long hours in Mdm Yap’s start-up, are like many working parents who often grapple with whether they should empower their domestic helper to discipline their child.
Parents that Channel NewsAsia spoke to or who posted their views on Facebook were divided on this issue.
For sales executive Marie Ngoh, it’s a flat ‘no’ when it comes to her Filipino helper disciplining – either verbally or physically - her four-year-old, Matthias. Said the 32-year-old:
We don’t allow her to scold or hit him. We have only one son, how can we let someone who is not blood-related discipline him?
She said that she has never raised her hand to her son, and thinks that corporal punishment is archaic, so she reprimands him instead.
“I think the disciplining of children should be left solely to the parents. Her role as a helper is to assist me with housework, which she has done well. I don’t expect her to be too involved in bringing up my child,” she said.
CAN DISCIPLINE, BUT WITHIN LIMITS
But many others said they gave leeway to their helper to discipline their kids, within limits.
One Facebook user, who said she has two children but no helper, argued that if we can trust a helper to look after our kids, then we should also trust her to discipline them, within agreed limits.
“Looking after a child without the right to correct the kid (when they're in the wrong) in a timely manner is probably not the most effective,” she said.
Stanley Ang said he entrusts his helper with correcting his son. “When my son is naughty, for example, and hits my maid or pulls her hair, I will sternly tell him not to do that and explain the reason why.
“I will also tell my maid to do the same when we are not around,” he said.
Helper Ms Van Essa posted on Facebook that her employers always remind the children under her care that when they are not around, she is in charge.
“They must listen to what I tell them. But I also know my limitations in handling difficult situations with the kids," she said.
The key here is respect. Show your kids you respect the people around you, and in return, they will learn to respect others, especially to the helper who is with the family 24/7.
CHILD FLUNG BOWL OF CEREAL AT HELPER
Business development manager Kelvin Ng gives full autonomy to his Filipino helper to discipline his son, aged five, and daughter, aged eight, when they misbehave.
“My wife and myself spend a good part of our day in the office and leave our children to (the care of) our helper. It’s unreasonable to expect that she is not allowed to discipline them.
They (the children) will misbehave from time to time. Someone has to put them in their place. I don’t want my kids to grow up bratty,
said the 41-year-old. His helper was given leeway to lightly smack and scold the kids after an episode two years ago, when his daughter flung a bowl of cereal at her and screamed at her.
However, he acknowledged that his helper may not be as effective as him or his wife in disciplinary matters.
“They will always take liberties with her. Sometimes they listen to her, sometimes they don’t. They see her as our helper, not someone with authority,” he said.
DON’T DELEGATE THE JOB
Which is why Mr Brian Poh, clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health's department of child and adolescent psychiatry, advised against parents delegating the role of disciplining their child to their helpers.
The roles of parenting and disciplining the child should ultimately be that of the parents. The domestic helper will eventually leave one day, and she is not a permanent figure in the child’s life.
“Her role, as the name implies, is a ‘helper’, and not as a main disciplinarian,” he said.
Mr Poh added: “Due to cultural or societal differences, she might also have different values or ideas about the methods to discipline a child, and what constitutes an appropriate or inappropriate behaviour.”
Child psychologist Dr Penny Tok, who has her own practice, felt that helpers should be allowed to correct the child only if he or she is engaging in dangerous behaviour, or when the physical well-being of others is threatened by the child's behaviour.
However, she recommended leaving the punishments and disciplinary measures to the parents to carry out, to protect both the child and the helper.
“The child needs to be protected from any potential form of abuse - verbal, mental, or physical.
Allowing a helper to carry out acts such as caning will place a vulnerable young person at high risk of abuse which may go unreported.
“This will have a deep, negative impact on the child,” said Dr Tok.
Secondly, parents and helpers may have different opinions on what behaviours need to be corrected and the suitable type of punishments.
This could lead to a miscommunication between both parties and cause a rift between the maid and the employer, she added.
Mr Poh believes that in the long run, the parents might lose the authority to discipline the child if the maid takes on the role as the main disciplinarian. “The child might also build up a stronger bond with the domestic helper, if she gets to spend more time with the child and is in charge of teaching the child values,” he said.
And if the helper eventually leaves, the child might lose an emotional and authority figure, and might not be as receptive to the parents’ style of discipline, he warned.
SPARE THE ROD AND SPOIL THE CHILD
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, however, felt that helpers should be given some leeway in this area.
He said that if a helper is involved in the care of the children, she will have to be empowered to provide the appropriate care and for the children to be effectively disciplined.
Without empowering the helper and if no other adults are present, the lack of discipline may result in problematic behaviour, he said.
“This is especially important if both parents are working and most of the care is left to the helper.
“A lack of discipline will likely affect the conduct and behaviour of the child in a negative way. They may be ill disciplined, rude and unruly given the lack of supervision and discipline,” he said.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENTS ARE MORE DESIRABLE
However, the experts agreed that boundaries must be set when helpers are empowered to discipline the child.
Discipline comes in many forms, and positive reinforcements and teaching good behaviour are more desirable than punishment and especially caning, said Dr Lim.
Helpers should not be tasked to use corporal punishments, as the line between that and physical abuse is a thin one.
“The helper can mete out non-physical consequences, verbal warnings and reprimands where appropriate and carry out positive aspects of parenting like praising good behaviour and rewarding.
“Parents should be the ones who predetermined these and train the helper to be their surrogate,” he said.
Accountant Madam Cordelia Lee, who has two sons aged three months and three years, empowers her Indonesian helper to discipline her oldest son, but only if there are no other family members at home.
“I would only allow my helper to give time-outs and explain to him what he did wrong instead of directly raising her voice and losing her temper at him.
“This is because we want her to be in line with how we discipline our kids,” she said.
Having said that, she is unwilling to empower her helper too much. “From what I’ve heard from my friends, the child would start to listen to the helper more than his/her parents.
"They become more scared of the helpers, and the parents’ roles would be in contrast - where mummy and daddy are only here to shower them with love and presents.
“And this is not what I want,” she said.
The 5-part observational-style documentary, The Family Affair 2: Changing Times, follows four families across Asia as they embark on new beginnings. Watch it here.