SINGAPORE: Almost a month into the circuit breaker, half my friends have been enjoying back-to-back online yoga “buffets”, and baking artisan bread. As we ventured deep into the yawning chasm of our new homebound existence, many were discovering moments of stillness and vast expanses of time.
Not parents though. As we scroll through social media images of culinary feats and self-discovery in the wee hours after our tireless offsprings had finally dozed off, most of us have never felt more time-starved.
A friend who has been managing her communication team remotely from her dining table told me she struggled to simultaneously run technical support for home-based learning, as well as after-class support and a home canteen for her two ravenously hungry primary school boys.
Another friend, a primary school teacher, had been shutting herself in a room to call parents to follow up on their children’s homework, while her own one-year-old toddler sometimes banged on the door crying for attention. The parents she called were often as tired as she was.
In fact, when home-based learning began, the mobile phones of parents started beeping as early as 8am with instructions, links and follow-ups.
Those with many children suddenly found themselves managing multiple schedules like pre-virus air traffic controllers – class schedules, homework deadlines, mealtimes and bedtimes.
This has been especially trying for parents coping with sudden unemployment, partial income loss and financial uncertainty. They will hardly have the bandwidth to double up as teaching assistants for young children during these unprecedented times.
So when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the circuit breaker extension, many parents I knew moaned inwardly.
MAY HOLIDAYS - A REPRIEVE OR DISRUPTION?
Yet, when the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced later that same day the mid-year holidays would be brought forward by a month to May 5, it felt like a much-needed reprieve. At least while navigating the unfamiliar waters of the circuit breaker, there would now be one less deliverable to worry about.
Not all, however, rejoiced. Some lamented it would be “the most boring school holidays ever”, with theme parks, pools and beaches closed, and travel and summer camps out of the question.
It is not just that the long awaited mid-year holiday has lost some of its fun factor. Many centres of activity during those seasons have been shuttered. Museums, libraries, school excursions and holiday enrichment classes are no longer viable. Even bookstores, where many parents used to curate a ready stash of assessment books, are now closed.
For the first school holiday in history, our children and youth will be stuck at home, pretty much in limbo.
That said, being homebound is a vastly different experience across socio-economic groups. For the underprivileged with many children sharing a one- or two-room flat, the stressors of an extended circuit breaker and a stay-in school holiday will be greatly amplified.
Some counsellors suggest the lack of breathing space could increase the likelihood of conflict and abuse. As a matter of fact, since the beginning of the circuit breaker, referrals and enquiries related to domestic conflicts and violence has already increased.
Even those fortunate enough not to have to worry about a comfortable roof over their heads may find it a challenge. They may feel hard-pressed to come up with creative ways to engage their children with conventional activities and tick off enrichment goals within the confines of four walls.
This begs the question: Will the new May holidays prove to be as stressful as term time?
A NEW PARENTING EXPERIENCE
Having the June holidays in May is one example of how COVID-19 has turned our world on its head. It almost feels as if a time portal has opened up, taking us to an alternate universe.
But rather than try to preserve and pack vestiges of our old lives into this alternate reality, perhaps it is time for new rules and rituals, especially those that may ease some of the pressures of modern parenting and the relentless education race.
It is worth noting that over a generation, parenting seems to have evolved to be more hands-on, especially within certain demographic groups. Gone are the days of free-range kids.
Today, many parents juggling the demands of full-time jobs feel compelled to also cultivate, engage and entertain their kids round-the-clock. Helicopter parenting had turned raising children into a competitive sport.
That arms race has been a costly one. According to a Household Expenditure Survey by the Department of Statistics, Singapore households spent a total of S$1.4 billion on tuition from October 2017 to September 2018. In addition to tuition, parents also invest in enrichment programmes such as music, dance, art, swimming and other sports.
Some spend their weekend sending their children from one class to another, merely enjoying short snippets of family bonding time during the commute. When they manage to take weekdays off, they stack it with activities and appointments.
In this overscheduled world, it can be easy to lose track of the basic needs of healthy children – adequate rest, free play and family bonding time.
With that said, perhaps it is useful to think of the new May school holidays stuck at home as the perfect time to Marie Kondo your activities and de-clutter your time. By doing less, and streamlining your activities, perhaps we will have more time to focus on the essential?
CREATIVE PLAY AND BONDING RITUALS
In fact, sometimes an empty agenda can be the best breeding ground for creativity, as several studies suggest.
Boredom boosts the mind’s resourcefulness and problem-solving abilities. Provided parents do not resort to screen-time as their default lifeline to fill up empty swathes of time, boredom can encourage creative unstructured play – a crucial component for intellectual, social and emotional development.
Granted, our children will no longer be able to zip off to the latest theme park, but in the vast world of their imagination, everyday items such as cardboard boxes, paper, drawing materials and old fabrics can be fodder for creativity, transforming into trucks, tents or time machine.
Moreover, it must be said that children do not necessarily need trucks or tents to engage in play. With the right attitude, any activity can be categorised as “play”. Parents can help foster this attitude by framing activities in a fun way.
They can involve their little ones in making their own customised omelette or pizza, setting the table in a creative way or helping to clean up after dinner, as many of us were brought up to do. Your new “enrichment” curriculum could include roles such as assistant sous chef and wardrobe specialist for folding clothes.
As many have rightly pointed out, it takes a village to raise a child. However, in a time when most parents have lost important parts of their support system, getting children to help out may ease the household load.
Helping out in the household may also make children feel like an important part of the family ecosystem, and consequently feel a greater sense of connectedness in a time when they too feel somewhat disorientated.
After all, it is important to remember that like us, our children’s social world has shrunk dramatically over the course of a few weeks. Family rituals, even something as simple as family meals, can offer our children important support.
Pre-pandemic, numerous studies have already shown the positive effect of family meals on healthy eating habits, self-esteem, communication skills, and general academic performance.
So if you feel that you cannot cope with activity planning for your children on top of your daily hustle, perhaps it is time to rethink your gruelling holiday schedule.
After all, we have seen the benefits of time-out for our beaches, rivers, wildlife and the Earth. Perhaps our children, and indeed the entire family, will benefit from a little rest and restoration as well?
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Annie Tan is a freelance writer.