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Where’s the Magic?

“Dad, there’s no real magic in the world, right? Like, this second, there’s no elves in the world, right?” a young boy named Mason asks his father in Boyhood, a lovely heart-warming movie about relationships and discovering yourself. The movie was filmed over 12 years with the same cast, and follows the journey of 7-year old Mason into adulthood. His father reluctantly says no to his question, and you can see that moment as a significant turning point in Mason’s life. It’s as if the magic of the boy’s childhood just evaporated and was lost forever. I was deeply touched by this scene as by the whole movie. It’s a movie without any real plot, but it doesn’t really need one as it’s not trying to make a point; it is just a one that is.

Curious, I asked my 5-year old the next day if he thought there is magic in the world. His answer? An empathic no! I persisted, asking him why he didn’t believe in fairies or elves or witches. Or why Harry Potter or superheroes were not real. He insisted they weren’t and simply stated ‘because I know’ and when pushed more, reluctantly went on to explain “I have been to so many countries mom but I haven’t seen any magic”. The boy had a point! Not to discount my little travellers theory but there is another reason why my child doesn’t believe in magic.

Ever since he could talk, and being precocious that started very early, he would ask if something existed or not, if it was real or made-up. It seemed like his life mission was to find out what really existed and what was just stories. Contrast this with my 3-year-old who is blissfully unaware (or at least pretends to be) about the realness of things and doesn’t seems to care much about it – his world as I see it is full of endless possibilities. What fun to be able to imagine a man on the moon or Batman fighting crime in Gotham City or a planet full of transformers.

Kids these days have a lot of exposure to and knowledge about completely unimportant and irrelevant things, thanks to the YouTube phenomenon. By the time my son reached 5 he had seen videos of space shuttle launches, car factories, scuba diving, garbage collection in action, flash mobs, toy reviews, construction trucks, clips teaching baking, sewing, tap dancing, taekwondo and even sofa making, all of these on request.

There is definitely a price to pay for all this passive visual stimulation. The knowledge of preliterate kids in the era long gone was limited to the knowledge of their parents. And given the average intelligence levels, it also means the there was a lot more room for imagination. At 5 if I wanted to know how a space shuttle takes off, I would probably have got a visual demonstration of it using props (Read: hands) or if my parents were feeling indulgent maybe a picture in the dusty old encyclopaedia.

The other day the older kid approached me, with the 153rd question of the day “What did hulk look like when he was a kid?” Me, distracted “Umm, not sure”. Without hesitation “Can you check the internet?” Scene re-enacted with the 3-year-old – I told him about the time I got hurt when I was a kid. He asked to see a picture, and upon being told there is none, he promptly states “Can you check the internet?” *facepalm*

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That’s Not Fair!

“But that’s not fair!” screamed my preschooler when his brother was offered a bowl of fruit. Since he hadn’t napped he got his fruit bowl an hour earlier, but the usual short-term memory problem ruled that he should get it again. Lesson learned – serve fruit at the same time! Kids take to extremes what is essentially inherent in all of us – the need for fairness. I wrote about a FOMO attack that my kids suffered from a couple of weeks ago, the basis of it was this similar expectation of absolute fairness.

The old dictum ‘life isn’t fair’ is casually thrown around more often than circumstances demand it. Fairness and equality are subjective fluid terms, very difficult to define even with a context. A glittering generality as its referred to in polijargon.

This video of an experiment on Capuchin monkeys brightens up my dullest day! It documents a sense of fairness in monkeys, supporting an early evolutionary origin of an aversion for inequality. I can see why this primate would so dramatically protest against ‘lower pay’ for performing the same job. Our own behaviour would not be too dissimilar when faced with such a situation, albeit marginally civilised.

Apparently, there is also a fairness gene. I’m sure the location of this gene is precisely halfway from the two ends of the chromosome (because it’s the fairness gene, see what I did there?). Genetic jokes apart, this is a very interesting concept. I think I may have got recessive fairness genes from both my parents, as I clearly remember being the but-thats-not-fair child!

Co-operation, fairness and altruism is studied with much intensity by scientists. In the economic game theory, the ultimatum game has received widespread attention. The results of this game, in which two players are given a sum of money to divide, fly in the face of economic utility maximisation logic. Homo economicus may well be turning in his graving seeing these outcomes.

Lately, this photo has been cropping up a lot on my Facebook feed, can’t credit it as I’m not sure of the origins of this.

Quality VS Justice

Although this picture is loaded with ethical and political connotations, it is easily applied in a micro context to a house with multiple critters. Children are at the nucleus of this fair/unfair debate. It may seem innocuous at first, but this innate sense is the basis of our adult views and actions relating to morality and empathy and a variety of other economic and social issues1. I showed this illustration to my 5 year-old and asked which picture was fair according to him. His answer was unequivocal and without hesitation – “the one on the left”. When I pointed to the little boy who couldn’t see while standing on just one box, the discussion took a turn, which in 20/20 hindsight I should have expected. A barrage of suggestions poured from my little man ranging from ‘they should break the fence’ to ‘they should all get two boxes!’ We are talking about owners of undeveloped prefrontal cortex here and explaining justice to them is not an easy task!

I am certain of having inadvertently passed on this fairness gene to my children (fairly evenly at that!). This only means most of my primary parenting role will involve maintaining an inordinate level of fairness just to create some semblance of peace in the house!

1. “The Fairness Instinct” L. Sun

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#FOMO

keep-calm-and-say-no-to-fomo2The internet has added some interesting slang words to the English langauge. One of the more catchy one, FOMO or ‘Fear Of Missing Out’, is a social anxiety perpetuated by social media networking.

These days the Haque offsprings are struck by a serious case of FOMO. In their case, FOMO mainly involves the fear of missing out on mom’s attention (they don’t bother to make a distinction between positive or negative). Mild cases of FOMO are quite a common problem in households where the adults have decided to pluralize their progeny. The symptoms of FOMO are precipitated by an event like a sickness or one of those unidentifiable developmental changes which cause them to go crazy every now and then for no apparent reason. FOMO also shares a strong positive correlation with working parents (although it is no way restricted to them alone) as time with kids becomes a scarce and much sought after commodity.

Recently, when during the tail end of our yearly visit to Mumbai the kids got sick with viral fever, I witnessed this syndrome in its prime. My normally happy and self-assured 5-year-old turned into this whiney and clinging boy demanding the same kind of attention as my almost-3 year old needs. If I would even as much as glance at his younger brother, he would demand I look at him too for precisely the same amount of time. I had to content with the most uncomfortable middle seat in taxis as both kids wanted me next to them. I had to calcuate and deliver equal number of kisses, hugs and even cuddles to both of them. Even my annoyance with both had to be equally measured! The 3-year-old, being the baby of the house, is used to getting more attention anyway but FOMO gripped him too.

Once we got back home to Singapore, the kids had to contend with me being back at work after two weeks of holiday. It also didn’t help that both are on school holidays with nothing to do the whole day. Despite his best intentions the dad is unable to do much except shrug his shoulders and watch me despair as the kids vie for my constant attention. Given that they have completely recovered from their viral and school starts next week, I’m hoping the normalcy will abate this FOMO anxiety and the kids get back to their normal happy selves soon!

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The 9-point Manifesto

20140729_080355_1It’s that time of the year again, when we head back home for our customary visit to family and friends during the kids summer vacation. It’s more of a workation for me, considering it’s India and that we’re travelling with two young kids. This is our first long holiday since my older one turned five and finally seems to have grown out of throwing fits on days that he’s tired or hungry and all the days in between. That’s more than I can say for my younger boy, but one out of two is a pretty good score.

I have a strong but unsubstantiated hunch that my kids got together and passed a secret manifesto for the holiday. It went something like this –

1. We shall appoint mom as an honorary trash can, for all intents and purposes. We will henceforth hand her all pieces of trash – banana peels, candy wrappers, ice cream sticks, snot-filled tissues – all waste that needs disposing.

2. We shall maintain a steady flow of background chatter. At no point shall we deprive the people around us of our constant tomfoolery and loud goofiness. We shall take uncoordinated naps so one can of us can pick up the baton while the other sleeps.

3. We shall pointedly refuse to be a part of the tots road show that the adults so wittingly subject us to. We shall refuse to perpetuate cutisism by ignoring requests for performances including singing, dancing and elaborate gymnastics. We will give blank looks and dry smiles to further indicate our apathy towards these moronic demands.

4. We shall constantly interrupt adult conversations. Surely, there can’t be anything more important than immediately helping us retrieve the Lego piece from behind the couch for the nth time.

5. We shall whenever possible walk into doors, walls, cabinets, table corners and all places capable of potential harm, making a grand display of our lack of spacial awareness in new environments. Extra points for walking into them when adults are on the phone or seem to be involved in important discussions.

6. We shall use jet-lag as our weapon of choice – waking up at ungodly hours, napping at meal times and pushing bedtime to the point where moms blows a proverbial fuse.

7. We shall maintain a distance of a metre or more from the deadly Indian curries, activating our survival instincts against these spice laden sauces of evil.

8. We shall be at our best behaviour only when no one is looking, stockpiling our reserves of tantrums and meltdowns for times when inane social interactions are forced upon us.

9. We shall squabble over toys but when mom offers an alternative to either one of us, we will both pine for it, conveniently abandoning the original toy that we were arguing about.

Of course, by now I’m trained to counter this constant barrage of schemes from the little rascals. For that I use my exclusive monopoly over the distribution of resources, more specifically food! My advice for moms to boys is to stock up on food and let the feasting never stop.

Oh you want to play with the same toy as your brother? Here, why don’t you have a banana first. Crisis averted! Can’t sit still in the car? Offer nuts. Rioting in the airplane? Chips and bars will work. The chewier the snack the better!

Food can buy you time, diffuse tantrums or just give you a 5-10 minute break to reorganize your thoughts. And since drastic situations call for drastic measures, I’m always stocked up on the good ol’ candy. Yeah, I’m crafty like that 🙂

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Matters of life and death..

Having a brother who is a foreign correspondent for a news channel means having to get used to hearing things like ‘I’ll call you in a bit, there’s a rebel checkpoint ahead’ during an ordinary day. He’s in eastern Ukraine now, uncovering details on the horrible fate of Malaysian Airlines MH17. Despite my fears, I am so incredibly proud of him and what he does. Getting a first hand account of what he is witnessing is so much more chilling than having to hear it through the filter of a TV screen. I can only imagine what he goes through seeing all this in person. Death itself (either your own or anyone else’s) is such a difficult topic to discuss without getting uneasy or making people uncomfortable. But to think of death deliberately inflicted by humans on each other is unspeakable.

Thanks to the information age, we are bombarded by news and images of death. Bad news sells. We’ve shrunk the earth and now carry it around in our pockets in the form of smart phones. Violence and crimes relating to geopolitical conflicts, religionism, totalitarianism, sexism, racism, ageism – it seems endless. Despite all of this savagery we seem to be surrounded by, Steven Pinker argues in this TED talk that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Our legacy is thousands of years of bloodied history. And not just because of wars and human brutality, but pandemics like the bubonic plague which wiped out millions of people.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine passed away quite suddenly in the prime of her life. It was the first time in my adult life I had to deal with such devastating news, it left me numb for days. The one constant thing (other than procreation) for all of mankind has been death, but we are still haven’t ‘evolved’ to deal with it. If anything, we have more trouble coming to terms with tragic loss compared to the generations before, because as Pinker states in his talk, we value life more than our ancestors ever did.

One of the reasons I wanted to blog is because I want my kids (and eventually their kids) to know who I was after I’m long gone. I want them to know who I was in my 30s, in my 40s, how my ideas aged, what issues were close to my heart, what drove me, what ignited me, the passions I nurtured. I remember as a kid finding a stash of letters, an odd poem, some incomplete articles, a few hastily written notes all belonging to my grandfather. The paper which had aged gracefully to a beautiful golden brown, was creased so badly it would simply break if opened. It had a rough texture with distinct characteristics of ink pen writing, including random ink blots. Never having met him in person, I devoured those pages, and in the process learnt what kind of man my grandfather was. Those notes opened a tiny window into his life which I would otherwise not have ever known. It fascinated me immensely reading something so personal written decades before my time. People do write differently when the words are not for public consumption. He practised alternate medicine with dogged fanaticism, sadly it was also ultimately responsible for his sudden and untimely death.

Getting off the bleak topic of death, I think my youngest boy has stumbled upon some profound theory to answer existentialist questions. With all the innocence of a two-year old, he seems to think that he will get a chance to be whoever he wants to be when he grows up. He says things like ‘when I turn onto a girl I will wear Dora costume’, ‘when I turn into mom I’ll have a handbag, ‘when I turn into a man, I’ll buy a boat’. I just got thinking how amazing it would be if we could all do this, if we had say, four lives and we could choose to be whoever we want to be in those and actually remember our experiences. I would choose to come back as a man just to figure out why men buy white bread when you specifically ask for brown, or why they have to be reminded about something for six months before it actually gets accomplished. Men could come back as women – walk in heels, wax their bodies and have babies, and finally understand what a high pain threshold really is! Maybe I’d come back as a child once and try to discern why in the kid world drinking from a blue cup, when your favorite is orange, is akin to sacrilege!

The world at large would greatly benefit with this perspective building. I dream of a more tolerant and charitable world, one which I will be proud to pass on to my children..

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One word: Bottles!

Bottles galore!

Bottles galore!

Mr. McGuire famously said to young Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”, “I just want to say one word to you … plastics.” I would add another word to that ‘bottles’.

No, plastic bottles don’t excite me and I do not enjoy writing about them. They were not on my radar when I belonged to the DINKdom, fast-forward a few years to two kids in school and its a different story. My preoccupation with bottles is matched only by my obsession with kid poop!

They say raising a child is expensive, but no one really gets down to specifics now, do they? Well, here I am baring it all for those of you who are planning to have kids. As a parent you will spend a mini-fortune on these things designed to do nothing but hold water and in the process most likely end up as a contender in the mass-bottle-buyer championship!

It all started rather innocuously with baby bottles, used mainly for pumping and feeding the baby, one of those things that feature regularly in the new moms ‘must do’ criterion. Then came the sippy cups, and as any devoted mother would, I scrounged the internet for advice on the best transition leak-proof sippy cup (spout or straw, central nozzle or side, with or without a wrist/neck-band, bang-proof and chew-friendly). What followed was an island-wide hunt for the perfect bottle. In my naivety I didn’t realise that I would be repeating this exercise every few months for the next hundered few years at least until the bottles miraculously start lasting longer than a life span of a caterpillar.

In the last 5 years, my brood has collectively lost/broken/annihilated more bottles than there are rows in Excel! Slight exaggeration there, but you get the point. Apart from some of them simply disappearing, no two bottles suffered the same fate – some broke after being unceremoniously thrown against the wall/ground, many started sporting unexplainable cracks, some came back all battered and dented from school, some didnt come back at all (and yes, I have considered dog-tags), some just shriveled into a shapeless blobs after a hot water wash, some lost during travel/holidays, etc. The most recent one started mysteriously wobbling around like a Fisher Price toy penguin, just a month after use.

I have a little theory on these bottles which simply don’t last a few full moons – planned obsolescence. In short, planned obsolescence is when manufacturers stimulate demand for their products by designing ones that wear out after limited use. I can picture the bosses of these bottle company cartels huddling together in some dilapidated abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of some old city, in Hollywood mafia-style and strategizing on how to best degrade their product quality.

To appease the environmentally conscious part of my brain, I tried steel/metal bottles but decided the eco-payoff (the heavy metal bottle smashing down on the little toe) wasn’t worth it. We do try our best to recycle these bottles, or whatever is left of them. Considering I’ve been buying these at the rate second only to diapers, I’ve got bottle hunting down to a T – Color. Check. Right plastic number. Check. BPA-free. Check. Lightweight and easy to clean. Check.

With any luck the kids will get through highschool without spending their entire college fund on water bottles, but I’m not putting my money on it (pun intended).

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All the world’s a playground!

Children's Garden Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Children’s Garden
Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore


While walking back from our kite flying adventures yesterday, my little one tripped and skinned his knees and elbows. The sight of the grazed knee distressed him more than the actual pain. I belong to the ‘brush it off’ camp – skinned knees, bruises and bumps all come with the territory. They will survive and the memories of these hurts will fade faster than the scars themselves.

This episode took me back to a time in my life full of grazed knees, endless falls, scraped elbows and muddy clothes. My earliest memories of play involve being outside with a bunch of different-aged kids and playing at the park right across from my house or playing neighbourhood games with friends. We rarely played with toys and video games were not a part of our childhood. Parents accompanying kids to the park was unheard of, it was our territory, as were the many nooks and corners behind buildings, on the terrace, all those little hiding places and the many trees we regularly climbed (what else are trees for!)

Most people now would take a very dim view of the playground, where we played religiously every single day. My favorite part of it was the heavy set of wooden-seat swings, with the red pain chipping off them, where we would spend countless afternoons pumping it, until its joints creaked and the chains rattled in protest. We would swing standing up, sometimes two of us together, we’d jump off mid-flight to see who lands the farthest, swing sideways and twist the chains around, feeling our bodies swirling when released. These would really have scared the bejesus out of Rachel.

The old-fashioned see-saw, the planks of which were bent and cracked from overuse, was also a popular place. Our most satisfying game on it, and which could quite possibly be illegal now, was to jump of the end of the seesaw sending butts on the other side slamming to the ground. Then there was the ‘clothes-ripper’ metal slide, launching us down at (what then seemed like) lightening speeds scorching our bottoms on hot days, but didn’t bother us the least. We walked up the slide, came head down on our tummies, we jumped off it, there were no mommycopters crashing down on us with requests of ‘lets take turns’ or ‘go the right side up’!

The monkey bars were a way to earn respect – who can zip fastest to the other side skipping two or even three bars – extra points for a stylish landing! These manic bars bear the liability of many a broken bone. The moment the cast came off, kids were back on it again – bruises, broken bones were considered par for the course. A regular tetanus shot and some boric powder and we were good to go. The good ol’ merry-go-around gave us valuable lessons on centrifugal force!

Common playgrounds found in every other neighborhood

Common playgrounds found in every other neighborhood

As much as I would have loved to raise my kids around woods, meadows and open fields, living in a city means being confined to specific play areas. Admittedly, it would be next to impossible to replicate the carefree life that we were lucky enough to have, but I had always imagined my kids enjoying outdoor play, as much as I did. Boy, was I mistaken!

Most days I struggle to get the boys out of the house! These rounded plastic brightly colored safety-enhanced playgrounds which you would find in every condo, HDB area and most public parks are just a giant versions of the Fisher Price toys at home, and fail to keep the kids interest for longer than 15 minutes. On the other hand are the exorbitantly prices and excessively padded indoor playgrounds, sold as the best alternatives for play on hot and rainy days, which incidentally are the only two types of days in Singapore! Most of the traditional playgrounds do not have swings and merry-go-arounds, to avoid the liabilities of injuries. The see-saws don’t touch the ground, the springy ride-on things barely wobble and where swings are available, they provide minimal elevation and slides feature deathly slow-descents.

Reading the piece in the Atlantic Magazine ‘The Overprotective Kid‘, had me nodding in agreement throughout. Briefly, he article posits ‘A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer’. Among other things, the author is asserting that the current dumbed down play areas (thanks to the litigious nature of our society and modern culture of risk-aversion) haven’t managed to up the safety levels over old-schools ones, like the playground of doom from my childhood.

Birds Nest Swing at Elite Terrace park

Birds Nest Swing at Elite Terrace park

While exploring different playgrounds in Singapore, in the hope of finding ones that could replicate my experiences for my kids, I came across some unique structures and interesting designs at some slightly newer public playgrounds. Like a bird’s nest swing at this Elite Terrace Playground, where more than one kid can pile in together, making swinging a communal event! I also found zip lines, spinning disks and this geodesic dome in some parks.

Geodesic Dome at the Telok Kurau Park

Geodesic Dome at the Telok Kurau Park

Playpoint Singapore is one of the companies responsible for designing and bringing innovative euro-style equipment to Singapore, including the provocative treehouse inspired FEO Children’s Garden at Garden by the Bay.

Children's Gardens Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Children’s Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Nothing like this treehouse, it was still a great improvement on the sanitized playgrounds which have been the norm of the past few decades. Disappointingly though, the last time we were there at least two of the most fun areas, including the steep metal slide and the angled rail-less merry-go-round had an ominous yellow tape around it with a sign reading “This play area has been decommissioned”. I spoke with Jason Sim, MD, Playpoint Asia, he simply stated that the those rides have been deemed too dangerous for kids. He told me, “Our mission is to push the boundaries of play and bring innovative ideas on play equipment and landscape design to Singapore”. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think this worthy goal can only be successfully achieved if we can alter the collective risk-averse attitudes that permeates our current culture.
Climbing at the Children's garden

Climbing at the Children’s garden


The Atlantic article also quotes a recent paper by Sandseter and Kennair (2011) which talks about risky play allowing children to cope with commonly experienced fears in a relatively safer way. The authors present that by preventing kids from experiencing fearful and risky situations, somewhat counterintuitively we hinder their ability to cope with fear, which in turn gives rise to increased levels of anxieties down the road.
Metal slide at Elite Terrace Park

Metal slide at Elite Terrace Park


Our kids are padded and protected just like the playgrounds they are exposed to. The common theme across most parenting boards is advice on dealing with daily battles with kids, struggles with aggression in kids, support for sibling rivalry and so on. I may be taking some liberties here, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the complete lack of thrilling and exciting forms of play for our kids these days. With our misguided focus on organic foods and hand-sanitizers, are we forgetting the most basic need of our kids, the need for unstructured and challenging play? This insightful blog post by An Honest Mom is what got me thinking about this.

We know kids learn through play, it is serious business for them. Tuning motor skills through play is also important in developing their minds for reading, writing and creative thinking. Here’s to more skinned knees and boo-boos – let the kids play, before life takes over..