How did we end up here?
Over the past ten years, we've been on this global debate on whether spanking a child and corporal punishment is appropriate in parenting. Most Asians would say yes, and most Westerners would say no. In between all that debate are, needless to say, are the children who have been spanked. Some said it helped to foster and discipline them; others say they've been severely traumatised.
Keeping aside that debate in the background, there has been another significant debate over the past year on which government has successfully managed the COVID-19 pandemic. As the first movement control order was implemented for Malaysia and the rest of the world early last year, I was intrigued by how different governments approached the issue.
China & the Pandemic
Let's start with China, where the very virus originated and the starting location of what looked like a possible zombie apocalypse. They immediately went into controlling the pandemic, focusing on classifying the virus and vaccination research. Eventually, they went into a total lockdown as more dire cases arose. Instantly, alert blaring into my mind of what seemed to yield, ‘Train To Busan’ scenario.
Read this amazing article: The Myth of the Worthless China
The rest of the world, including Malaysia, followed suit and started making minor adjustments to manage and curb the pandemic. However, Malaysia did not close our borders to Chinese nationals or those travelling from the region. In the guise of 'economy' and 'business', unbeknownst to the masses that it was the beginning of our downfall. A slippery slope, if you will.
In retrospect, you might recollect and muse, "Oh, how foolish of us to think this was just another virus!" Well, this is just our hindsight bias speaking. Most of us were just carrying on with our lives while managing our groceries, blissfully unaware that hoarding toilet rolls would soon be a priority on everyone's agenda (I personally still don't get 'why toilet rolls' and neither does our editor).
When the cases started to become more prevalent, Malaysia advanced into a total MCO (Movement Control Order) with strict SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and costly fines for violation of any kind. Predominantly aimed towards misconduct that is seen to be jeopardising the danger of other people’s lives (and possibly for some key leaders in government to stay in power, opps...I digress). Moving on, and yes, we were fined RM10,000 (est. USD 2000, or more) if we were found not wearing our masks at that time.
Around the same period, Singapore declared the country’s lockdowns too.
Now the key difference I'd like to point out here is duration.
Do you remember the good old days when your parents or guardians granted you a measly 2 hours for watching TV? Or for more recent generations, computer usage or screen time limit? Do you remember how it felt when you got older, and you could finally watch and do anything whatever you wanted? Lesser restrictions, more ‘freedom’? Some of us may have even gone berserk maximising the time spent on these activities we were once not allowed to do.
Allow me to draw the connection between this sentiment and the feeling of when our MCO concluded (at least for the first of many, many lockdowns to come). In the context of Malaysians, we were anticipating getting back on the road, travelling to Port Dickson (our favourite holiday destination just an hour away), or just enjoying the joys of overly crowded shopping malls. It seemed like the restrictions of that dreadful and long 2 hours of TV had been lifted, and we seized the full advantage of what we had - the sense of liberation.
Singapore & Lockdowns
On the contrary, Singapore was more of a stricter parent. Longer duration of the lockdown (i.e. 1 to 2 months), stricter SOPs. Relatively speaking, the policy and law over there were systematically tighter. The citizens were fined for even minor issues. Compliance with the orders was the far more sensical to do (vs indenting their wallets).
But results showed which worked better - which country has higher numbers now? Malaysia undoubtedly is the king of Covid. From being initially declared as one of the best countries at handling the pandemic to becoming the worst - our government may not be a great "parent" (even though our Prime Minister may keep claiming to be our Abba or Father)
Malaysia & Attitude
Our 'Malaysia Boleh' (Malaysia can do) or 'cincai' (relaxed) attitude has been espoused in significant decisions affecting the oscillation of numbers and the economy. Some 'parents' like Italy learnt the hard way, but they've progressed swiftly in rectifying 'bad parenting' and look at them today - they are even receiving travelers!
Here we are in Malaysia, receiving constant and futile lectures on how we've failed as ‘children’ in following the SOPs. Candidly, who is to blame in this matter?
Good parents don't blame their children. Good parents make distressing decisions to safeguard their children, including longer restricting "non-productive" hours and punishing their children when required. Children may protest and throw massive tantrums (sometimes even on Facebook) but eventually, they will come to their senses understanding that parents are there to serve their own best interest and safety.
So, parents, I can empathise with your need to discipline your child to protect them sometimes at high costs. If you know your children well enough, you're able to make sound judgments on 'SOPs' in their lives. If you know your child has an ‘insouciant’ attitude, adding a few hours more to encourage them to become self-disciplined may be more beneficial than just giving them the license to work it out themselves. Nurturing your children to their ‘full potential’ is better than promoting their ‘easy going’ or ‘nonchalant’ conduct.
Simultaneously, if you realise that your child is too uptight and overly compliant, granting them that autonomy to decide the things they would like to do works wonders. Parenting is hard, but if done well, can lead to amazing youth and young adults.
As parents (and governments), it is tough to make hard decisions to serve the benefit of your children (and your country). You are bound to be chastised and 'hated'. However, in the long-term, it always is much more rewarding and the results are clear for all to see. Parenting (and leadership in Government) is a service role. We are here to serve, protect and enable our children (or citizens) to develop and thrive. But when parents become self-serving (or politicians seek personal agendas and power), then the model breaks down.
Someone once asked me, "Do you need to be liked by your subordinates?"
My answer was no. I care more for their development, and sometimes being hated for cultivating them into betterment will be the consequence I can live with. That being said, I'm an advocate for empathy and authentic conversations. This includes honest discussions with your children. What this means is that sometimes, you may think that your decision is the best for them. However, as you articulate openly with them, you may enlighten yourself and change your decision. Always give them the chance to venture into intellectual conversations (possibly debates, arguments and even pitches) that may compel, challenge or confirm your initial decisions! The same should be the case for government leadership.
Now for more of a practical list of things you can do, here are my five tips to help you have better conversations with your children:
1. Be vulnerable (P.S. it's not just honesty)
I have been a massive fan of Brene Brown and her research on vulnerability. Here's one of my favourite quotes:
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our most significant measure of courage.”
So let go of your fragile ego and be vulnerable. Have open and genuine conversations with your little ones. As you continue to practice being receptive through their critical development period, you will notice the reciprocity from them. They will soon recognise that you are also human and comprehend human emotions and the struggles we bear. Ultimately this will make them grow more confident to converse and be candid with you.
2. Be open
As adults, I can see why we justify ourselves and our actions all the time, even when we are not obliged. One must exercise the virtue to be open, particularly in hearing your kids out before you defend, counter, dictate a decision. It is one of the most crucial steps before making a decision. It is natural to be eager to tell them that they're wrong without even letting them finished their points. Although old habits die hard, and we may have grown accustomed to a particular way of doing things, we must provide them with the chance to try out what they desire to pursue, and learn from their mistakes too. We often forget that we too learnt the most from our failings.
3. Empathise and not jeopardise
What is empathy? Brene Brown explains;
“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You're not alone.”
Sounds pretty vague, huh? That is why empathy is one of the most sought-out skills in almost every person, be it a job or relationship. However, it does take a while to fully grasp the notion of it - nonetheless, let us all keep trying! Additionally, some other practical ways to practice empathy can be perused here.
4. Take a moment to breathe and think
Sometimes, it's easy issue them with an ultimatum. But let us contemplate, breathe, and reconsider before taking a hard line. Ruminating can help you ground yourself with logic and compassion. I ought to presume that by now, parents should be comfortable with saying, "Let me think for a couple of days before I decide on what you can or cannot do. Until then, give me some time and stay put!" It is definitely going to be a challenge to say this to younger children, but it is a habit that should be practised in every household. It will teach them that decisions must take time to be considered, and patience is highly required.
5. Treat them as individuals
Our parental instinct is a reflex action - the need to protect (or dare I say, overprotect), mould and shape them into people we expect them to be. The truth is, we are all the same: humans, individuals coupled with our idiosyncrasies. The deeper you learn about your children, the more profound the relationship will be. You will encounter varying decisions for Child A and Child B. I empathise with the weight of the responsibility of a child on your shoulders.
But what if I am a terrible parent?
It is good that you are even pondering this question, and most likely, you are not. The pressure of being a parent, giving ‘sanction’ restrictions and providing or limiting freedom to a child is a huge responsibility (analogous to our country leaders). Without honest conversations with your children, your spouse and the support systems around you, you would not be able to progress nor reshape your child. So, leverage those around you and keep growing as a parent. No one is birthed immediately into becoming the best parent in the world - but you can grow and become a more multifaceted parent for your children.
As you digest the article, why not wash down those thoughts by watching this resonating video on the distinction between empathy and sympathy: