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Sat, Jun 12, 2010
The Sunday Times
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Pay attention to your kids
by Andy Chen

If I had been a father in my parents' time, my children would probably remain unwashed till they are old enough to stand up and take a bath or shower.

My wife and I would not dare bathe infants if not for this marvellous thingamajig called a netted bath support. You place a baby on it in a tub and proceed to clean him up. Without the support, you are supposed to clutch in your arms a wet, slippery infant whose very fragile neck can barely support his own head - the myriad dangers of this endeavour need not be spelt out.

I am glad for the innovations that make parenting easier. Walk into any baby shop and parents will find products to solve problems they never knew they could have with their children - kinda like a first-time home owner being overwhelmed in Ikea.

The kangaroo-style baby carrier, where a child hugs the chest of his parent, is another such invention I love. It is so much easier to use than the old-fashioned sarong carrier, which is little more than a large swatch of cloth.

There is another type of carrier, a cross between a sarong and a cheap sling handbag bought from Chatuchak market in Bangkok. A brand of this kind of sling has been recalled in the United States because of concerns that they might be linked to three infant deaths reported there last year.

How the deaths happened I do not know and the full report is not yet released in the US, but it baffles me that they occurred at all because these baby carriers and slings are supposed to promote 'attachment parenting'. Essentially, it means bonding with your baby by touch.

So if sling-wearing parents are supposed to be paying all that attention to their children, how did their little ones die, presumably because of breathing difficulties?

The answer might lie in how two mothers I have seen in Singapore use the kangaroo-style carriers: One wore the carrier really low on her body with her baby's head lolling unsteadily against her belly.

I don't know if this mother had aspirations to become one of those rock guitarists who play their axes at their knees, but she was clearly using the carrier contrary to the manufacturer's recommendation that the baby should be at chest level and his head snug and supported. Worse, she was too busy shopping to notice that her child was practically bouncing inside the carrier.

The other mother I saw put her baby in the carrier to free up her hands - so she could light up a cigarette.

So much for bonding with one's child by touch. The people taking part in those marathon hands-on-car contests pay more attention to what they are doing than those mothers.

Attachment parenting is not only about touch. It is about focusing on one's child and touch is one component of that. Love is not transmitted blindly by osmosis.

Similarly, using prams and strollers which place your child facing you is beneficial to his development only if you communicate with him. Just having him see your inattentive, or worse, indifferent, face is not going to make him learn faster.

Another example: Speaking to your baby often and using as many words as possible helps his language development only if you engage him and respond to him - with interest.

There was a mother I observed who just rattled off a string of synonyms to her toddler with all the personality of a voice answering machine. Oh, I so see a Pulitzer Prize winner coming from that family.

What all manner of parenting advice and philosophy boils down to is this: Pay attention to your children and respond accordingly. There is no magic product or method to do that job for you, really.

You don't have to be all that skilled - that will come eventually. In the meantime, you just have to care deeply and be alert constantly.

In the 1993 Best Picture Oscar winner, Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's retired gunslinger character, Bill Munny, is famous for being a great hired killer. But the audience does not know how he earned that reputation until the end, when the ageing arthritic still manages to kill everyone in an indoor shootout and walk away alive.

Mothers and fathers should take a leaf from him. His reflexes at that post-retirement age are slow as heck and his gun-handling skills somewhat compromised through lack of practice.

Yet he emerges triumphant because he took his time, paid attention and was alert to the needs of the situation when everyone else was losing his head in a flurry of shouting and adrenaline overload.

Skills and methods are overrated, patience and attentiveness underrated.

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This article was first published in The Sunday Times.

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