Life that is worth the living

Jul 29, 2015 01.00PM |

by Brenda Tan

MY friends on Facebook have been sharing and commenting on the Newpaper’s article, “Straight A student commits suicide over O-level results, mum takes her own life months later”.

In a nutshell, this is probably one of the most painful fears every Singapore parent has over their children. More than our children not doing well, we fear that our children do not have the resilience to accept failure – and worse than that, that we have inadvertently contributed to their deaths because we either set our expectation of their abilities too high, or that we did not have a relationship with them that is intimate enough to detect our children’s difficulties, or that somehow as their parents, we should have known and prevented it.

In our meritocratic society that looks to academic grades as a key marker of a child’s success, it is natural that loving parents want our children to be successful in getting good grades. After all, we know that the rewards of a high-salaried prestigious job for our children would be gained via their good grades in school; that the simplest, most straightforward path to financial independence would be cruising at the crest of the top five per cent of the school cohort, from the PSLE all the way through to the university… and it would be best if that’s done with a prestigious scholarship.

With that goal in mind, parents are driven by both a healthy dose of best intentions and guilt when thinking about how to help our children.

Ah boy is not doing so well in maths – is it time to start tuition/change tutors/sign him up for that expensive tuition centre that all the top school kids are attending?

P’s children all do well in school and she says it’s because of the expensive fish oil she feeds them – where can I buy these? If it’s too expensive, I think can just buy a cheaper version one lah… But try the expensive one first and see.

E’s children are all attending abacus class. I think my kids must do so too. It’ll give them an advantage in calculating fast.

D bought a series of assessment books that seems to do wonders for her children. I wonder where she got them from? If too expensive, maybe see if can buy secondhand from Gumtree.

The best that we hope we bring to our children is an environment for them to thrive, but the flip side is the sense that we feel we are not doing enough, especially when we see other parents appearing to be more successful at helping their children succeed in school, while our children are not doing as well.

We end up mimicking our friends and their strategies, but we tend to forget that their children are not ours, and our children are personalities so different from our friends’ children. Unthinkingly, we end up placing undue stress on our children, believing that we are doing this “for their own good”.

Sometimes, in our desperation and frustration, we also fall back on the easiest messages; the sort of loud cajoling/scolding to remind our children that they need to put in effort to get that grade we know they should be able to get – This question you should be able to do! Why you so careless? Why are you not studying?Why are you on the computer again? If so-and-so can do it, you can too because YOU’RE NOT STUPID!

But even when we say, after the drama of all that rebuke, that whatever they scored in the end is fine with us, our children know when they’ve disappointed us. They know that we will see the bottom line of the grade score, and they feel sick at having to let us see them under-performing… or not performing at all.

It is as a friend says – a tough balancing act, because what is enough motivation on our part? And more importantly, what is too much?

Some friends have pointed out that it’s not only parents sending this message of high excellence. Schools also play a part in influencing our children in how they see themselves as successes and failures. Perhaps there is also an element of peer pressure and low self-esteem, coupled with our children’s own idealised future, that causes them to feel that life is not worth living if they don’t get the results that can open the door to that future.

But to actually commit suicide? According to Samaritans of Singapore’s National Suicide Statistics, there were about 17 deaths per year in the 10- to 19-year old category in 2012 and 2013, an increase from 2010 and 2011.

We feel a sense of loss and grief for each of these lives lost and the families that are left behind, and we wonder at each of their situations: Were there signs? Were there other factors like broken family relationships affecting these children for them to think death would be a way out of unhappiness? Were there things their families and friends could have done?

A few of my friends reminded the rest of us that child-suicides that stem from school pressures could be prevented if parents help our children measure success differently. This could mean going against the norm and just celebrating whatever success our children achieve, even if the results are dismal.

I don’t know if I could do that. As a parent, one of my roles is to be my children’s guide, and like all guides, there would be times that I would need to push my children to try and to stretch and to grow, in rocky pathways that are difficult for them to traverse and where they are afraid to even try to walk, or on long, dry, boring pathways of tedious revisions and homework. My children’s school results would definitely be one of these road markers point out whether they have shown discipline in obeying their teachers’ directions and whether they have been putting in the effort of studying.

If my children’s results are dismal even though they have tried, I hope they know that I’m still proud of them for their effort. If their dismal result is because they haven’t put in any effort, then, hopefully they’ll know that my disappointment isn’t because of a number, but in their failure to try. And more importantly I hope my children know that they won’t remain failures forever if they can pick themselves up after disappointing results to try, try again.

Nonetheless, I won’t merely rely on hope when the day of any results come. Of more value, to me, is to help my children to see, as often as possible, that life is worth living for: 

Life is for love – and immersing my children in the heart of the extended family and community in their grandparents, cousins, and our friends, I hope that they will see how their lives matter to people beyond themselves. For me, the thread of each of these relationship creates a strong fabric that cloaks them in warmth in cold, dismal days, and in turn, they reciprocate to be a thread of the fabric for others in their circle.

Life is for others – and to this effect, teaching my children compassion towards others in our family and community, building their empathy for other people, will help them to understand that we all go through tough times, but we are more blessed than most. And being blessed, we can be active in making a difference to the lives of people around us.

Life is for growing – and growing like a tree means an ever-increasing expansion upward and outwards, yet growing our roots ever-deeper downwards to into our identity and core, so that we are balanced and not easily toppled. This for me is the challenge of teaching my children who we are as a family, our family values, our beliefs, as well as leading my children to explore the interesting differences that are out there in the world, the different perspectives of different people, the amusing and interesting facts of nature and history, and the innovations and technology that hopefully serve to make living easier for more people.

Life is for thinking and reflecting – as we ought to do periodically, in order to be grateful for the blessings we currently have, in order to be able to go through the difficult times. And yes, to even be grateful for the difficult times, because by undergoing those times, we gain insight and growth, and sometimes even mastery over our fate. Gratefulness provides a valuable perspective on the reality of a bad situation – if one can still be grateful for one or more things, then any bad situation can still turn around for good.

Life is for joy – and sorrow, and all the different emotions in-between, that has their place in expressing what we feel at that point within us that makes us human. It isn’t wrong to feel sad or angry or frustrated when we encounter difficulties, because that is a valid expression of the pain we feel. However, I don’t let my children make a habit on dwelling on these emotions for too long, but help them see that they have the power to let these emotions go – whether it is through restitution and sincere apology, or forgiving others or themselves, or just to close the door on an episode and move on.

I believe that helping my children set their compass needle on joy will help them to navigate better the tricky terrains of negative emotional impact that is inevitable in living. They will fail. They will be hurt. They will find themselves lost. But joy has a natural buoyancy in lifting us up and filling us with hope of better things to come. And providing my children with happy memories peopled with love will help remind them that they have a part to play in creating the space to receive and give joy.

Life is worth living for – ultimately, there is a more to life than just existing. Living has a vibrancy of action and purpose and generation, but it is not merely about getting to an ideal future alone.

I like the idea of life as a journey filled with unexpected encounters and discovering capacities in oneself that we have not known. And I agree that life leads us in many unknown places; into valleys and pastures, walking through long dark tunnels and fording raging rivers, wandering desolate plains and scaling mountain tops… but unlike the Lonely Planet thinking where we journey through much of these alone, the reality is that we journey these places most often with people beside us, if only we would refrain from just looking down at our own feet during our journey. In those times when my children would look inwards only to themselves and feel lonely and alone, I hope that they will be reminded to look for the people walking that same pathway as them, and connect.

The truth is, we never do walk alone, and even when the journey gets fearfully lonely, there are always guides available – family, friends, mentors and teachers – to not only reach out for help, but to be a companion on that journey too.

My best hope for my children is that they understand that the meaningful life is one lived with people: in intimate communion with others; in celebrating with community; in finding connections via shared interests. And in discovering that they have capacity to grow to make a difference and that they matter.



Featured image is from Flickr by user FennecCooper.

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