The parent-child link is one of the most powerful and mysterious bonds that I think we are hardly able to understand. This is also undoubtedly a private/intimate matter, but unless there is a serious conversation about the values we choose to let our children imbibe and to facilitate the environment for consistent transmission of these values, we cannot proceed productively as a country. We will still be talking past each other, fail to empathise with the positions of each other and the difference in the journeys we take in life.
In a sense, Our Singapore Conversation is a process for us to hear each other’s journeys in life and to appreciate the vast differences in life experiences. This is not about judging between these different journeys, but to appreciate them for their own sake.
There is another implication to understand the parent-child transmission of values. Recognising that parents are an obviously important means that a lot more attention ought to be paid to how parenting is done, the character of the parents themselves, and their state of mind as they bring up the kids. There is a small aside about the importance of parenting – prospective drivers need to be tested before they are allowed on the road; surely something as important as parenting ought to be greater attention to by the society? If we demand our kids to go to schools taught by qualified teachers, surely, when they go home, they ought to be cared for by parents with the requisite skills? And what could those requisite skills be? (I do realise that there’s a programme called Marriage Preparation Course, but I don’t know if it’s an official or informal programme; whether its mandatory for couples and such.)
There are two main modes of cultural transmission – the child receiving cultural frames from the parents, and what the child finds for themselves in the outside world. Parenting provides the framing for the kids to learn from what they see in the outside world. Of course the kid will learn things on their own anyway. Then the question is, where does the parent get their worldviews from? And is the environment conducive for the healthy kind of parenting that we idealise about?
The social scientist in me says that parenting is obviously part of a larger system that includes values, and the social groups and arrangements, and the economic system. Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter discuss the role of women in the working world, and the kinds of challenges they face being woman – still taking on the assumed role of primary caretaker to the children while reaching the pinnacles in their professional career. What about us? Sandberg and Slaughter represent the pinnacles; what about the majority – including those who struggle to between work and home a whole lot more? For some parents, the interactive screen has sort of become the surrogate parent – I say ‘sort of’ because its a toy thats given to the child to pacify the demands for interaction, which the busy parent cannot afford as much struggling to at work in a hyper-competitive environment. I’m reminded of the “Illustrated Primer” in Stephenson’s Diamond Age – where a young girl escapes dysfunctional parents, and comes across an interactive book, with digital avatars becoming surrogate parents. That’s a digression, and obviously an extreme case. We are nowhere near the point where interactive digital environments can replace flesh and blood parenting – but the point remains that parenting is one of those things for which the rhetoric does not match up to real attention.
How would greater attention on parenting look like? I know that religious bodies do a bit of that, and some of them have the resources to integrate prospective parents into religious schools for kids – for them to know what parenting entails and to know how little kids are like. And new parents will always find a way – forums, grapevines, and other channels that must have existed wherever anxious parents exist. Should Marriage Preparatory Courses be made compulsory (if it isn’t already)? One of the things that’s come about with an individual culture is that adulthood is assumed to “just happen to you” when you start to become financially independent and paying for your own bills. Yet obviously adulthood is almost so much more than that – such as learning to live with the consequence of your choices, that your own choices will both liberate and constrain, and all the other invisible obligations that we don’t know about until we crash into them.
I have explored a bunch of attitudes and ‘myths’ that abound in society, and I have only touched on the historical context a little bit. I want to go a bit more into them – such as trying to imagine the life experiences of those more advanced in years. When we talk about differences between generations, what I often missing is the empathy to imagine what others might have gone through in their lives. I will be trying to do a lot more of that soon.