She calls herself a “Growth-Oriented Parent”, is mum to a 12-year-old “very mature almost-teen”, and also co-founder of Yumcha Studios. That’s the home of the ‘Dim Sum Warriors’, a bilingual book-and-app series that uses stories about adorable dumplings to teach Chinese and English in a fun, interactive way.
In addition, she’s also an expert in innovative pedagogy and education. So when we had the opportunity to speak to Dr Woo Yen Yen, we (and our mummy friends) immediately compiled our burning questions on parenting to ask her. We’re pretty sure you’ve always wanted to know the answers to these as well. You’re welcome.
What is your experience of Tiger Mums so far?
When Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua was published, many of my mummy girlfriends were quite puzzled. “Why is this even a thing? Aren’t we all Tiger Mums?” I know many Tiger Mums, and they all care a lot about their children’s success and education. It takes tremendous work and commitment to be a Tiger Mum. They are not sadistic dictators; they struggle every day with the dilemma of wanting their kids to be free and happy, and for them to have the best opportunities in life.
True. Don’t all parents want their children to do well?
Yes, all parents want their kids to do well. But there are many different ways in which people can “do well”. There are also many different timelines for success to be achieved.
Does “doing well” only mean being top in class for the year-end exams? Or can it mean being able to talk to any and everyone?
Is a kid adjudged to have done well only if he or she becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?
I think too many of us get derailed by peer pressure and envy into having very restricted notions of success, when we know that in reality, our lives can take different paths that are no less meaningful.
For me, what’s most important is that every experience my child has should open up new possibilities, and spark an inquiry into obtaining new knowledge.
It gives me great joy to see my daughter get curious about a new subject and then “geek out” by exploring it herself. That’s not likely to happen if I force the subject on her. No amount of arguments like “but it’s good for you” will work. Worse, I would risk shutting down her natural curiosity.
What would you suggest instead?
I think the real key in identifying how we parent is how we think about the present, and the future.
“Laissez-faire” parents don’t feel they can really control the future and would rather not try.
“Authoritative” parents feel they know what the future holds, and they have a plan for it.
“Attentive” parents feel that the future is shaped by fully exploring the possibilities of the present.
Many of us don’t really have a choice about exactly how we parent, and we can never truly know everything the future holds, so I try not to be judgmental.
What is laissez-faire parenting, and what is attentive parenting?
Honestly, no single label can fully describe what any parent does. Parenting practices can change over time, as parents go through different experiences in life.
Recently, my daughter and I were in the waiting room waiting to see her doctor. We saw two other mothers and their kids.
Mum A was hovering over her 6 or 7-year-old daughter as she worked on her homework, scolding her every time she got something wrong, and reaching out with an eraser to erase whatever mistake her daughter had written.
Eventually, Mum A put her entire body behind her daughter, grasping her daughter’s hand to control how she moved her pen.
At this point, her daughter started to look away, as if the homework was not really hers, and simply let her mum’s hand finish the homework.
Mum A clearly thinks that she has control over what her daughter is learning, but equally clearly, what her daughter is actually learning is that she doesn’t have to be personally invested in the learning. She just has to perform the motions to satisfy her mom.
Sitting not too far from Mum A was Mum B and her 6 or 7 year-old son. Son was leaning against Mum B while she read a story to him. Every now and then, he sat up and pointed to a page to ask Mum B a question. Mum B would answer his questions, and he would then lean back onto her.
Mum B is responding to her son’s questions, and physically, he is completely at ease and in full control of his body and his mind, as he is free to ask questions. They are both invested in the storytelling, and there’s a high level of enjoyment and trust.
Mum A performs very much like how we’d expect a “concerned parent” to, and I have no doubt she is. But I know which kind of relationship I’d like with my child.
Would attentive parenting make parenting easier?
Attentive parenting is much harder and intensive in the short term, but much easier in the long run.
It’s hard in the short term, because it’s easier to control our kids by being authoritative and barking at them to do things exactly as we’d like. But this can have repercussions in the short term.
I first truly understood this when my daughter was 7, and we had had an argument.
Later, after we’d both cooled down, she nuzzled up to me and asked, “Mummy, do you want me to have my own ideas?”
Naturally, I said, “Yes, of course!”
To which she replied, “But you know that if I have my own ideas, at some point we will fight, right?”
After that, I began to have a much higher tolerance for the tension that comes from having different views from my daughter. She’s not resistant to make my life difficult, she just has her own ideas.
So in attentive parenting, how can I…
Get my child motivated… to do their homework?
I haven’t had to worry about my daughter’s homework for many years now. When she was in kindergarten and early primary school, I saw how overburdened many of her friends were with not just schoolwork but after-school activities.
She was beginning to explore writing and drawing, but she couldn’t do that if homework was in her way.
So I promised her that I would always protect her free time, provided she did her best to finish as much homework as she could within an hour.
When she had a teacher who gave a lot of homework, I told him that I would restrict her homework time to one hour of focused time daily. If it went beyond that, I would support my daughter if she did not complete it.
I think that knowing I honoured her free time helped my daughter focus on getting her homework out of the way so she can enjoy her creative time.
Know if my kid has learning disabilities, or behavioural issues?
Most parents I know have a hunch about what issues their children are experiencing and would seek professional diagnosis and help as soon as possible.
Beyond professional therapy and assistance, when I was living in New York, I knew several families who worked hard to ensure that their children with disabilities would grow up in a community and school that knew and could build relationships with their kids.
These parents went out of their way to design programmes around the strengths of their children, and not merely around what they lacked.
Cultivate a growth mindset in my child?
I could go on forever about this! But the key is really about celebrating curiosity, effort, and also failure.
We are a success-oriented society. On our Facebook pages, we post continually about our children’s successes — “first in class”, “medals for running or swimming”, “look at my child’s art, singing, math achievement”, etc. We almost never post about failures.
Yet, failures are perhaps the most important moments in our lives for learning. Celebrating our children’s failures as pivotal learning opportunities. Also, being open about our own failures with our children goes a long way towards cultivating a growth mindset. We should show our children that we’re always learning and growing too.
Understand my child’s attitudes, and what they mean
I think we do that by listening, and cultivating a relationship of trust. This is so that your children will know that they can trust you most with whatever they are experiencing. And we have to respond appropriately with action as well — to show that we take their mental well-being seriously. I would suggest creating times of the day when you are completely present with the children and just chatting, and not being distracted by devices.
Extricate my child from the constant lure of screens and devices?
I have rarely had to place limits on my daughter’s screen time. She seems to disconnect from devices quite readily. But this is probably because she finds joy in doing other things as well — writing, drawing, sewing, building miniatures, etc. Strangely enough, protecting her free time has made her focus on deciding what she wants to do whenever she gets free time, as she knows how precious it is.
It is also important to understand that it is not our children’s fault that they are addicted to devices. Now that I’m in the technology field, I know how much time and effort companies spend on holding users’ attention. Attention is the commodity of our times. Many adults are equally addicted to our mobile devices.
Cultivate mutual unconditional trust with my teens?
I just asked my daughter this question. Her answer was “don’t pry, but keep the channels open.” Of course, it’s not always as easy as that, but we need to let our children know that whatever they tell us, they will always receive a serious, thoughtful and loving response. Just like we’d want with our own confidantes.
How would you describe your parenting style?
I am definitely not a Tiger Mum. I’m more of what people call a “Growth-Oriented Parent”, paying less attention to grades per se, and more attention to my child’s holistic growth.
I have the confidence in the way I parent for two reasons. First, I grew up in a very working class Singaporean family in a neighbourhood where kids didn’t have many structured after-school activities.
All of us just ran out after school to play — no tuition, no enrichment classes. And I still managed to achieve what my parents never imagined was possible at the time. I became the very first graduate in my family.
This was entirely through the power of a good public system of schools and libraries, free time to create and imagine, peer-to-peer learning, belief instead of judgment, fearlessness, and love.
You can’t substitute these fundamentals simply by piling on more and more tuition or enrichment classes, especially not if we hope to build 21st Century competencies like creative learning, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
Second, I have spent many years, first as a school teacher, and then as a Professor of Education, studying and exploring how people learn and grow.
My parenting practices are based on decades of research, just like my work as the creator of the Dim Sum Warriors learning system.
I don’t focus on short term goals like getting kids to pass a test. Rather, I try to facilitate children’s path to acquiring lifelong learning skills such as confidence and curiosity. And to increase the likelihood of that, I encourage play and enjoyment in the learning process.”
Let your child experience play and learning with the Dim Sum Warriors bilingual app, which builds confidence in reading a second or foreign language fluently and expressively. Get 6 months’ FREE access from now till 31 July 2021.