More than sparrows

More than sparrows
(From left to right) Monica and her children,
Andre and Lesley-Anne, on Christmas 2003

My daughter, Lesley-Anne, was a precocious child. Long before she could speak, she could understand multi-level instructions. She did not start talking early but when she did, she spoke in perfectly formed sentences. She was generally a thoughtful and obedient child. I thought, “Well, bringing up kids isn’t all that hard!”

Famous last words. Three and a half years after she was born, my son, Andre, entered this world loudly and proceeded to make his presence felt throughout his childhood. Compared to Lesley-Anne, he was like a squirrel on steroids. Uninterested in reading, he could never sit still, always zipping around the living room on his little car or dreaming up some mischief.

School blues

Into their primary school years, the differences between my two kids magnified. Lesley-Anne was a model student and intellectually advanced for her age. Her strengths lay particularly in language and her work ethic made up for her weaknesses, such as in maths. She performed well academically and was accepted into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).

Andre, by contrast, treated school primarily as a playground to socialise and make friends. His Primary 2 teacher, in an attempt to stop him from talking in class, kept changing his seat until he ended up sitting by himself. His favourite periods were recess and PE. I would receive a call from his form teacher every other day, complaining about his not doing homework or not paying attention. “God, give me strength” was my daily plea.

Predictably, Lesley-Anne aced her PSLE and went to a brand-name secondary school. Andre turned in an average performance and went to a neighbourhood school. By human standards, Lesley-Anne is the one who made it, even blessed by God.

But guess who had a more fulfilling secondary school experience? Being in a brand-name school meant a pressure cooker environment for Lesley-Anne. The work was pitched at what I thought was an unreasonable level, and anything less than an A grade was considered unacceptable. School felt like a place not to learn but to perform. Her self-esteem took a hit and she often felt inadequate. She was studying all the time and the stress manifested itself in acute eczema. Sleep was a rare commodity.

By contrast, Andre wandered through his secondary school years without much of a plan, making friends and enjoying his badminton CCA, where he was given leadership opportunities as the team captain. His grades gave me many sleepless nights and heart-stopping moments. Yet, he was blessed with fantastically encouraging teachers. At parent-teacher conferences, they would glance at his less-than-stellar report card and say, “But he’s a very nice boy!”

Who received the greater blessing then?

I understand why parents go to extremes in Singapore’s education rat race. It’s because it is hard to see beyond the now, and we stress over the “what ifs”. What if not getting good grades means my kid cannot get into a good school, and his future is ruined? It is worse when everyone around us is in a similar frenzy. So we pile on the enrichment classes, the tuition, and fill their every waking moment until they have no room to dream, even just to be.

And at what cost? Having been an education blogger for 10 years, I have seen enough kids pay the price for their parents’ unrealistic ambitions. Kids who drop out of schools they were pushed into but were unsuited for. Kids who rebel against the system and their parents by picking up all kinds of unedifying habits. Kids who evolve from zombie children into zombie adults, aimlessly living life on autopilot.

If we are honest with ourselves, the problem is that most of us just do not trust God enough. We think we know what is best for our kids, and “best” is very much measured against human benchmarks. Instead of praying “Please open the path to whatever is best for my child,” we tend to pray “Please let my child get into ABC school.” And then hastily add “If it’s your will” as a caveat.

Let me translate what we really mean by that prayer: “Lord, please let my child’s getting into ABC school be your will.” I know because I have prayed this way. Many times. However, I have come to realise that when we do not have the heart of God, trying to bend His will to match our own often brings about more heartache than good.

A question of stewardship

Today, Lesley-Anne and Andre are 24 and almost 21 respectively. Lesley-Anne is working in a statutory board and has 14 children’s books to her name, co-authored with me since she was 16 years old. By all measures, she is an accomplished young lady, but I believe that what pleases God more is that she is a simple, compassionate and sensible young woman with an admirable work ethic and a big heart for Him.

As for Andre, having been a social butterfly all his school years revealed his gift for hospitality, which led to his choice of study in polytechnic and his internship. He is now serving his National Service and calls home every night from the army camp if he can. He holds his granny’s hand when we go out and he still says, “I love you.” His sweet nature is a constant blessing to our family. Despite not being academically inclined, through a miraculous turn of events, he was accepted into a hospitality degree programme that looks tailor-made for him. I often call Andre a big sparrow because he never plans or worries too much about tomorrow, which has given me many moments of anxiety. Yet God has always provided for him.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matt 10:29)

Take it from someone who has seen two kids through the local education system—none of it really matters in the end. Not as much as we think, anyway. Many of Lesley-Anne’s GEP and secondary schoolmates ended up in the same universities as their less scholarly counterparts. I look back and think how silly I was to angst over the scores for one exam or get upset because they did not get into some programme or other.

I take the view that our kids are not ours to own but are entrusted to us by God to care for. Proverbs 22:6 tells us: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” How do we steward our duties as parents? Do we strive to bring up trophies to glorify our own egos? Or do we raise loving, God-fearing individuals willing to bless others and make the world a better place?

I am not claiming to be a perfect mum. Far from it. I am thankful that my kids turned out the way they did despite the many mistakes I made. Such is the magnitude of God’s grace—to repeatedly save us from ourselves.

I have long appreciated God’s wisdom in giving me two children who are polar opposites, because if both my kids were like Lesley-Anne, I might have attributed their “successes” to my superior parenting skills and empathised less with parents struggling with challenging kids.

God has a long-term plan for our kids, and it may not be what we have in mind. It is hard to surrender to God because we cannot see into the future, and we feel the need to have control. But know that God loves our children even more than we do. If we submit to His will, we will save ourselves a lot of worry and in the end, we will see that God knew best all along.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer 29:11)

Monica and her children today
Andre and Lesley-Anne

Monica Lim runs a copywriting agency and a blog on kids and education. She is the author of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE, and has co-authored 14 children’s books with her daughter, Lesley-Anne, some of which have garnered awards. She is a member of Christ Methodist Church. / Photos courtesy of Monica Lim