How do you properly raise a child?

FEB 12 — That question has been playing in my mind ever since we found out that we’ll be having our first. At first we were ecstatic, as all expecting parents would be, full of dreams and wondering what our baby would look like and grow to be, how much love and care we would lavish on our child as we shape and guide the kid to a bright future. But as weeks grew into months, hopes and dreams slowly morphed into doubt and worry.

To be responsible for a new human being, to care for, protect and nurture an infant from birth until the child grows into a good, responsible adult who can make it in this terrible world we live in today — it seems a mammoth task. To be honest, it’s a terrifying task, because what if we screw it up?

It was not that long ago that we ourselves were kids and then teenagers, still leaning on our parents for money, just slowly learning that it doesn’t grow on trees. It was not that long ago that we wore naiveté-tainted glasses, just slowly understanding that the world is not always a happy and beautiful place. Even now in adulthood we keep coming back to our parents and elders for help and advice, because there are always questions we don’t know the answers to. I like to think that maturity and adulthood means acknowledging we’re not perfect.

So are we now good enough adults to be good parents to our kid? I don’t know.

Initially we worried much about educating our child, because even the toys we choose can impact the kid’s mental development. Scientists found that kids playing with toys that encourage exploration and experimentation —figuring things out on their own — are more likely to develop critical thinking skills and healthy levels of curiosity than kids who don’t.

Then there is the finding by a two-decade study that the more mental stimulation your child receives by way of educational toys and books at the age of four, the better developed certain parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be — this positive effect lasts until their late teens. Praising children should emphasise the value of hard work instead of innate skill for their accomplishments, as otherwise they might not develop the right attitude and sufficient mental fortitude to keep going when the going gets tough later in life.

Subtly associating reading and learning with fun would go a long way in raising a smart kid, too. The critical period hypothesis claims children have a limited window of time in which they are amazingly able to pick up second and subsequent languages and master them like native speakers — an ability apparently lost as we grow older, so we have to use this small window to acclimatise the child with both Malay and English at least so the kid would grow up with perfect command of both. And maybe more languages if we can.

Can we get all these upbringing nuances right and avoid all the pitfalls? I don’t know.

From education we started worrying about what sort of person our child would turn out to be. Forget raising a genius, nurturing a good son or daughter with a good heart and proper values, who would know right from wrong, is more important.

We heard of the petulant child in China who publicly choked his mother (not fatally) in tantrum because he was refused toys that his mother couldn’t afford — an extreme case of an overly spoiled kid. In the news we read of the old grandmother abandoned by her son in a cheap hotel. We hear about people committing horrendous crimes yet feeling no remorse, and we see every day people who are rude, inconsiderate, selfish — the list goes on.

Can we successfully inculcate good values in our child so our kid doesn’t become a rotten and deplorable adult in any way? I don’t know.

Then we slowly began to worry about whether we’re doing the right things during the pregnancy. There are so many things to learn about babies, even before birth. And it’s amazing how small things can make a difference.

In 2011 German researchers reported that a highly stressed pregnant woman can affect the baby in her womb, potentially causing the baby to be less able to handle stress later in life. Another study found that an expecting father’s stress may also lead to emotional, social and behavioural issues in the child down the road.

Did you know that a baby can start picking up eating habits and taste preferences before actually being born based on what the mother eats? Moreover, a mother’s high-fat diet during pregnancy can also potentially cause the developing infant’s genetic structure to change, consequently affecting metabolism and leading to higher risk of obesity later in the child’s life.

Are we unknowingly making ignorant little mistakes that will affect our child’s well-being years later? I don’t know.

And let’s not even go to the little fears haunting us about what could happen to the child due to genetics and fate. As our baby grew and the expected due date grew closer, my neighbour by chance told me that his firstborn was delivered without most of his skull and couldn’t be saved. Another boy I knew breathed his first with heart complications and went under the knife numerous times just to survive. The thought of our own child coming into this world to suffer from anything, anything at all, was unimaginable and too horrible to contemplate.

Are we strong enough if such things come to pass and break our hearts every waking moment? I don’t know.

Eventually, all we worried about is safety — will we see safe delivery for both mother and child? It did not help that, as we waited, I finished Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” — hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read, as I easily identified with the protagonist losing his two-year-old son to a speeding tanker truck and slowly losing his mind as unspeakable horrors followed his attempts of bringing his son back to life (I recommend this book but not if you have kids).

Even as I walked into the delivery hall and held my wife’s hand as she battled on, the fear gnawed at me. The blood on the nurse’s gloved hands made it worse. As I whispered to her to be strong for our child, there is that horrible thought in the shadows of my mind, whispering in turn to me that all the terrible possibilities I was scared of are very real, and in that moment any one of them might just come true.

It seemed an eternity before we finally hear the first cries of our son. And at that moment, joy and relief rushed in and clarity ensued the moment I saw our baby. Of course we don’t have all the answers — did our parents when they welcomed us into this world?

Parenting is trial and error with help and advice from those who’ve been there and done it. It has always been that way since the beginning of time. We are no different, much as we wish for a perfect and systematic formula to be perfect parents to our child.

All we can do is do our best and hope we get it right.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.



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