The kindergarten years are a struggle for independence. In our household, the battle is bigger than the one kicked off by the Boston Tea Party in 1773. That particular conflict led to the sovereignty of the United States. Our dispute almost broke my back.
The ongoing power struggle is a pivotal theme in our evolving father and daughter relationship; one that is damaging my ego and bruising my coccyx.
It started with the damn cornflakes.
I remain adamant that my daughter will not be a pampered, preening member of the strawberry generation. This little one will not bruise easily and we will nurture her independence at every opportunity.
However, as my foot made contact with milk and cornflakes on the kitchen floor and I hurtled through the air, I questioned the wisdom of my philosophy.
“Right, then, who dropped cornflakes all over the floor,” I shouted as my coccyx broke the fall and a trickle of cold milk made its way down my spine. “Who wants to be executed first?”
My wife intervened. She reiterated the central theme of our daughter’s upbringing. Trial and error leads to independence. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. It was like listening to The Joker.
I called my daughter over for a fatherly pep talk.
“Little one, you have spilled milk and cornflakes all over the kitchen floor, which flipped Daddy through the air like a circus acrobat,” I said calmly. “I have a lump on my back to rival Richard III and will later shake out the cornflakes inside my boxer shorts. I am told this is a good thing. You are learning to be independent. Apparently, you may continue.”
As a father, I am a tad obsessed with snipping the apron strings, but I am also aware of the hypocrisy. Domestic circumstances forced independence upon me at an early age. My parents divorced. Money was tight. We fended for ourselves. We grew up in a sink or swim environment out of necessity, not choice.
I want my daughter to share my fiercely independent streak, but without the financial hardship that made it possible. I seek to foster a similar sink or swim philosophy without literally throwing her into the swimming pool (I tried it once and the other parents ordered their kids out of the pool).
There is no domestic helper, just my daughter, and she assists with household chores. She does the shopping, marching around the supermarket, hunting down the items on the shopping list (not alone of course. She’s four years old. My ambition is to make her independent, not end up on a wanted poster).
Of course, the independence swiftly moves into improvisation.
“Daddy, I think we NEED this,” she says. (She’s at that age where she NEEDS everything.)
“It’s a tin of cat food,” I reply. “We don’t have a cat.”
“Yes, Daddy, but we NEED it because the picture of the cat is cute.”
Her shopping expeditions are less hazardous now. When she was younger and sat in the trolley, we encouraged her to find the items on shelves and drop them into the trolley herself. The trouble was she developed a sleight of hand faster than any magician.
We’d reach the counter and inadvertently pay for items that fitted snugly into the palm of a three-year-old hand; like tubes of toothpaste and packets of condoms. The cashier must have thought I believed that the secret to a healthy sex life was really clean teeth.
She also takes care of getting dressed. Her clothing choices are her own, but she must suffer the consequences. I say suffer because she’s into layers. It’s all about the layers; long-sleeved tops, leggings, cardigans, scarves; she covers perspiring, lethargic limbs with all of them.
“If you want to wear all those clothes, fine,” I told her recently as we headed for a Singaporean playground with her dressed for the Arctic. “But if you get hot, you carry whatever you take off.”
“I won’t get hot, Daddy,” she insisted. “I NEED them.”
After two goes on the slide and a half-hearted attempt on the monkey bars, she could no longer see through the sweat cascading down her face. She smiled that smile at me and said: “Daddy, I might be a little bit hot.”
Her decision-making process is not without its pitfalls. Mistakes will be made on both sides. Father and daughter are both learning when to push and when to pull back. We’re going for independence by committee. That is, I recommend something. She ignores me. She melts in the midday sun in hat and scarf. We compromise. She takes charge of the hat and scarf and tiptoes closer towards independence.
It’s a journey littered with obstacles, but she will always have a guide alongside her.
That means she is still allowed to make her own breakfast.
But the milk gets moved to a higher shelf and Daddy keeps the cornflakes out of his boxer shorts.
About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His latest Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is a No.1 national best-seller. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Men’s Health and Young Parents in Singapore. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.
First published in 02-10-2012