CHILDREN can smell weakness. Watch a nervous relief teacher step into a kindergarten class. The scene turns into a National Geographic documentary. Those kids will dominate that jittery educator like a pack of giggling hyenas jumping on a wounded buffalo.
They play off fear. They also play off filial piety.
To the unfamiliar, filial piety is about being a loyal, obedient youngling, respecting and supporting one’s elders in the family.
To my daughter, filial piety is an ATM machine. It’s one long cash grab from gullible grandparents.
My British in-laws are currently spending a month in Singapore to spend time with their granddaughter and strip their son-in-law of any remaining masculinity by carrying out the household repairs that he cannot manage.
They are good grandparents, too good. They win the hearts and minds of grandchildren with the ruthless, cynical efficiency of a military campaign. It’s Operation Overrule, where the grandparents usurp the parents’ authority.
The trip isn’t a benign family holiday. It’s an annexation. They’ve planted a flag in my daughter’s bedroom. Working in cahoots with the little schemer, they’ve carried out a coup d’état. They now call the shots.
It’s a dictatorship born of an innocent desire on their part. The in-laws just want to please a granddaughter they see too infrequently. She is lavished with sweets, toys and treats; daily delights often denied by her parents.
Almost immediately the little minx spots an opening.
She dashes into the living room and demands another fructose hit to satisfy a child’s addiction to all things sweet and sugary. I reject her demands. She turns away with a weary shrug of acceptance, always the dutiful daughter. I allow myself a wry smile for raising such an obedient child.
And then she waddles back into the living room, gorging on doughnuts and swigging a pint of glucose syrup.
“Where the hell did you get all that,” I demand, gently retrieving my giddy girl from the ceiling.
“Nanny and Granddad gave them to me.”
Filial piety becomes the most serrated of double-edged swords. We want to limit our daughter’s sugary injections, but we also respect our parents. They want to spoil the granddaughter they seldom see and we are not comfortable with the prospect of questioning our parents’ judgment. So we let the matter pass.
We skirt around the issue. The grandparents go about their business. My daughter sits in the corner eating her body weight in doughnuts.
But she is watching. She is plotting. She has found a weak spot. Filial piety makes it difficult for us to admonish her grandparents for overly indulging her sweet tooth. Between clumps of doughnut, she draws up battle plans.
Within days, she is wearing a new dress, playing with new toys, eating happy meals of fried obesity, snacking on cholesterol-filled tidbits and washing the lot down with lashings of ice-cold diabetes.
She knows she has the upper hand. Whenever I attempt to intervene, she thrusts a photograph of her beloved grandparents in my face and shouts: “diplomatic immunity.”
I am immediately cast as the Grinch who stole Christmas; the Daddy who denied the grandparents a chance to please an adored loved one. I am the equalizer, insisting on a real fruit to go with the fructose, or some homework to go with the play, or bedtime instead of more board games. I am the boring one in the family.
In a world suddenly filled with yes men and women, I am the lone dissenting voice of dull pragmatism. So my crafty offspring counteracts my perceived negativity with her warped version of “Simon Says”. It’s called “Granddad Said.” The game is deceptively simple. Whenever I challenge my daughter’s intentions or actions, she cries: “Granddad said.”
“Why are you eating sweeties so late?” I ask.
“Granddad said,” she replies.
“Why are you wrestling in the living room?”
“Why have you got make-up all over your face and the living room?”
“Granddad’s not here.”
“Oh yeah … Nanny said.”
“Where’s Granddad then?”
“He’s washing the make-up off his face.”
Every day is a day in the family court and there’s no case for the parental prosecution. My daughter’s character witnesses are her grandparents. Her motive is self-interest. Her defence is filial piety. It’s an unwinnable case.
And of course, that’s as it should be.
Grandparents should provide the comic relief, the variety. Parents do, too, but there’s always a tightrope to walk whilst clutching all those sticks and carrots. At some point, work and discipline will intervene.
So if we’re busy with the family bread, let them eat cake with the grandparents.
My daughter spends so much of the year away from her extended family she deserves to be pampered, squeezed, indulged and entertained when she gets the chance. There is no jealousy or envy on Daddy’s part, only a quiet gratitude that his daughter is blessed with doting grandparents.
Besides they are now aware that life is about compromise.
If they insist on buying my girl a doughnut every single day, then they must buy me one as well.
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 (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His most recent Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island (2012), was a No.1 best-seller and turned into a TV series. His illustrated book series – Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase – is proving popular with children all over the world and is currently being adapted into an animated TV series. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Esquire, Men’s Health, FourFourTwo and Young Parents. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.