Commentary: Raising 7 children on S$3,000 a month in Singapore, and a tale of constructive parenting
The Hengs’ story offer us a rare glimpse into what family life with more children looks like – but the story isn’t one of irresponsible parenting, says one psychotherapist.
SINGAPORE: Bringing up a family of seven children in Singapore on a budget of S$3,000 a month is scary and unthinkable for many.
It’s no wonder many view this choice the Hengs have made with sceptism and as irresponsible parenting.
Why? In general, most Singaporean households gun for a small family size of three children or fewer to ensure maximum parental effort and optimal growth in each of their children given rising costs of living.
Just as lower student-to-teacher ratios are often cited as ingredients to a successful education system, conventional wisdom suggests that smaller families lead to greater resources and more parental support being devoted to each child, with less sibling rivalry as a result.
If parents dedicate effort to developing each of their children, to help them understand themselves, the people around them and the world better, and nurture strong values and virtues that put them in good stead to lead a fulfilling life, having less makes sense.
But in a competitive country like Singapore, the problem is that most couples have less kids because they do not believe their children can succeed in a hyper-competitive society without constant intervention and frequent tending to.
Helicopter parenting creates a larger vicious cycle for it produces a population of sheltered adults dependent on someone else swooping in to save them when they meet with new challenges.
They may become self-centred people who put themselves first, and live with a sense of entitlement.
WHY DO WE WANT CHILDREN?
Perhaps it all boils down to the reasons why couples want children.
Gone are the days when a bigger family size means more help with the business but many still see children as a natural milestone in life’s passage.
Worse are those who have a child and flaunt every event and occurrence of their growth on social media, suggesting that they had some part to play and achieved something great as a parent.
It seems clear that the Hengs wanted more kids than most because they love bringing up their children - why is this any less virtuous of a reason to have children?
It seems to me unfair for netizens to criticise the Hengs and label their very personal decision as a couple to have more children as a bane on society, after the Hengs revealed that they rely on help from the grandparents and a bit of government assistance.
It is also unfortunate that readers see having many children as evidence of a conspicuous lack of self-control where the couple has taken huge steps to look after their children and make family their priority.
Just a few decades earlier, having many children was the norm. Many of my parent’s generation come from big families and when asked how they coped, would shrug and say they had help from neighbours, friends and the government.
HAVING MORE CHILDREN HAS INHERENT BENEFITS
In my study of large families as a psychotherapist, raising large families is not as expensive as one imagines – because of the economies of scale as each child helps out their parents and each other in their later ages. Clothes, toys and school books are handed down. Admission into the same primary school helps with the logistics.
In turn, huge families like the Hengs themselves benefit because they and their children practise good values like saving on food and necessities, learning to ask for help from others, and growing a sense of independence while nurturing relationships with each other.
Much as having more children might not allow you to hover around your child to produce that outstanding but solitary genius, being in a bigger family can teach us all the value of sharing, of delayed gratification, the impact of the choices we make and to think outside the box.
Studies have also shown that having more siblings lead to children who have stronger soft skills and higher emotional intelligence. They are also more active, less obese and enjoy better mental health.
All this is not to say the Hengs don’t have their daily dose of family soap operas. Challenges will remain as the Hengs figure out how to iron issues out as they arise, help their children cope with each of life’s varied challenges as they grow older, and coach their older children to care for their younger siblings.
One certainly hopes that the Heng have long-term employment that allows them to feed their family and spend time with their children but there isn’t a need to focus solely on parenting even in a big family.
My view is that the Hengs’ approach to let their children grow up on their own with necessary but minimal support from parents is a constructive form of parenting. Parents need to provide basic food and shelter, finance and coaching for basic education but the rest should be left up to our children themselves to find their way through life.
What is more important than the amount of time and effort that a parent can devote to a child is how they raise their children.
Do they allow each child to grow and encourage them to define themselves as individuals who live by their own standards in life? Do they encourage independence early and the value of working with others as they get older?
Do they imbue in their kids a set of family rituals and virtues that puts them in good stead for the future?
Do they help their children see value in building strong, healthy relationships with their brothers and sisters instead of shutting off and engaging in social media, computer games and other forms of materialism?
The Hengs’ story offers us a rare glimpse into what family life with more children looks like – but it isn’t one of irresponsible parenting.
Dr Foo Koong Hean is an adjunct senior lecturer at James Cook University. His book Negotiation Parenting: Or how not to Raise a Brat in Today’s Complex World was published in 2015.