"Oh, she's over there", I pointed E. out to the British grandparents who were sitting next to me. E. was purposefully walking off towards the horizon by the side of an Olympic size swimming pool. The grandparents looked concerned. They shifted on their chairs.
"The Dutch child barrier lies much further out", their son, our fellow parent-friend, comforted them. He held his hands about twenty centimeters apart. "This is the American barrier", he moved his hands slightly further apart: "This is the British barrier", he opened his arms as wide as they'd go: "This is the Dutch barrier."
E. looked round and decided to amble back towards us. "If I run after her, she'll keep going", I explained. "But if I just wait, eight times out of ten, she comes back on her own." The grandparents nodded rather unenthusiastically, clearly not impressed by my parenting philosophy.
Where American and British parents are always a step or two behind their children, Singaporean parents prefer to be right next to their children. They are close enough to catch them when they fall. Strange Singaporeans rush in when E. topples over to help her out, and since I am generally a few meters away, they usually get there first.
Then they are very surprised when E. pushes herself off the ground, dusts her knees and simply gets on with things.
"So independent, lah!" they'll admire her. And when she smiles at them: "So happy!"
It's true. E. loves to run around, explore and skip along with S. and myself. At playdates she'll rush off to have a look at all the amazing toys and she adores to play with other children. She doesn't let things like toppling over or getting into a toddler scrap distract her from the bigger picture which is doing her thing, having fun, discovering the world.
More than one Singaporean has commented that they'd love their child to be more like ours.
Maybe so. But I dread the day we'll be in a restaurant and instead of respectfully listen to us, she'll make a scene. Because that's what all this autonomy and independence and happiness is leading up to: a willful, stubborn child, who has complete faith in her own opinion.
I should know, I was a Dutch child too once and I remember my parents sighing and looking wistfully at other dining families in foreign restaurants. "It's always the Dutch kids screaming", they'd nod at each other. (Writing this, I'm thinking we can't have been that bad, as they kept taking us four out to restaurants in the first place - or maybe my parents are masochists.)
Singaporean children are protected from pain and hurt, but at the same time also taught to withhold emotions in a public setting. I am the only mother at daycare to extensively kiss and cuddle my child upon pick-up, just, you know, because she's there. And I've missed her. And she looks cute. Singaporean parents generally reserve displays of affection for the home.
This goes for displays of distress too. A Dutch preschool teacher, who teams up with a Singaporean teacher to lead her class room, told me that where Dutch teachers will let children fall and get into scraps and only intervene if there is actual crying, her Singaporean colleagues will try to prevent hurt and crying. But once there is pain and crying, the Dutch teacher will comfort the child and let its emotions run free, whereas the Singaporean teacher will pick up and cuddle the child and then sternly tell it: "You've been comforted. No need for crying."
Both are trying to teach a child resilience: the Dutch through letting the toddlers experience the consequences of their actions without intervening, thereby fostering an independent nature, the Singaporeans through teaching toddlers trust and respect for their elders.
I wouldn't mind if E. picked up some of that respect along the way - although in fairness and although I like to call her a little wild animal, she isn't actually. She's much too loving to leave us alone for very long. She knows that we grow sad without her.
Eight times out of then, at the edge of the barrier, she'll look over her shoulder, smile cheekily, then run back and throw herself into our arms.