We come down harder on our kids because we expect them to know better. Secretly, we also fear being judged for their lapses
I was helping out at my son's school trip to the Road Safety Community Park recently, when a kid headed for a zebra crossing in a go-kart, seemingly with no intention of stopping.
His hand flew to the handbrake only when I motioned for him to pull over. It was my son.
The facility in East Coast Park teaches children about road safety via traffic games that it often hosts for school groups. Kids are assigned one of three roles - pedestrian, cyclist or go-kart driver - and are disqualified once they chalk up 50 demerit points for a slew of "unsafe/discourteous acts" listed on a game card.
At a briefing before the game, the 30 parent volunteers were told that our job was essentially to issue summons for violations.
"This is how they learn," said the young chap from the Traffic Police.
So I did what I was supposed to do as a traffic marshal: I told my nine-year-old why he should slow down and prepare to stop before a pedestrian crossing, then crossed off a box on his game card that cost him five demerit points.
He protested, his face darkening with displeasure, but I waved him on.
My friend P snapped a picture of me in action and sent it to one of our mummy chat groups.
"Giving summons to her own son!" she texted.
K, another friend, teased: "You are so cruel."
P then told her how I had given her son a chance when he failed to execute the kerb drill properly as a pedestrian.
"This boy," K responded swiftly. "I'm telling him off now."
P conceded: "I think we are always harsher with our own kids."
Later that day, she sent a meme that summed up how parenting has given us split personalities.
The top half of the image showed Rex, the amiable dino in Toy Story, flashing a guileless grin. "Mom with friends", read the caption.
The bottom half, labelled "Mom at home", was a movie still from Jurassic Park in which a fearsome Tyrannosaurus was on a rampage.
It was funny because it was so true and I quickly sent it on to other friends.
Many responded with the laughing emoticon squirting tears of mirth.
"Well done, HC. I would have done the same," one said after I tagged on the road safety park incident as context. "I always tell people I'm a 'momster'."
The thing is, I hadn't realised I was more lenient with other kids until P pointed it out.
I told my son off because it looked like he was about to mow down some hapless pedestrians.
I let K's son off after having him repeat the kerb drill because he was neither in danger nor putting others at risk there and then.
But my double standards had not escaped my son's notice. Instead of finding the dinosaur meme funny, his voice was shrill with indignation.
"That's you," he said accusingly. "When I told you my friend cried because the teacher caught him reading in class and confiscated his book, you said 'poor thing'.
"When it happened to me, you were like 'rah yah rah gah rah'," he went on, contorting his face while spewing loud, unintelligible sounds in a laudable impersonation of someone gone berserk - me.
I tried to explain why I did what I did at the park and gave a spiel about the dangers of reckless driving in real life.
He, too, defended his actions. He was still getting the hang of driving the clunky go-kart when I pulled him over. He was going to stop, but the vehicle was heavy and did not respond fast enough.
I thought we had come to an understanding, but he was still smarting from my lack of mercy.
"Aunty H gave me candy when I went past her stop. Aunty S took pictures of me in my go-kart. You? You were the only one who gave me demerit points. You ruined my record!"
It made me wonder then: Just why do we often morph from friendly aunties one minute to scary monster mums the next when dealing with our own kids?
A private tutor once told me she had far more patience with other people's children than her own. She used to teach at a top primary school here, but sent her daughter to be tutored by a colleague.
"I was screaming at her every day and it was putting such a strain on our relationship," she recalled.
The same misdemeanour that would earn my son a tongue- lashing (or worse) would likely draw an indulgent "kids will be kids" laugh from me if it were committed by a friend's child.
The most obvious defence would be that it is not our place to discipline other people's offspring. We can't fix or control how others behave, but we sure can call the shots when it comes to our own children.
Another would be that we expect our kids to know better. We hold them to higher standards because we've invested so much time and effort in raising them to do the right thing.
When they don't, our disappointment is keen and our words even sharper.
As a 2014 article in Psychology Today magazine put it, "we have the least tolerance for the negative qualities of those with whom we spend the most time".
Since we expect the best from those we love, we often show the worst side of ourselves when we feel let down.
I suspect a part of why we toggle between Jekyll and Hyde personas has to do with ego too. Children are often seen as extensions of their parents, so how they behave reflects directly on us.
When they fall short, we squirm because we take the lapses personally and fear being judged. The buck stops with us, so we'd better do our darndest to make sure they don't bring us into disrepute.
But guilt often follows when we carry the tiger mum act too far. That is when I turn to other momsters for solace because they, too, have been there, done that and then felt the crushing weight of remorse.
Once, at the end of a particularly rough day punctuated by my screaming and my son's teary tantrums, a friend and I had a long exchange via WhatsApp.
I told her how close I was to slapping my son after he blatantly thwarted my every attempt to get him to do some work ahead of his exams.
"I'm so scared I won't be able to hold back one day," I told her.
She gave her views on why she thought my son behaved the way he did and suggested some alternatives to winning his cooperation. She could empathise because she had snapped one day and given her son a tight slap under similar circumstances. The guilt still plagues her.
Commiserating with other strict mums gives me a better perspective and also allows me to see the funny side of things at times.
Together, we are striving for the happy ideal between the impossibly mellow Rex and the terrifying T-rex with serious anger issues.
The trip to the road safety park holds lessons for me too.
I have to remember to enjoy the journey with my kids and stop fixating on the destinations. It doesn't hurt to close one eye sometimes even if the ride is bumpy, veers off course or, yes, runs afoul of a few rules.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'Why mums are momsters to their kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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