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The gift of grandparents

My son burst into my room at 7.30am the other day and demanded: "What time are we going to po po's house?"

Annoyed at being woken up so rudely, I hollered at him to get out. I'd had a rough night as my body fought a losing battle against the flu and was extra cranky that morning.

Over the next two hours, however, my nine-year-old braved my wrath and popped in three more times to pose the same question.

You would think he'd been promised a trip to Disneyland. Then again, perhaps in some ways, my mum's place holds as much allure.

A sleepover at po po's house is always a highlight for my two kids during the holidays.

While we usually drop by on weekends to have a meal with my parents, it is during the term breaks that my kids revel in the full thrust of their grandparents' loving attention.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

They get to bake cakes, try Chinese calligraphy, help weed my mum's garden and catch assorted insects. On weekends, my dad is home to take their requests: a trip to the nearby park, mall or library, say, or a visit to the neighbourhood coffee shop for their favourite roti prata or fried carrot cake.

Nothing special, really. But everything they do there is made special because my kids know they can stretch the boundaries and my parents' patience a lot more than they can at home.

They can leave floury hand prints all over the place without getting an earful, for instance, or be treated to a mug of Milo Dinosaur without having to ask twice.

A stay with their grandparents is, I would like to think, a win-win situation for all. My parents get to enjoy their lively company for a spell, while I have the house to myself for a few days.

I'm thankful for the tight bond between the two generations that sandwich me. I'm even more grateful for my parents' readiness to babysit or roll up their sleeves whenever I need childcare help.

My son, the first grandchild in our family, is particularly attached to my mum.

Shortly after he was born, my husband and I moved in with my parents for about a year. We had sold our apartment and were looking to buy a bigger place.

For the next five years, their place was my son's second home as I worked full time. We would drop him off in the morning and pick him up after work before making the 30-minute drive home.

Besides whiling away three hours each day at a kindergarten near her place, he spent nearly all the rest of his time in my mum's company.

We kept to the same routine when my daughter came along three years after her brother.

It was an arrangement that afforded me great peace of mind when I went to work each day. I had complete trust in my mum to love, teach and protect my children without spoiling them, and she in turn respected our parenting style.

But when my son was due to start Primary 1, I switched to a part-time position that allowed me to work from home and my kids no longer got to see po po and gong gong every day.

Still, they remain close. My kids often greet my parents with a hug without prompting and will fight to sit next to my mum in the car or at the restaurant when we take them out.

Through their interactions, I've seen a softer, more relaxed side to my parents that I didn't always know as their child.

I've never doubted their love for me, but they are your archetypal Asian parents who are economical with words of praise and even more frugal with physical displays of affection.

Yet my mum, the impassive disciplinarian of my childhood, dishes out hugs, kisses and encouragement with little restraint when she's around my kids and my sister's two girls, even when they misbehave.

I understood why after a chat with her when my son was younger.

He was at a difficult stage where tantrums were the norm rather than the exception. Worried that he would wear my mum out when I left him in her care, I once told her to discipline him as she saw fit.

She laughed, then said something I never forgot: "The good thing about being a grandparent is that we can leave the job of disciplining to the parents. Our role is to dote on the kid."

This explains the easy rapport between most grandparents and their grandkids. Ultimately, they are not accountable for how the young ones turn out, so grandparents are free to love and indulge them with no inhibitions.

In turn, the grandchildren bask in this abiding affection that is seldom marred by nagging about schoolwork, lecturing about values or smacking over transgressions. You know, the dirty work that comes with being a parent.

Theirs is a relationship that is low on stress and high on tenderness.

As they get on in years, I now call ahead to make sure my parents are ready for the hurricane that is my kids. So far, they have always been game.

"Of course," my mum said last week when I asked if my kids could stay over for two days. "Who knows when they will outgrow this?"

For now, though, she has nothing to worry about.

After he got home with a passionfruit cake they had baked with my mum, my son asked: "When can we go for a sleepover again? It's super fun."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'The gift of grandparents'. Print Edition | Subscribe