Balancing the over-protective instinct

School camp for my son, who is prone to asthmatic wheezing, a reminder against mollycoddling

Since I became a mum, one of the things I've come to dread is when my 10-year-old son comes down with a cough.

What is an easily resolved ailment for many children could mean otherwise for those with sensitive airways or asthma.

My first-born is prone to asthmatic wheezing, often triggered by an infection, but sometimes also by dust and cold temperatures.

When he was younger, we had to make midnight runs to the doctor whenever he had a wheezing episode. We have had moments of panic when the Ventolin inhaler ran out when we were away from home. But worst of all is being woken up in the middle of the night to the sight of him desperately gasping for air.

As a result, his Papa and I are overly cautious when it comes to things that may trigger a wheezing attack.


ILLUSTRATION: LEE CHEE CHEW

Over the years, we have more or less honed a routine to cope with it. I diligently clean his room; we remind him to minimise contact with those with a cough; and we bring along his medication when we travel, just in case.

But while we do all we can at home, there are times when a situation is beyond our control. For instance, during a school camp.

His school organised a three-day, two-night adventure camp to instil confidence and independence in the children.

But it might as well have been organised for over-protective parents to learn to let go of their offspring.

The three days were the longest he would be away from us and we had to trust that he would be fine with his teachers, camp instructors and friends. We did not entertain the thought of letting him skip the camp because that would do him more harm than good.

Anticipating parents' concerns, the school held a pre-camp briefing, providing parents with detailed information about the type of activities the children would take part in, safety precautions, schedule and so on.

I paid cursory attention to most of it because I knew my son would enjoy the high-element activities such as flying fox, rock climbing and abseiling. And with the amount of information provided on the precautions, I knew the school was doing its best to reassure parents that safety was a top priority.

I was not worried that he would miss home because he would have his teachers and best friends with him during the camp.

My main concern was the sleeping environment, because he has had previous wheezing attacks when we stayed in a hotel room that was too dusty or cold.

So I cheered when the teacher said they would spend one night sleeping in a tent outdoors and grimaced when he added that they would spend the second night sleeping indoors.

From the questions asked at the briefing, I knew I wasn't the only worried parent there.

They ranged from "What if my child does not dare to do the high-element challenges?" (He will be encouraged but not forced to); to "Where should my child hang a wet towel?" (Find a chair?); to "Will there be enough time for my child to dry her hair before bed time?" (Maybe, maybe not).

While I smiled inwardly at some of the questions asked, I supposed that others might feel the same if I voiced my concerns about the sleeping arrangements. The principal and teachers were unendingly patient with the barrage of questions.

As luck would have it, my son was down with a cough when camping day came. So we sent him off to camp with cough syrup, his inhaler and an unhealthy dose of misgivings (on my part).

But while the home was quieter without his usual wisecracks, I was too preoccupied with his siblings to worry too much about him.

Some parents "gatecrashed" the campfire and sent pictures to the class WhatsApp chat group showing the children enjoying themselves. Many parents heaved a sigh of relief seeing their children's happy faces.

My husband and I got slightly worried only when one of the shots showed my son resting in a corner when other children were doing an activity. But a quick message and reply from his teacher was reassuring - he was feeling sleepy and so she asked him to sit down.

He returned from the camp exhausted, but in high spirits and with lots of stories to share. He was still coughing but did not have a wheezing episode during the camp.

As it turned out, he did not hang his wet towel out to dry, bringing it back in a smelly heap in a small plastic bag. Neither did he change all his clothes or use soap during his bath.

But these minor details aside, he enjoyed the activities and the time spent with his friends. He slept for 15 hours straight that night.

Bottom line? He was fine and looking forward to future camps. It was a valuable lesson and good reminder not to be an over-protective parent.

An article in The New York Times two weeks ago about a parent, Mr Mike Lanza, who invited children from the neighbourhood to take part in risky, high-element play in his yard without supervision, raised similar issues.

Are we being over-protective of our children? We want to keep them safe, but are we inadvertently raising risk-averse children?

In our home, we try to strike a balance by picking our battles. While my husband and I may be over-protective when it comes to wheezing-related issues, we are a lot less so about other matters.

So it means my son has been using the stove to cook for the past few years, after we taught him about safe practices, despite his grandmother's protests. He can whip up pancakes and eggs for our weekend breakfasts and enjoys doing so.

He goes out to ride his bicycle on his own or with a sister when they feel like it.

One of their favourite games is to have one person whizz down a slope on a scooter and have the other stand in the way, jumping aside only at the last minute to avoid getting hit. I said "be careful" once and stood back to enjoy their shrieks of laughter after that.

I do not fight their battles in school for them. If they lose a spelling list, they either call their friends or ask the teacher for another spelling list the next day. I'm not about to message the parents' WhatsApp chat group to find that information for them.

Even as we continue to take precautions to reduce our son's wheezing episodes, we are mindful not to overdo it.

So I remind myself to cuddle my children but not mollycoddle them; give them safe boundaries but not restrict their play; connect with them and not over-protect them.

Most of all, I remind myself that parenthood is about mothering my children, not smothering them.

Jane Ng, a former education journalist, is now a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Balancing the over-protective instinct'. Print Edition | Subscribe