When the going gets tough, let your kids fall

Children should be given the space to fail and try again, as they figure out their passions and footing in today's highly competitive landscape

Last Sunday, like many Singaporeans, I watched the Sing! China finals with great excitement.

I had also caught last year's finals, where Nathan Hartono had given a stirring performance. But this year felt different, as Joanna Dong, a Singaporean finalist, is an old friend of mine from junior college.

Several weeks back, I introduced my children to the story of an aunt called Jo Dong, as she was known when we were a quirky bunch of Theatre Studies and Drama students in Victoria Junior College 19 years ago.

While other students were studying in reading rooms for the impending exams, our class was feverishly scrutinising plays and rehearsing pieces in the studio, black-box theatre or garden.

Instead of studying quantum physics and covalent bonding, I was fitting Jo in a costume I had designed for my A Levels practicum, as she gamely played the role of Constanze, Mozart's wife.

Looking back, in pragmatic Singapore, perhaps we were seen by many as idealists and dreamers.

I hope as a mother, I can help my children find strength within and develop grit, as they chart their own paths in life. And most importantly, I am reminded to celebrate not just their accolades but, really, also the journey.

Now that I'm a parent, I realise how brave our parents were to let us pursue a less conventional programme.

After junior college and university, our theatre studies class dispersed to pursue an array of professions - lawyers, educators, bankers, librarians and communications specialists.

A few plucky, dedicated ones continued pursuing theatre and performance for a living, both in production roles - such as an ex-classmate who recently produced The Great Wall Musical - and as performers.

Jo was one of them.

She was multi-talented - in voice, acting and languages (cue her impressive Mandarin on the show). She was also humble and a joy to be around.

But as I told my kids, who are aged five and three, she experienced a rocky start with Singapore Idol.

"She should have gone much further," I had protested indignantly to my cousin, when Jo was criticised for her "auntie" get-up and booted out after the Top 40.

For a young performer fresh out of school, determined to follow her heart, that episode must have felt like a disheartening - and public - setback.

As she said in recent interviews, self-doubt ensued. She questioned her vocals and wondered if she was meant to perform for mass audiences.

But failures can become blessings in disguise. For more than a decade, she spent time under the radar, diligently honing her craft in genres such as jazz, bossa nova and Mandarin musical theatre.

My children listened as I relayed Jo's testimony - one of passion, hard work, grit and, sometimes, wavering but, ultimately, enduring self-belief.

Mesmerised by her mouth trumpeting and scat techniques, my children grabbed their toy microphones and mimicked her.

In the semi-final, the camera panned to an image of Jo's mother and husband proudly watching among the audience.

It was a poignant moment. This was as much Jo's mother's story as hers.

I remember her mother from our school days as a gentle soul - whose Mandarin was beautifully lyrical - inviting some of us to their house for a beautifully prepared meal that tasted and looked exquisite, topped with intricately carved garnishes.

"My mum isn't musically inclined at all - you would never catch her singing, ever," Jo told me recently. "But she sent me to voice classes as a kid and through secondary school."

While her mother was no singer, she excelled in crafts and had painstakingly stitched beautiful costumes for Jo in children's karaoke competitions.

As Jo grew older and it emerged that she wanted to pursue a career in performing arts, her mother's only request was for her to get an honours degree from university in any subject, as a form of "security", in case her performing career did not work out.

When she started gigging, her mother attended her concerts and musicals faithfully, sometimes watching several shows per run.

"My mum has always been my biggest fan," she said.

How wonderful to have such support as she ventured into an industry not for the faint-hearted.

Now with examples of Singaporeans who have scaled great heights on paths less travelled, I wonder whether parents would have more gumption to let their children pursue their dreams, particularly in less conventional areas.

Also, I consider the importance of affording children the space to fail and try again, as they figure out their passions and footing in life, particularly in our highly competitive landscape today.

How do I help my children believe in themselves when the going gets tough? I don't have an answer, but I hope as a mother, I can help mine find strength within and develop grit, as they chart their own paths in life.

And most importantly, I am reminded to celebrate not just their success but, really, also the journey.

So here's to all the children who dare to dream and develop grit. And to all parents who are instrumental in providing guidance and encouragement through life's passage.

• Denise Lim is a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'When the going gets tough, let your kids fall'. Print Edition | Subscribe