Seriously Kidding

Parenting lessons from the SEA Games

A giant Singapore flag on the roof of the Sports Hub during the 28th SEA Games Opening Ceremony held at the National Stadium on June 5, 2015. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG 
A giant Singapore flag on the roof of the Sports Hub during the 28th SEA Games Opening Ceremony held at the National Stadium on June 5, 2015. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG 

The Indonesian and Filipino water polo players were duking it out in the pool last Thursday, when the water works started in earnest in the West stand of the OCBC Aquatic Centre, next to me.

Upset that the Philippines were down by several goals to Indonesia, my 5¾-year-old son Lucien started to weep. Lucien, his elder brother, our Filipino helper Jane and I had earlier cheered as Singapore beat Malaysia 19-4 in their earlier round robin match and stayed to lend our support to Jane's compatriots. However, as the Indonesians proved the stronger side, Lucien became increasingly deflated and buried his tearful face in Jane's shoulder. Even Jane's reassurances that she was fine could not stop him from bawling.

"Hey," I said, trying to comfort him. "Look at the Filipino supporters." A vocal section was seated opposite us in the East stand. "They're not crying. They're not giving up on their team."

That gave him pause. The idea that crying meant you were admitting defeat, throwing in the towel, was new to him, and intrigue began to override emotions. After all, most almost-six-year-olds aspire to be tough.

As the Filipino players rallied, putting the ball a couple more times into the net, Lucien brightened. I hugged him and whispered in his ear that every game must have its conceding side and that it would be boring if everyone won all the time. That the unsuccessful team will pick themselves up and train harder and that it was our job as audience members to encourage them with smiles and applause.

Still, just before the match ended - final score: 22-6, to Indonesia - I sensed a trembling of the lower lip and hustled him out to the merchandise booth and bought a Nila mascot plush toy to distract him.

Being a nerd whose primary form of exercise is reading thick books, I hadn't paid much attention when the 28th SEA Games opened earlier this month.

However, as the regional sporting event draws to a close on Tuesday, I have discovered that it offers plenty of teaching moments for the parent in the spectator stands or watching from home.

Besides learning to deal with disappointment, there were other lessons to learn about etiquette, grace and determination.

At the women's 10,000m finals at the National Stadium, Indonesia's Triyaningsih lapped the competition to take the gold effortlessly. While we cheered her win, with the Vietnamese taking the silver and the Thai taking the bronze, I reminded my boys to clap for all the runners still coming in on their home stretch after 25 laps. "Why must clap?" asked Lucien, half-eaten hot dog in his hand. "Because they are finishing their race," I replied. "And not stopping even though there are no more medals to be won."

When a Singaporean soccer player hot-headedly protested being sent off the field with a red card, spitting as he stomped his way back to the locker room, the takeaway for my kids and I - huddled in bed in front of the TV - was that, while galling, it would have been better to accept the referee's decision calmly and with dignity.

Simple as some of these principles might be (respect others' national anthems, don't fidget; be considerate of fellow spectators, don't block their views), it helped to have them modelled in real situations, so that all I had to do was lean over and provide the commentary.

The games are probably also the first time my sons are seeing first-hand the efficiency that Singapore is famed for, on a large scale. Making our way around the Sports Hub and clearing security checks were made pleasant by the well-trained staff and polite volunteers who guided us with a smile.

There was one slightly baffling moment when we were barred at one gate from taking a metal spoon into the stadium (I'd eaten my packed lunch in the car and left it in my bag), presumably because they thought I might hurt someone with it. Told to either leave it at the security checkpoint with no guarantee of getting it back, or throw it away, the auntie in me had to ask if someone could keep it safe for me. I really like my spoon. Uh-uh. No can do. "Just following orders," said the young woman at the screening machine with a cold, condescending stare. I didn't argue with her. Here, too, was an object lesson in flexibility and picking your battles.

As we watched the volunteers wheeling in and setting up the hurdles for the women's 100m and men's 110 hurdles events, I asked my elder son, nine, if he would - like them - give up his time to be part of the games when we next hosted it.

"Not as a volunteer, but as a player," he replied, a tad too confidently. This boy who has attended all of four months of football school.

"Ah," I said. "In that case, you'll have to train really hard."

And should the day ever come, when my son makes it to the national arena, I will be there in the stands with his emotional younger brother, tissues standing by - for tears of pride and joy.