When love does more harm than good

In trying to shield my children from hurt and rejection, I sometimes end up discouraging them from giving things a shot

It was a week before the food and fun fair at our church, and my son was brimming with excitement.

"What can we sell?" he kept asking.

"Nothing," I replied for the umpteenth time.

Applications to run booths at the fair had closed at least a month earlier, but my nine-year-old would not give up.

"We can use Aunty J's stall. Can you ask her? It's for a good cause."

All proceeds from the event would go to the building fund of a sister church. My friend J had secured a booth to peddle pretty rosary bracelets she fashioned from Swarovski crystals. I cringed to think what she would make of us forcing her to make space for us at the last minute.

"Forget it. The church has to approve the items for sale. It's too late," I told my son firmly. I might as well have been talking to the wall.


"Mei mei, what do you think we can sell?" I heard him asking his six-year-old sister next. "Cookies? How about we make bracelets? Oh, I know, let's do bookmarks."

When I saw there was no stopping them, I simply asked if they could come up with designs related to our faith. Over the next few days, the two of them gobbled up their lunch and completed their homework at record speed so they could devote the rest of the afternoon to Project Bookmark.

I showed them how to work the hole puncher, gave them a bag of ribbons I'd saved from gifts over the years and left them alone.

They cut and drew, they laughed and squabbled. I was glad they were kept busy, as it left me to work in peace. But when I saw the end products, my heart sank.

It was clear my kids had poured their hearts into the endeavour. No two bookmarks had the same design. There were crosses made out of gemstone stickers and other materials, unusual patterns formed by paper cuttings as well as Bible verses written with a careful hand.

But the bookmarks also shared some common traits: uneven edges, holes at the wrong places and the haphazard sprinkling of embellishments.

In short, they were the typical art and craft efforts by kids that only their parents would coo over, not something others would pay good money for.

But my children had come this far, and I figured the least I could do was to help them secure some retail space. I took a picture of the 13 bookmarks and sent it to J with an apologetic message, asking if we could hawk them at her stall.

"The paper is not cut straight, the holes not punched properly and the ribbons are on the wrong end," I typed, and added: "I don't know how to tell them no one will buy."

J made me smile with her sweet reply. "It's art, mummy. Too straight and it won't be art. It will be so fun for them to sell what they made."

Buoyed by Aunty J's positive response, my son announced that he would price his masterpieces at $2 each. "What?" I was incredulous. "How about 50 cents?" Even then, I had my doubts.

"What?" It was my son's turn to splutter. "Do you know how much time and effort we spent making them?" We eventually came to a compromise: $1 apiece.

My son, however, was still smarting. His brow creased with frustration, he complained: "You always reject my ideas. You are always so discouraging."

That stopped me cold. He was right. I had been saying "no" to his every suggestion and blocking his every step. This was not the first time either. My negative responses, I realised, are usually born of the desire to protect my children.

I didn't want them to go through all that trouble only to be rebuffed. I was afraid they would feel sad if no one bought the bookmarks they had spent so many painstaking hours making. But without even letting them try, I was acting out the very same scenario I was trying to prevent: I had hurt their feelings by snubbing their efforts.

I had the same reaction last year when he shared his lofty goal to "raise funds for the poor" in the lead-up to Christmas.

Inspired by the trademark red kettles that The Salvation Army volunteers brandish during the festive season to collect donations, he placed a plastic bucket outside our home with a handwritten note to explain its purpose.

Instead of praising his initiative and working with him to pull it off, I threw ice cold water on the idea.

"Don't do it," I told him. "You don't even know which charity you are donating to yet. Our neighbours might think you are out to con them."

I was so concerned that no one should think ill of him that I forgot about the good he was trying to do.

Undaunted, he went with his sister to talk to two of our neighbours and managed to collect a few dollars. They plonked in another few dollars from their savings, asked my parents and brother for more, and raised about $25 in all. It wasn't much, but it was all done through their own efforts.

We contributed the sum when a group from our church planned a visit to a home for the elderly, and bought food and necessities for the residents. My husband took my son along so he could see how he had played a small part in spreading the cheer.

There was a happy ending to Project Bookmark, too. At the fun fair, dear J gave me a model demonstration of how to spur kids on, without overprotecting or underestimating them.

She showed them a sign advertising their bookmarks she had made just for them, which read: "Exclusive sale! Handmade bookmarks for your Bible!"

My negative responses, I realised, are usually born of the desire to protect my children. I didn't want them to go through all that trouble only to be rebuffed... But without even letting them try, I was acting out the very same scenario I was trying to prevent: I had hurt their feelings by snubbing their efforts.

Then, she carefully stuck the bookmarks on a big, clear plastic lid that served as a display rack and placed it next to her bracelets.

"Handmade bookmarks! Only $1 each! Made by young kids," she shouted periodically.

Thrilled, my kids joined in with gusto. Then J encouraged them to work their way through the crowds with the lid to hawk their bookmarks. They had their share of disappointment, of course. A family friend turned them down flat and said, to their faces: "I'm saving my money for the good stuff."

But others made their day.

A kindly woman with a shock of white hair bought three at one go, and even asked my son to write his name on each one.

"You might become famous one day. I better get your autograph first," she told him with a laugh.

Then, turning to J and me, she said: "They are doing something for a good cause. The least we could do is to encourage them."

I was moved beyond words and filled with shame at the same time.

As their mother, I should have been their biggest cheerleader. Yet, I was the one who nearly sabotaged their plans. That day, they sold all except one of their bookmarks and learnt a few things.

It's great to see your hard work pay off. It's great knowing that there will always be people who support you even when others don't. Above all, it's a great feeling to prove your mum wrong.

I picked up a few lessons myself, the chief of which was: Sometimes, love can do more harm than good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'When love does more harm than good'. Print Edition | Subscribe