Over-Functioning Parents: My Confession and Conversion

“Your children are the greatest gift God will give to you, and their souls the heaviest responsibility He will place in your hands. Take time with them, teach them to have faith in God. Be a person in whom they can have faith. When you are old, nothing else you’ve done will have mattered as much.”
-Lisa Wingate

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong calls us “kan cheong” (over-anxious) parents. I was more than over-anxious. I was truly a typical Singapore parent who was over-compensating, over-controlling, and over-functioning.

Like many parents, I yearn for my children to be the best or be as perfect as they can be. I would not spare any effort or resources to give them the best. My intentions were good but my methods oftentimes were the opposite. To be honest, my wife Alison was less overbearing and less expecting of perfection compared to me!

1. Feeding our ego can destroy our children’s passion

I had always wanted to be a gymnast. But I did not and could not as my parents never had the luxury to send me to any classes. To compensate, I relished watching gymnastics and gymnasts. I always admired the grace, agility, and poise of a gymnast.

I lived in the era of Nadia Comaneci of Romania, one of the athletes of the century and the first gymnast who scored a perfect 10. She was the role model for my children. So from my first child onwards, I sent all of them to gymnastic lessons. I enrolled them from the age of five to do “play gymnastic,” slowly increasing the lessons from one to three lessons a week. It gave me self-gratifying joy when I saw them represent their schools and winning medals. Two of them even joined the Combined School squad, which was one step away from the Singapore National Team.

3. Over functioning Parents My Confession and Conversion - Dr. John Ng (H)Driven by my dream and ego, I fought my way to form a gymnastics parent support group to ensure that my kids get the best support from their schools. I was so driven that nothing could stop me. Then my oldest daughter stopped because she had a back injury. There went dream number one.

My son Shun was the next one that I expected to live up to my dream. However, after six years of pushing, cajoling, and at times, dragging him to gymnastics practice, he became sick and tired of it. He was then training four hours a day, six days a week. I didn’t care about his gripes or frustrations. I felt he was not disciplined enough. He told me that he hated gymnastics. I tried persuasion and incentives but it didn’t work. I then wielded my absolute authority as a parent and as a twelve year old boy, he had no choice but to obey.

Not satisfied with the school and association support in Singapore, I even ventured to send him to Australia to pursue my dream of having a world-class gymnast in my family. In other words, I was prepared to go all the way to fulfill my dream and boost my ego. Fortunately, after much discussion with some close friends, I realized that I was feeding my own ego, more than anything else. And I was sacrificing my son at the altar of my ego.

My wonderful and sensitive wife Alison finally persuaded me to give up my dream. It was extremely painful for me when I took Shun out of gymnastic lessons.

Then one day, my son found his “flow” in guitar and music. It was a chance event. One Christmas, he asked me to buy him a guitar, which I did. Then he asked me to teach him to play, and the only song I knew was “Silent Night, Holy Night”. But from then, he took to guitar like a swan to the lake.

As they say, the rest is history. He discovered his true passion and joy. He taught himself and learned from the best guitarists and musicians: Steve Ray Von, BB King, Eric Clapton, Tommy Emmanuel and Tuk and Patti from YouTube.

We didn’t have to push him. Each day, he would practice with deep passion and incredible commitment. His zest for music led him to develop his own style of guitar playing, Funky Thumb Stuff. You can search for that on Youtube or www.shunng.com. He composes his own songs and has an amazing, soulful voice.

He discovered true joy in using music to touch young people’s lives, especially the under-privileged. He has performed in several concerts to raise funds for worthy causes. Today, he is studying in one of the top music schools in the world, the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Recently, the great music producer Quincy Jones, floored by his performance on video, invited Shun to his home to discuss his music career! It was indeed a divine appointment.

C. JoyBell C is right:

I think that the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong, allow them to experience life on their own terms, allow them to take the subway … let them be better people, let them believe more in themselves.

Lesson: Find and encourage your child’s dream and passion, not yours!

2. The kiasu (fear of losing) syndrome can demoralize them

Being first time parents, Alison and I wanted to make sure that our first child Meixi had all the education and exposure she could get. Besides gymnastics classes, after school and during the weekends, we would send her for art classes, ballet lessons, and Chinese remedial. During the school vacation, we ensured that she was ahead by sending her to leadership, science, and special mathematics camps. We even bought a piano just in case she was musically talented.

Poor Meixi was a victim of our “Kiasu Syndrome”. Some things she enjoyed doing, others she was obviously bored with and had no interest in. I did not care about that; I was trying to develop the “perfect kid.”

But all the hurrying and scurrying made us as exhausted as she was. What we had was a kid who was frenzied and disorientated. At one point, she was hospitalized because she was throwing up as she was over-functioning. It was a wake-up call for us.

I realized that being a “kiasu” parent was destroying my child’s emotional health as I pushed her to do things. She was unduly stretched and overly stressed and I was not sure if she even enjoyed her childhood. Neither did we enjoy our parenting then. We were all overly stressed. Today, I have learnt not to push myself so hard by not pushing my kids.

Fortunately, we are grateful to God that despite our pushing and shoving, she turned out to be a wonderful daughter. When Meixi was 11, one of the things we did well was to send her and her brother to experience the slums in Hyderabad, India. That’s when I discovered her true passion.

It was indeed a life-changing experience for her as she learnt compassion. Since then, every year, our family would go to Chiang Rai to help a group of Lahu hill tribe children and Mexi would channel her energy to that. Last year, she spent a year in Mexico to help educate the poorest kids there. She now has developed deep compassion for educational reform plans, especially in the most marginalized communities.

Bill Ayers’ wise axiom holds true: “Your kids require you most of all to love them for who they are, not to spend your whole time trying to correct them.”

Lesson: A flurry of activities and over-dose of classes produce over-stressed and emotionally unhealthy kids.

3. Losing face can kill parent-child relationship

My youngest daughter, Meizhi, studied in Methodist Girls Primary School. She was an average student. We had learnt our lesson in bringing up the two older ones so we didn’t want to push her too hard. Although there was occasional prodding, we largely left her to herself to manage her own study schedule.

When her results for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE, a national exam that determines students’ posting to secondary or high school) came out, they were a “disaster!” That year, her school had decided to raise the bar and only accepted students of a standard score. She was one of twelve students who missed the cut. Being a few points short, she was sent to a “neighborhood” school.

We were devastated. I chided her daily for not studying hard enough. For one week, I was furious and expressed my disappointments in no uncertain terms. She was already feeling bad. I made her feel worse. Our relationship deteriorated.

I felt I had “lost face.” How could we face our friends to inform them that she had now gone to some unknown secondary school? What kind of English would she learn there? How would she mix with neighborhood kids- and how could we protect her from “bad company?”

We were gripped with unfounded fear. We went into a tailspin of what I would call “Imagination of The Worst Possible.”

After one week of my unreasonable and relational-destructive behavior, I came to my senses. I realized I was more concerned about myself and the loss of “face” than my daughter’s welfare, emotional health, and most of all, our relationship.

My wife was more sympathetic and reminded me that relationship was more important than results. I changed my perspective and apologized to my daughter. We became more supportive and encouraging.

Indeed, our fears of her going to a neighborhood school proved unfound! It was one of the best things that happened to her and to us as parents. Meizhi did extremely well in the school, academically, socially, and artistically.

Her leadership skills began to blossom as her school nominated her to emcee events. Normally, this privilege was given to senior students. For a Secondary One student to be the emcee was a rarity for any school. She also took part in dramas, mingled well and made good friends with both boys and girls, and developed incredible social skills. She really matured!

She has recently graduated from the School of the Arts. Her self-confidence is up, her self-esteem strengthened. Best of all, our parent-child relation is strong, even though we still have skirmishes and fights now and then.

Finally, in my parenting experience, I have discovered that it is OK to make mistakes. It is most important to recover and it is never too late to do so.

As Dorothy Parker says, “The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires.”

Lesson: Relationship is more important than issues and results.


Finally, in my parenting experience, I have discovered that it is okay to make mistakes. It is most important to recover, and it is never too late to do so. I leave you with a beautiful poem for your reflection:

Your children are not your children.

They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.


You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.


You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the make upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He also loves the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

This is an adapted excerpt from John’s latest book, “Dim Sum Leadership: Your Second Serving”. His previous booksDim Sum Leadership, Dim Sum for the Family, and Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon have won rave reviews.