Singaporean kids–kept closer and then freed sooner than American kids?

As the mom of a young child, my initial experiences with the more Singaporean approach to parenting have all been with younger children.

Children here are rarely put down–I noted before that I almost never see a baby in a bucket car seat.  With very few exceptions, they are always in arms or in a sling/baby bjorn-type carrier.  Tummy time?  Cry it out?  Letting them play alone?  Fostering independence isn’t really part of the dominant parenting style here.  Reading mom magazines, I haven’t even seen a lot of emphasis on the notion of putting a baby on their back to sleep (and B said she hadn’t heard of that before…and has taken care of young babies here), which is a mantra in American magazines whenever sleep is mentioned.  Granted, you could argue that Asian parenting (or Singaporean parenting or whatever you want to call it) shares a great deal with the American philosophy referred to as “attachment parenting” but it’s difficult for me to quantify how much beyond the more public aspects (I don’t know about things like co-sleeping, etc…and breastfeeding doesn’t seem to be as popular here).

One of my more common experiences in Singapore is to be told by a stranger how shocked they are at Elanor’s independence.  Part of that is absolutely just her personality.  But I have to say that I think the way she’s been raised also influences that independence–she had tummy time (and I didn’t always lay down next to her…sometimes she got the mirror and the tummy time mat and I took 10 minutes to eat some food with BOTH HANDS), she was put down in the swing and the bouncy seat on a regular basis (the first was great for longer naps, and the second allowed me such luxuries as showering and laundry), she was in the car seat and snap n go stroller more often than the moby wrap when we went shopping, and from about 2 months, she also had short bursts of play time on her baby gym.  Don”t get me wrong…E was huge on being held as a baby, and spent a lot of time in my arms and in the sling.  We’re big on interacting with her.

The lack of a maid or 24/6 help was an influencing factor.  There were points in the day where I had to put the baby down if I wanted to take a shower, or fold laundry, or eat using both hands.  Ravi was great with her when he was home, but that was a finite amount of time each day.  My family/friends/in-laws were a great help…but no one was constantly around.

In Singapore, either the mom or the helper CAN be constantly holding the baby, which is a practical consideration apart from whatever cultural influences may be at play.  But at the end of the day, the babies here are parented differently, which leads to different outcomes.  Not a bad vs good outcome or a better/worse outcome…a different one from that of a more American (non Attachment Parenting) approach.


If younger children are held more closely to the parents/helpers….older children seem to have a remarkable amount of freedom here by comparison.

The US has a culture of fear when it comes to letting a child out of the parent’s sight alone.  Lenore Skenazy let her 9 year old ride a subway home alone (after growing up in NYC his whole life and regularly riding the subway) and was given the title of “America’s Worst Mom” by the media in response.  There are HUGE debates about at what age a child can stay home alone for a few hours.  The young babysitter (the 12/13/14 year old) has fallen out of popularity.  Parents walk their 5th graders to the classroom (true story–I taught 5th grade in a safe, wealthy suburb and had parents routinely walk their children all the way to the classroom door for ‘safety”).  We fear that rapists and kidnappers and pedophiles and BAD PEOPLE are out to get us and our children…in large part because the media fed this hysteria until it took on a life of its own…and now continues to feed it.  All of this deliberately ignores the fact that crime is at a lower rate than it was in the 70/80’s when we were kids…and had significantly MORE freedom than we give our kids.

Lenore has started the “Free Range Parenting” movement in response, urging parents to let their kids have a little freedom, and do the things we used to do at their age.  Even so, in the US, it is rare to see a kid walking down a street/ riding a subway/ riding a bus/ walking through a mall on their own without a parent hovering.

In Singapore, I routinely see kids (and I’m talking as young as 8 or 10) get dropped off at a mall for their tuition/lesson (the giant backpacks/instrument cases are a good tip-off) and the parent drives off.  Or they get out of a cab on their own.  Middle and High Schoolers congregate in places like Starbucks and Mcdonalds and do their homework/hang out after school with no parents in sight.

You can argue that it’s easier to let kids have a little more freedom.  After all, it’s Singapore–Disney with the death penalty.  I mean, they don’t even allow chewing gum…so there can’t be pedophiles!  Sure, we do have a low crime rate.  But as I said…crime stats in the US don’t support the hysteria, so I just don’t buy that low crime stats are at the bottom of this.

Local readers/readers who have lived in Singapore—What do you make of this?  Am I missing something?  Is this a new thing (cellphone popularity–more freedom?) or was it like this when you were a kid, too?  At what point did you make the transition from child kept close to independent child trusted to go their music lesson/tuition/get a litre of milk without supervision?

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15 Responses to Singaporean kids–kept closer and then freed sooner than American kids?

  1. kirsten says:

    The first time I took the bus home myself I was about 10. Before that I took the school bus and was picked up by my nanny downstairs (or sometimes to give me a burst of “freedom” she would let me go upstairs myself – but it turned out that she would be watching from the window).

    After I took that first bus ride home there was kind of no stopping me so I would take the bus home and then also start going out with my friends to movies and malls from about 11 years old on. By 12 we thought we were The Shit, and we were… but only in Dance Dance Revolution (that’s quite embarrassing to think of now).

    Also when I was about 11/12 I started babysitting my little brother (6 years younger) when my parents were performing at their concerts on Friday/Saturday nights. My parents would leave us microwaveable dinners (I was Queen of the Microwave at that age) and we would just watch TV and hang out since it was usually from about 7pm – 10:30pm anyway so not that long. I would supervise his homework/study too, sometimes.

    I pretty much kept doing it right up until I left for NZ at 17, which is why as a teenager I kind of never really went out on Friday/Saturday nights.

    I think if it were just up to my parents I might have had a bit more freedom earlier, not necessarily because of parenting styles but because of practicality as well (seeing that both parents work). But from when I was really little until the age of 12 I lived with my grandparents and only went home in the weekends. It made sense because my parents were working, and so I always took the school bus to and from my grandparents’ place. My grandparents being retired teachers, it was killing two birds with one stone because they would help with homework too. (Between them they used to teach primary school English, Maths and Chinese so it was kind of all the bases covered.) So, grandparents being grandparents, we were probably fussed over a lot more than I would have been if it had just been us and our parents.

    When I was 12 I went to China with my school, and when I was 14 I went to New Zealand. But there were teachers and stuff so I guess that wasn’t really a big deal. Was to me at the time though.

    Incidentally, I have noticed that my brother has had A LOT more freedom quite a lot younger… I chalk it up to 1) him being a boy and 2) them being less paranoid / having less energy to be paranoid.

    • Crystal says:

      I think I was 10 when I started being a latchkey kid (possibly earlier for short times, though). I started staying home all day during the summer when I hit 12ish.

      Today that would be grounds for Child Protective Services being called. Sigh.

      • kirsten says:

        In NZ I was told that it is actually illegal to leave a child below 13 alone at home. I never verified this, but I was pretty amazed at the time. Not only was I alone at home from about the age of 11, I was BABYSITTING a 5-year-old too!

      • Crystal says:

        Yeah, I was babysitting at 11. Absurd, honestly.

  2. Musns says:

    I keep tight reins on my children for several reasons; yes, safety is an issued but more than that is my kids are rambunctious and constantly getting in to trouble at home, can you imagine what kind of trouble they would get in to unsupervised??! My oldest, 15 now, is gaining more freedom. I have a more laissez-faire attitude with him. He has demonstrated his ability to be responsible, including taking the consequences for poor choices, I drop him off at the bowling alley on Saturdays and pick him up when they close. I’m trusting him to stay where he is, to make the right choices, and be there when I show up.

    I do believe part of the responsibility and hovering parents do or do not do is directly related to whether both parents work or not, or if they are in a single parent household. There are more responsibilities when both parents work, or the only parent is working. Not saying this is a bad thing, if anything I think it is good – the kids learn how to cook, to do dishes, to do the laundry, to put clothes away. skills they will need when they are on their own!

    • Crystal says:

      I think each kid definitely needs different rules/earns the right at different ages, but there are genuine discussions on parenting bulletin boards and online communities where people say with total seriousness that leaving your baby alone in the car long enough to return a shopping cart is neglect/abuse. People have gotten reported to the police for this.

      We definitely lean free range (although with a 2 year old it’s more like “let her eat dirt, walk without being in the stroller/holding my hand as long as she stays near, giving her small jobs where she may have to go into another room without supervision–go get mommy’s phone from the living room, etc” I can see letting her go down to the mailroom on her own at 4/5.

      I might be more cautious about freedom in the US, more to avoid CPS getting involved than lack of trust. But I doubt she’ll be given the chance to babysit anyone but her sister at 11/12, whereas I was out earning money to buy slouchy socks and New Kids cassette tapes.

  3. Nancy says:

    You know I’m always happy to read these early-parenting posts!

    • Crystal says:

      I just bought the local equivalent to “what to expect for the first 5/6 years of life” and I should have an entry up within the week. Small preview–there’s nothing about stuff like sleeping on the back or car seats (AT ALL) and instead a large section debating on whether caning still has a place in discipline today.

  4. At age 10, I was living in West Berlin, Germany. And taking public transportation by myself everywhere, even though I wasn’t yet fluent in the language. I was a latch-key kid from age 9, and when I was a single mom of three young daughters, my 10-year-old was the baby-sitter of my 7-year-old twins. Because I had no choice! Laws vary from state to state in the U.S., and it behooves one to research the applicable laws if moving anywhere new, within the U.S. or out.

    My oldest daughter is very independent, understandably. She went to North Dakota for her Freshman “Getting Started” event for college, and was the ONLY student there without an older family member. The other folks there marveled that she flew from Las Vegas on her own and went to all the orientation things by herself. I mean, wasn’t that the POINT of it all? To let the kids spread their wings a bit?

    I found these posts of yours fascinating, btw. I love reading about different cultures and your perspective of them.

    • kirsten says:

      When I first went overseas to study at the age of 17 I was all ready to do things on my own but wasn’t legally allowed because NZ has the law that international students cannot live alone until they are 18. That was the only reason I stayed with a host family when I first got there (I ended up staying with them for about a year even after I turned 18, but that was because I was too lazy to move).

      My parents’ colleagues were scandalised that my mum didn’t take leave from work to fly with me to NZ and get me settled. Her colleague actually does – takes no pay leave to fly with her daughter to the States. Which I find to be extremely stupid: you trust the kid to live there without your direct supervision for most of the year, but don’t trust her to be able to handle the flight?

      • Crystal says:

        I see Elanor doing her first solo flight within the next decade easily. Having been a frequent flier since infancy, I doubt she’d have any trouble navigating airports on her own, and might even enjoy being sent to her grandparents for a few weeks without her parents cramping her style!

        I’d love to take her to uni, just to see her start that kind of moment, but it will depend on how life plays out. I certainly won’t spend it hovering. I’ll probably want to baby her by making her bed or some stupid “mom” thing and then let her loose.

    • Crystal says:

      The over-protective parent thing seems to have really caught fire within the last 10 years. Maybe it’s a combination of the internet, the 24 hour news cycle and the ease of information processing that allows us to pass around stories that are extremely uncommon and make them the new boogeyman. I mean, take for example the whole Casey Anthony thing…she isn’t the only parent to murder a child, or even the most recent parent to murder a child (and let’s be real…she did it), but the media turned it into a circus. When abduction stories take center stage, they’re always really cute white kids…photogenic ones. But they create the specter of fear without justification (NYC, for example is safer now than it’s been in the last 50 years). Worse, with all our new technology, like cell phones, etc…we’ve created this (false) idea that we can prevent/protect bad things from happening, if we just watch our kids enough. That we can prevent them from acquiring bumps and bruises from life if we step between them and bad things (like a B–GASP) enough. All it’s resulted in is a generation of kids with super high self esteem and no independent coping skills. Not all, certainly…but I saw it all the time as a teacher.

      Personally I had a lot of agency at a young age…perhaps a little too much, if I’m honest. I really shouldn’t have been given complete freedom over my high school classes, for example…I should have been forced into 4 years of math and hard science. But I was incredibly self reliant from a young age, and I knew how to do simple things like laundry, helping to keep the house clean, taking responsibility for doing my homework when I got home without an adult over my shoulder, and all of that. I walked to school starting at 8 years old, often alone. I spent hours alone exploring woods, going to the library, etc. And my mom probably had no idea where I was…since there were no cell phones.

      My parents dropped me and my stuff off at college and that was that (and I only got that much because I went to college an hour from home). I might’ve gotten looks, had I bothered to go to orientation stuff. But having worked in the city for a summer already, I didn’t need silly lectures about personal safety or how to ride the subway.

      In many ways I could easily get labeled neglectful for the amount of freedom I allow E. She walks nearby without holding my hand. I send her into other rooms in the house unsupervised to go get something. I’ll leave her in the living room alone to go do something else like go to the bathroom, or make lunch. In another year or two, she’ll be going to get the mail alone (assuming she can reach our box). Small doses of age appropriate freedom…and by 11/12, I’ll fully expect her to babysit her younger sister.

  5. kirsten says:

    The first time I travelled without any family members was with my primary school to China when I was 11, and then with my secondary school to New Zealand when I was 13. On both occasions I remember having to fill out arrival/departure cards for my friends because they had no clue what the hell they were supposed to be doing, since whenever they travelled their parents would take care of it for them.

  6. If the kid is old enough to talk back, they’re old enough to take the bus on their own. ;D

    • Crystal says:

      I tend to agree…I rode my school bus at 5 and I think I was allowed to go to the store on my own at 7 or 8. No one kidnapped me or hurt me or any of those things parents worry about…and ironically, the crime stats were higher then than they are now, but parents in the US are more scared.

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