Bringing up the rearer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


Like it or not, with many mothers and fathers working long hours in Hong Kong, a lot of the responsibility of parenting has fallen on domestic helpers. This is especially true on weekdays.

So, besides doing household chores, preparing meals and taking the children to school, helpers are increasingly expected to help nurture qualities like independence and self-discipline in youngsters.

'Nowadays parents spend a lot less time with their children. It is very difficult for us to pass on our values to them,' says Monica Leung, a real estate professional whose helper looks after her child. As might be expected, Leung turned to her Filipino helper to teach her elder son how to take care of himself. But it has been a complete failure so far. The four-year-old often refuses to feed himself, ignores requests to switch off the television, and throws tantrums when asked to put his toys away.

'When my husband and I are not around, we count on our helper to tell our children what they should do and correct them when they have made mistakes. But my helper doesn't think children should follow rules, and she has a soft spot for children crying. She gives in when my son begs, pleads or cries,' Leung says.

Leung tries to nudge a change in her helper's habits by writing down a list of household and parenting tasks in a notebook and on Post-It Notes for her. She also shares articles on parenting.

'I constantly remind her about the reasons we have for doing things in certain ways, such as why my son should put away a toy by himself. But I have no control over how much of what I say is enforced during the day,' she says.

The primary responsibility for raising the child rests with the parents. But in enlisting helpers' support to teach children about, say, the need for punctuality or respect for others, parents should have realistic expectations.

Jackie Chan Hiu-yeung, a psychologist at the Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre, says coaching a domestic helper is useful only if she is willing to be involved in parenting in the first place. What's more, it's best if she has some relevant experience.

'Employers should make changes to the way they deal with their helper by taking into consideration their own temperament as well as the helper's,' Chan adds.

If, for example, the helper is timid or lacks confidence in handling children, employers can ask her to take on easier tasks such as teaching the child to clap or say thank you. That will bolster the helper's confidence. But this means employers will have to devote a lot of time and effort to train the helper.

Employers should also show respect when working with a helper who is experienced in parenting (perhaps far more so than they are). Parents should seek her advice on parenting at appropriate times.

Whenever possible, parents should ask their helper to observe the way they teach their children. 'Your helper needs to understand your approach to parenting, find out how you interact with your child and be familiar with your child's temperament,' Chan says.

Rehana Sheikh, who teaches a course on employing and managing domestic helpers at YWCA, says parents who want their helper to enforce certain rules should explain why they are taking that approach. They should not just tell her to follow their instructions.

'Most domestic helpers, and especially Filipinos, love children and don't want to discipline them too harshly or set tight boundaries. That is just down to their cultural temperament,' she says.

So, instead of simply telling the helper 'at 10pm, the television goes off', employers should explain why they introduced the rule. They could say it's because the children shouldn't be watching so much television, or because they shouldn't have too much excitement before bed.

'Training for helpers doesn't happen in one sitting. It has to be ongoing. Once they are comfortable with it, they can do it naturally,' Sheikh says.

Joan Chan Fung-yee and her husband, Alan Chan, are generally happy with their helper's work. They say she provides good care for their two young children, Jacqui and Yavier. She makes sure they have washed their hands before they eat and that they get changed when they are home, and she checks that their five-year-old daughter has done her homework.

While their helper hasn't been able to follow through with the task of encouraging the children to become independent, the Chans are not worried.

'We take over at the weekend when we are at home. We train our daughter to feed herself,' says Joan, a psychologist.

The couple are also toilet training their two-year-old son. 'Our helper doesn't want to do it, because she doesn't want to clean up, which is understandable,' says Alan, an accountant. Joan is planning to take time off in the summer to help her son learn how to use the toilet on his own.

The Chans have told their elder child that he cannot boss the helper around, and that the family shares the responsibility of taking care of the household.

'My daughter puts rubbish in the bin and gets her own drinks. Every Saturday morning when I go shopping for food, my husband takes care of the children and our helper does the cleaning,' she says.

Chan Suk-yan, an administrator at a non-profit organisation, says children need to learn early on that the helper is hired to assist their parents, not them. That way, the youngsters know they are expected to help in the home.

'My eldest son, Randy, who is in Primary Three, folds all our clothes apart from my husband's shirts, and sweeps the floor from time to time. We all do our share of household chores,' says Chan Suk-yan.

It is only natural that helpers try to do things the easy way, she says.

'The key is to fix a problem on the spot. For example, there are things I think my younger son [who is six] should be able to do, like feeding himself. I once found out my helper was feeding him. I immediately put a stop to it and explained why she should not be doing this.'

Chan Suk-yan believes trust is essential to enable her helper to raise her two children the way she and her husband want.

She makes it clear to her sons, Randy and Ryan, that their helper is in charge of the household whenever mum and dad are not at home. In doing so, she is asking her children to respect the helper and listen to what she says.

But it is the parents who are responsible for their children's development, Chan Suk-yan says.

'Spend as much time with your children as you can and make sure you engage in activities important for their development. I chat with my children, read to them, find out what they are doing at school and ask about the things that make them happy or sad. The helper is only there to help while you are away. There is a lot you can do when you are with your child.'