PARENTING, IT SEEMS, has never been more difficult. In contrast to the Shamshuipo couple arrested last week for leaving their toddlers alone at home, many parents fret they're not coping or doing right by their children. And increasing numbers are turning to parenting workshops and seminars for guidance.
Amy (not her real name) is a single working mother who recently attended a parenting seminar to find a way to deal with her recalcitrant 10-year-old. 'He's defiant and constantly insists on having his own way, knowing that I can be soft. So we get stuck in this tussle where I become the screaming mother; I just never realised I could scream so loudly,' she says. At one point, the situation became so unbearable 'work became a form of escape for me'.
In the past, parenting skills were acquired through trial and error. But in a rapidly shifting social landscape, working parents often feel isolated and inadequate in raising their children, especially when they lack support from a close-knit community. Which is why welfare organisations such as the Hong Kong Christian Service, Mother's Choice, Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children and Breakthrough have been running parenting workshops in recent years.
Topics covered range from how to improve communication, handling unruly children, setting limits for youngsters and avoiding over-interference in their studies. Led by child-care specialists and coaches, these courses have proved increasingly popular.
US-based specialist Nancy Thomas says participation at the annual parenting sessions she's conducted through Mother's Choice has risen from 100 people to 700 over the past six years. Other groups have attracted up to 800 people to parenting seminars. Describing Hong Kong parents as 'exhausted, terrified but dedicated and loving', Thomas says, 'they're looking for more resources, more training for families'.
Parenting coach Shum Si-ki reports similar concern. People are now more educated and they look for different ways to tackle family problems instead of ignoring them, he says. Getting advice from a professional coach is one avenue. 'In some ways, parents demand more of themselves nowadays.'
Shum says many of his clients are middle-class people who got the idea of a parent coach from the west.
Tina Liu Tian-lan, who's hosted the Mums and Dads, Let's Talk programme on Metro Radio for eight years, suggests the trend isn't a sign of parents being over-anxious, but a recognition of the difficulties they face. 'We have to learn how to become proper mothers and fathers. This is especially important when the environment changes so quickly and children mature earlier,' she says.
As Thomas sees it, Hong Kong's long working hours and high expectations for children are detrimental to building family relations. Too many people leave the raising of their children to domestic helpers. By the time many parents get home, their children are already in bed, limiting time they can spend together.
Sometimes, parents send the wrong message that 'homework is more important than the kids', Thomas says. 'Parents are pushing them very hard in their education, but this may be at the cost of their kids' physical well-being. Young children often don't get the 10 hours of sleep they need. As a result, there is more aggression, more violence and more moods.'
Breakthrough founder Philemon Choi Yuen-wan agrees. Children are often either left alone after school or with their domestic helpers until 9pm, when parents arrive back from work. And while they typically keep a close eye on schoolwork, Choi says many Hong Kong parents don't allow enough time for the family or don't realise the need to provide their children with broader exposure through activities such as visiting museums. Too often, children's activities are over-supervised and they aren't allowed to venture out or given the freedom to explore their own interests, Choi says.
Falling birth rates have exacerbated the trend. 'All the attention is given to the child who becomes spoilt, over-protected,' says Susan So Suk-yin of the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children. The centre used to only provide child day-care services to help relieve the pressure on mothers, but added parenting courses due to the demand.
Melody Funk Landes, who has a daughter, aged six, and a son, four, began attending the parenting seminars organised by Mother's Choice when she became frustrated with her younger child's refusal to attend school. 'He has immense separation anxiety and is unwilling to mix with other children. I couldn't handle him,' she says. 'The traditional way of parenting probably wouldn't work. This is a whole new generation.'
And that, the experts advise, requires relinquishing the stern stance that parents traditionally adopted in the past and employing a flexible, more light-hearted approach with children. Thomas, for example, advocates parents join their children in doing chores or activities such as singalongs to improve bonding, and offers tips on how to avoid lashing out in anger and establish respect by talking over problems instead.
'In dealing with difficult children, the traditional ways [like spanking] don't work,' says Shum. 'Now they need to understand the reasons behind it.'
Amy has taken her lessons to heart. 'When my son jumped on the sofa, I used to think that he was just being naughty. But I've learned that I have to accept this is just part of him being hyperactive,' she says. 'The coach taught me that I won't be able to correct his behaviour just by being tough with him. I have to give him hugs and reason more.'
Technology has also changed how families interact. Television often serves as a nanny. 'When I'm tired, I pop the television on,' says Landes. 'Now I understand why my children and I never have eye contact.'
But the problem isn't only with parents. 'Children of this generation have been more easily influenced by outside forces such as the internet and the media. As a result, they've got more information than kids did in the past,' Shum says.
Citing the case of a 10-year-old boy who allegedly cut his mother with a chopper last month after she told him to stop playing computer games, Choi says it shows how important it is for parents to understand technological fads. That's why Breakthrough launched workshops to help parents comprehend the internet culture, Choi says.
'Web culture has changed parent-child relationships. Sons get addicted to internet [games] while girls like to linger in chat rooms,' he says. 'They're like living in two entirely different worlds.'
To bridge that gap, groups such as the Hong Kong Christian Service has begun taking parents to online games centres to give them a better understanding of what the fad is about. 'Using the computer doesn't mean wasting time. We have to tell the parents you could source information from it too,' says Cindy Yiu Yan-yee, a social worker with the service.
Meanwhile, the seminars and workshops also provide an outlet for parents to relieve pressure by sharing experiences, says Liu. Such talks have given Amy a sense of support. 'There are all these questions asked by different mothers,' she says. 'I now know that I'm not alone.'