Charlotte Goh shares how her work at charity Playeum brought an end to her authoritarian parenting style with her son “Because I wasn’t continuously barking instructions at him, he felt safer to express his ideas and opinions. My relationship with him changed.”
Our ‘That Mama’ this month is proud Singaporean Charlotte Goh, mama to 12-year-old Jonas and Executive Director at Playeum – a charity that uses play to develop life skills and amplify children’s voices and abilities. Charlotte chats to us candidly about having Tourette Syndrome (and the tic that gives her an insatiable desire to poke someone’s eyes!) and shares some really great tips for parents to understand why play is so important. Charlotte opens up about IVF and her difficulties conceiving “The journey of trying to get pregnant had its challenges. There was a lot of blame and demand from both sides. It pulled us apart but also brought us together” plus how her work at Playeum showed her how competent and full children already are if only we stop instructing them and give them space to be heard. Here’s her interview, get a cuppa and sit back for a really insightful read!
Read our past That Mama interviews here
Tell us about yourself and your family
I am a proud Singaporean and my great-half is German and he has been in Singapore for over 20 years. Jonas is our little one, who’s 12 this year. We are an active family, loving the outdoors in Singapore, spending quality time with our friends and family and have a strong passion for what we do in our lives.
Tell us something quirky about yourself
I have Tourette Syndrome, which was diagnosed at age 8. I have a tic that creates an insatiable desire to poke someone’s eyes!! At least, it looks like that. But I have never succeeded due to my great self-regulation that I have built up over the years HAHA.
Tell us about your job
I am a trained social worker, media person and now non-profit administrator. I run Playeum, an IPC charity that works with children and their adults (parents and educators), in using play and the arts to develop life skills and confidence to help them thrive despite any challenging situations they face. Our programmes focus on children and adults that come from adverse backgrounds, and those with varying disabilities.
We also work with educators from pre-schools and primary schools in sharing our practices in working with children, using play and the arts to hold space for children to empower them, their voices, their sense of agency and creating ample opportunities for their life skills to develop.
Running Playeum has its administrative functions, management functions, co-creating strategic directions towards our vision, fundraising and developing strong partnerships with collaborators to enable children to thrive. While we run programmes for children to support their development, a big focus lies in enabling adults surrounding the child to be creative facilitators of children. Children are fires waiting to be led and guided, they come FULL. They are not half empty vessels waiting to be filled. We adults can create psychological safe spaces and multiple opportunities anywhere for them to express their creativity, imagination, develop critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. As facilitators of children, we can enable powerful conversations and thinking with our children.
How has working at Playeum influenced your parenting journey?
When I first joined Playeum, Jonas was 5 years old. I actually came from the old school way of bringing up a child. I was authoritarian and instructional in my way of managing him. Well, what did he know, I thought! I need to impart my knowledge to him, my lived experiences, so that he wouldn’t make mistakes.
Playeum showed me how creative and competent and full children are. If we think that every human being is powerful in their own right, then every child is powerful. By learning how to hold space for Jonas, for him to express his ideas, his creativity, he started to problem solve more, he started to come up with thoughts and opinions that showed me how much there is to him. I see his strengths, what he can do. My relationship with him changed. Because I wasn’t continuously barking instructions at him all the time anymore, psychologically he felt safer to express his thoughts. My previous over-authoritarian style instilled fear, and essentially fear prevents a child to speak up or to fully express themselves. Fear cripples you, because fear is intended to STOP an action or a behaviour or to control.
I think it’s always a dance between enabling a child-led approach, and open-ended approach which gives Jonas the freedom to express himself creatively verbally or physically, and instilling boundaries through discipline. I take time to share about respected boundaries and why it’s important.
I think one of the biggest gifts I have and want to continually give him, is me being fully present when I am with him, and allowing him the time and space and voice (verbally or otherwise) to be himself, and to express himself. But, this is a continuous mindful effort. Sometimes, it’s a moment by moment practice to be aware of where I am mentally and emotionally when I am with him. With that awareness within, I can make choices. It’s a journey, and sometimes it’s ideal and great and sometimes not. But with mindfulness, it helps the positive happen more often.
If you think about it, many parents spend little time with our children. In the day, they are at school or childcare, and when we come home from work, we have a few good hours before they sleep. Being fully present with Jonas allows me to be curious, and engaged with him, genuinely interested to see where his mind is taking him, what is going on in his life or thoughts, what is his take on things that surround us.
How did you meet your husband?
My oldest friend and one of my best buddies, introduced Hannes to me, after someone tried to set them up. She told me, “I am not interested, but don’t waste lah, he’s a good catch!” Haha!
Does your son speak German and are you bringing your son up to follow German traditions and culture as well as Singaporean?
Jonas speaks German and he’s learning Mandarin too. I think Jonas is learning not only our culture and religion, but we are exposing him to learn about our friends’ cultures and religions too. From the Catholic to the Sikh faith, to superstitions of the Chinese New Year practices, we are sharing them with him and having discussions about the origins and why it comes about.
We understand you became a mother when you were in your 40s and used IVF – are you open to sharing your journey to become a parent?
We married at 36, and immediately we tried to have children. Which we found out, was not easy. After going to several private clinics and years of the ‘softer’ fertility approach, we went to KKH and we experienced superb immediacy in support, being termed an ‘older’ woman at 39. Within a month, they found a cyst in my womb and removed it, and after 2 months recovery, the IVF process started. The chances even with IVF at 39 years of age, we were told was 15%. We are grateful that I got pregnant on the first round. I delivered at age 40.
When I was 42, we took our balance of 4 frozen embryos with the hope of defrosting them and implanting one. Only one survived the freezer, we implanted it, but it was not meant to be. So, we are grateful for one Jonas that came to us!
The journey of trying to get pregnant had its challenges. There was a lot of blame and demand from both sides. There was frustration, disappointment, sadness and tears quite often when my period came each month. We tried many things, like Chinese herbs, medicine, fertility treatments, even seeing a monk who had to burn papers for us. This journey pulled us apart but also brought us together. It’s never easy, but we pulled through. Adoption was also on our agenda.
Why is open-ended play so important for kids?
Open-ended play is where you don’t always have the end in mind, and you allow yourself to focus on the process. A toilet roll. Its less about making it into a car and how the car looks like a good looking car, but more about the process of how the child comes to his ideas, his story about why the car has 5 wheels, why he does things a certain way, how he builds the muscle of problem solving through his discovery in making the car move with the wheels he created.
Can you see how this open-ended opportunity for play builds the muscle of creativity, imagination, problem-solving, critical thinking? The more you use a muscle, the neural connections become stronger and the better you are at it. When he/she is given time and space to express their ideas (having a voice), we feel heard and validated. A voice heard or suppressed, is equally powerful.
Can you give parents 5 quick tips around play?
1. Observe your child as they play. We learn a lot by observing them and what they say and how they play. We learn about our children – their nature, their personality.
2. Be fully present for them.
They feel it and they know. And they cherish your 100% presence with them. (that means put away mobile devices when we engage with our children in play time or bonding time).
3. Ask questions that allow them to solve problems, give their ideas or thoughts.
When they colour say, an all-red drawing/scribbles, instead of using our adult lens (eg: Oh that looks like a fire!), let them give their thoughts and hear their imagination – “You used a lot of red, tell me more!”
4. Instead of judgement, ask them what it means to them.
For example, we get a lot of children, especially boys making guns out of recycled materials. Instead of telling them that guns are bad or dangerous, we have a conversation about guns/weapons/protection/use of force etc. In one of our previous convos with a primary school group, the convo about guns went into the topic of capital punishment and what they thought about it (these were early primary school children)! Imagine the expansion of the convo and the mind!
5. When kids do something wrong, they need to know why it is wrong.
Help them to empathise, and have a conversation when we can and when we are centered enough to do so. Quite often, we use fear to stop them in their actions – especially with the tone we use. Sometimes it is necessary, but it is always important to take the time to explain, to help put them in the other’s shoes as well, and have a conversation with them.
As an adult, sometimes we are their ‘teachers’, sometimes their ‘coach’ and sometimes their ‘facilitator’, and also, sometimes, we are the ‘learner’. At the end of the day, create everyday opportunities for our children to explore, learn, experiment and fail. Hold space in a positive way for them to be curious.
Do you find kids stop playing at a certain age? How can we encourage older kids to keep playing?
Play is innate in all of us, we are players. What defines Play? For me, I define it with positive notes. Play is when I feel connected to myself, when I feel in the moment, when I feel uninhibited somewhat to let my inner child, inner ideas come through, I feel free/connected to nature or others, sometimes it’s a feeling of ‘abandonment’ – remember the sentence in the song by EnVogue, “Free your mind – the rest will follow”! This defines a state of play for me. Sometimes there is laughter, sometimes there is a sense of groundedness, of pure joy, of Being.
Play is also not always fun. There are playground politics that occur, and here the lessons and experience in negotiation, self-awareness, self-regulation, communication etc all come in. So play here enables growth and learning. As adults, our playground can be our office too.
There are all kinds of play. Schools want to teach using play as a channel because it engages them better, and when one is engaged, you remember better, you enjoy the content better, and then your curiosity and interest in learning is sustained. So learning through play is huge. Our Play changes too as we grow up. Kontinentalist, our partner for our Everyday Creativity festival, did a data collection about how children, adults and other adults play. They differ in activities, and what people constitute as play.
What is your definition of Play for you?
What are your thoughts on gaming and digital platforms for kids?
Even online games are a form of playing. They do develop skills in a person – depending on the age-appropriate games, they can teach strategy, teamwork, communication, embracing failure, and resilience. I think it’s more about balance of activities that our children undertake. There is value in many activities, like outdoors, sports, arts, games (board games, online as well). Too much digital exposure has adverse effects on us, especially people with neuro diverse conditions.
Do you want your child to benefit from this all round exposure which supports them physically, mentally and emotionally too?
What advice can you give parents of older kids who may find their timetables too busy with academic responsibilities to allow them time to play?
Firstly, I believe it’s important to know and understand the benefits of play – there is vast information about play and its benefits on the web, so reading about it so we ourselves have the knowledge.
Secondly, I would model what I want my child to do/experience. Or do it together.
Thirdly, I would give them a choice (agency) to choose or at least express what they love engaging with, the different things that make their heart sing. Not what we want all the time, but some things that make them tick. Take it from there.
Tip: have open conversations about play, learning, gaming etc with them. Let the conversation flow and be genuinely curious about what they think or have to say. You will feel a need to control or TELL them what you think is important, or maybe even make them do what you believe is good for them. Just be aware of this. It’s not right or wrong, just be aware and then make choices on how you want to hold space for that conversation with your child to develop in a way that allows for their option and ideas, while also sharing yours. Holding space for both of you to share, while respecting the thoughts of each. Often, it’s more than one conversation, especially if you feel that you need to ‘persuade’ them to do something you would like. Journey with that, be patient, and keep them coming to you and opening up by creating a safe space for them to communicate with you and vice versa.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think looking back, my greatest suffering was my own thoughts I had about myself – my insecurities which caused me to fear or worry. I would have processed that earlier in life.
What are your hopes for your son?
That he thrives as the best version of himself, and that he finds good people and strong positive relationships around him to support and empower him and vice versa.
How do you define success in life and how has this influenced the importance you place on your child’s academics vs other ‘markers’ of success?
The traditional markers of success always ring through for many of us. But, I think ultimately, I feel that my responsibility is to guide him to be his best. I cannot own him. I cannot make him a person that I want him to be. He has to find his own. And I am excited by my role to help guide him with the values I believe will support him and his relationships. I also enjoy his company and I like hanging with him, so I would like to have a strong, close, meaningful relationship with him as he grows up.
Jordan Peterson wrote in his book, 12 Rules of Life, “Bring your children up, so that you like them”. His notion is that if you yourself don’t like your kid, then others won’t, and s/he’ll have a hard time. This doesn’t mean making them a people pleaser, but to have values and traits that gain the respect and favour of people surrounding them. That’s how I interpret it at least.
WATCH: ‘How NOT to Raise People Pleasers’ Sassy Mama Expert Chat
I also have to understand my child. To recognise his strengths and what challenges him. And embrace his strengths and weaknesses, his intellectual abilities, his unique personality traits. Where I can support change that would help him, I will. Where I have to accept what I cannot change, I will need to do my best to embrace that.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Every dinner is family time, it is the most precious time for the family. We talk about everything under the sun from politics to teenage hormones. We also cycle together – three of us are mountain bikers. So we try to cycle together regularly.
I wish I had more time for…down time.
I always feel saner after….a cycle down a trail, a hike in the forest, when I journal my thoughts, a good chat with a trusted friend.
As a mama I wish I were better at…math.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….work and ideas that I have or insights to problems I have been trying to solve.
My favourite moment of the day is…the early morning when I take time to meditate and on alternate days go for a 45 min morning walk at Kent Ridge.
Thank you for a lovely chat and some really insightful parenting tips Charlotte!