Parenting perils of being always connected

01 Mar 2020

Straits Times, 1 Mar 2020, Parenting perils of being always connected

Once, on a work trip to Montreal, Professor Lim Sun Sun was startled from sleep by a 2am telephone call from her son's teacher.

Calling from Singapore in the afternoon, more than 12 hours ahead, the science teacher asked Prof Lim to source the new workbook her son needed for term two, as stocks had run out at the school's bookshop.

"I realised then that no matter how far I am from my children, I have to parent them, constantly. And that the mobile phone is a key instigator of this enduring and unyielding tie between us," Prof Lim, 47, writes in her latest book, Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children In The Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Prof Lim, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament, coined the term "transcendent parenting" to describe a mode of constant parenting that is "enabled and intensified by hyper-connectivity".

She teaches communication and technology at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where she heads the humanities, arts and social sciences department.

In her book, the result of interviewing 70 parents with 163 children, she describes parents in Singapore as being contactable at all times by their children, educators and fellow parents, via digital devices, parent-teacher apps, mass group chats and social media.

Transcendent parenting has benefits such as providing guidance to youngsters who lack maturity in handling online interactions, she says.

But it runs the risk of over-involvement in the lives of even adult children, hampering their opportunities to learn life skills such as resolving conflict and negotiating social situations.

"To be assured of their children's well-being, parents try to bridge the physical distance between themselves and their kids at every stage - from pre-school where they want to see the CCTV in the kindergarten or the school bus; and in primary or high school, where they are connected by phone," she says.

"In university, if the child goes overseas, the parent wants to view his social media account (to see what he is doing)."

This is similar to concepts such as helicopter parenting, where parents closely supervise their offspring and attempt to remove obstacles in their children's lives.

Prof Lim is married to an aviation law professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), who is aged 50. Their 13-year-old son is in Secondary 2 and their daughter, 16, is in her first year of junior college.


"It's important that parents understand the platforms their children are on. In order to do that, you have to use them," says Prof Lim.

"This develops empathy and creates a shared media experience that allows you to connect with your child.

"There is also a mutual learning process where you can role-model the use of the platform, where your kids can also be a role model for you."

She and her children follow one another on Instagram, where commenting on their posts about family vacations creates additional shared memories.

She seldom posts about her kids and asks their permission if she puts up any photos of them, as she recognises her children have their online image to maintain.

"We have to recognise that kids today have to manage their own online existence."

There are children-only WhatsApp group chats, as well as parents-only WhatsApp chats.

About two years ago, Prof Lim's son was bumped off his schoolmates' WhatsApp chat group within five minutes when they realised he was using his mother's smartphone, as he did not have his own then. She had texted that her son was not home, in reply to a query from his classmate.

Parents can better guide their children in navigating group chats by understanding their particular norms and emphasising practices such as not tolerating bullying.

But checking a child's WhatsApp messages, which some of the interviewees for Prof Lim's book did, may be too intrusive.

"It's important to have that conversation about whether both parties are comfortable doing that," she says.

"If you have a fairly healthy relationship with your child, to go into that conversation should be reasonable. But if you don't have a strong relationship, then that conversation might breed mistrust and resentment. Maintain the channels of communication with your child."

Negotiating mass all-parent WhatsApp groups, often comprising parents of children in the same class, can be similarly delicate.

"They're helpful insofar as parents are providing support for one another, such as by sharing information about what's happening in school. The conversation might be about whether there is PE the next day, for instance. Children aren't necessarily good at retaining or conveying instructions," says Prof Lim.

It gets "toxic", she says, when there is perceived to be competition in these WhatsApp groups.

"When parents are talking about how their kid did particularly well in a test, or how they are thriving for having attended a particular enrichment class, I wonder about the parents who have not been able to do these things for their kids, whether they feel anxiety about having to keep up.

"You may think, 'I must be a terrible parent because I've not done any of this'. So there is this collective upping of the ante around what it means to be a good parent."

There is "a high level of parent-teacher connectivity" through the widespread use of apps that link both sides, such as the Class Dojo app. Some teachers may talk about the child's schoolwork, touching on his academic under-performance or disciplinary issues.

In Prof Lim's book, one mother said she panicked every time her son's teacher messaged, called or e-mailed her.

She kept asking him about his teacher's messages, which made him angry and mistrustful of her. She resolved not to pay heed to these missives from school when she realised her son was withdrawing from her.

Conversely, Prof Lim has also seen more intense parental involvement in children's squabbles in school. She recounts in the book how a father e-mailed his son's teacher about a "punch-up in the school field" which involved his son, attaching a photo of the "faint red marks and small bruise" his son sustained.

A 12-year-old student Prof Lim encountered communicated frequently with her mother via the smartphone. The mother had high expectations of the girl's academic performance.

The girl scored badly on a test and texted her mother, who did not reply for hours.

While Prof Lim never learnt why there was a long delay in the mother's response, she felt that the incident - which left the girl anxious for the rest of the school day and wondering what consequences she would face - was "terrible and needless".

She says: "When children are so connected to you, it can be distressing when you do not respond. Develop a certain rhythm of communication regarding how quickly you can respond, explaining why you may not always be able to reply, for instance, if you're in a meeting.

"Otherwise, the child reads adverse messages (into the lack of a speedy response)."

Prof Lim adds: "Recognise that when your children reach out to you that they need assurance. At the end of the day, show them that you're there for them."

• Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children In The Digital Age by Professor Lim Sun Sun is available online at $34.59 at Books Kinokuniya via