The Korea Herald/Asia News Network
A survey released by the Gender Ministry revealed that more than 35 percent of elementary school children spend time alone after school, while 63.7 percent of them live with a single parent who has no caretaker to look after them when they are alone at home. (Shutterstock/-)
When her daughter turned 18 months a few years ago, Lee Ji-seon faced a totally unexpected situation. Her daughter only wanted to spend time outdoors -- all day, every day. She’d sit on her stroller and cry nonstop until Lee would take her outside, even if it was two o’clock in the morning.
“So I’d take her on a stroller walk at 2 a.m., and just walk around the neighborhood until she fell asleep,” said Lee, a former teacher who now raises two children. “And I’d very carefully take her back to her bed, trying my best not to wake her again.”
For about six months that year, Lee almost literally lived with her daughter outdoors. She fed her in the playground. When there was nothing else to do after many stroller walks, they watched children going in and out of school together. “And then the monsoon season came,” she said. “It was only after she was soaked in rain a number of times -- which she did not enjoy -- she slowly started losing interest in being outside all the time.”
Lee is one of some 20 mothers who are taking classes on child care provided by the Gender Ministry in Gwanak-gu, Seoul. The former elementary school teacher has been taking such classes for several years, since her first daughter was born.
“I read a lot of books on parenting before my first child was born,” she said. “But when you actually have your baby, you face countless unexpected situations that none of the books you read can help. I would have never guessed that my daughter would not want to stay inside when she turned 18-months-old. Many times you need hands-on help and advice from real people.”
Education for parents
While Lee has benefited immensely from the classes, it is only this year that the South Korean government started actively encouraging new parents to attend educational programs on child care. The decision has been partly in response to the increasing number of reported child abuse cases in the country, with 80 percent of the abusers being the children’s parents.
Statistics say Korean children are unhappy about spending a significant amount of time alone after school. Korea scores low among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in terms of children’s happiness and life satisfaction. A survey released by the Gender Ministry revealed that more than 35 percent of elementary school children spend time alone after school, while 63.7 percent of them live with a single parent who has no caretaker to look after them when they are alone at home.
Among the 10,027 young Korean child abuse victims reported in 2013, 14.6 percent of them were infants aged 0-3. The report by the Health Ministry said that being exposed to abuse during the first four years of one’s life can be particularly dangerous, and it can severely damage a child’s social development and leave life-long psychological scars.
Abusive or neglectful behavior toward infants include limited physical contact with the child -- such as no kisses or hugs or other signs of affection -- and failing to bathe or feed the baby regularly.
“I think education is needed, because a lot of the times parents may be unaware that they are actually abusing their children. You may think you are disciplining them or even helping them,” said Lee Young-min, an expert in child development who teaches at government-run child care classes.
“That is why you need education. Being well-aware of your own personality as well as your child’s temperament can help you prepare better for unexpected situations, and prevent you from unreasonably blaming your own child for something they should not be blamed for.”
For example, Lee explained in her class that most toddlers to act very stubborn at 18 months, as it is when they begin to realize they are an individual, not just an extension of their parents. It is also at 18 months that toddlers start recognizing themselves in the mirror.
“But when the parents do not have this information, they may think their child is just being unbearably difficult. And this can really negatively affect their relationship with the child,” she said.
Kim Soo-jeong, a 42-year-old mother of two, recalled a moment when she couldn’t control her stress and screamed at her first child. It was just about 15 days after her second child was born.
“My mother was helping me with postpartum recovery as well as in taking care of the newborn and my first daughter, who was three at the time,” she said. “But my mother became ill after the first 10 days, and I was left to take care of both kids all by myself while I hadn’t fully recovered from the delivery.”
It happened when her 3-year-old kept littering toys all over the floor, over and over again. “And she would keep tearing off a poster from the wall, after I put it back up numerous times,” she said. “That’s when I lost it and yelled at her: ‘Didn’t I just tell you to stop?’”
Lee Young-min said it is important for parents to actively seek help when in need and rest as much as they can whenever they have time. Managing one’s own stress is crucial for parents when dealing with young children, she added.
Overseas studies have long shown that personal stress influences a parent’s behavior toward their children. Parents who have marriage stress or struggle financially are more likely to abuse or neglect their children, according to a 1991 study by Michigan State University. Along with stress, the social isolation of a parent from having to raise a child alone has also been linked to child abuse and neglect, according to a 2002 report by the World Health Organization.
Lee said one of the important aspects of being a parent is to learn about his or her own personality as well as their weaknesses. For example, if one is an emotionally sensitive person, they should be aware that they are more vulnerable to stress than others, and remind themselves that this can negatively affect their children.
Without this process, many parents may end up being angry at their children for “just being children.”
“Some kids are just really physically active, while some parents prefer to stay home and read,” Lee said.
“If this is the case, you have to acknowledge that the difference between you and your child may cause conflict. If you don’t know this, you just end up yelling at the child for making you exhausted all the time. But when you think about it, there is nothing wrong with children being active. They are just being kids. Know your own personality and preferences, and carefully study how they are different from the ones of your child. Knowing this can reduce your chance of neglecting your child’s needs.”
Experts say it’s a myth that all parents -- especially the mothers -- “naturally” love their children unconditionally. Lee said personality differences can be stressful not just between married couples, but for parents and their children as well.
For example, when a parent is spontaneous and enjoys improvising while the child does not enjoy unexpected or new situations, it can be stressful for both, Lee said. “In this case, the parent can be seen as inattentive to the child,” she said.
“It can be very stressful for the child because he wants things to be ready and planned in advance. The child may feel anxious that the mother may forget to help. Such children also don’t really enjoy going to new places. They actually have a lot of fun when they visit their favorite place they’ve been a number of times. But for a spontaneous parent, it may feel like the child is just too picky or not adventurous enough.”
Lee said it’s always the best to accommodate children’s preferences according to their personality, instead of forcing them to do something they are not interested in.
“Say a child is an introvert and enjoys solo sports,” she said.
“Then you should let him swim, instead of making him take basketball lessons because you want him to be more extrovert and be a team player. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert, as there is nothing wrong with being an extrovert. What’ s important is that the children feel like they are accepted and loved the way they are.
For example, when an active child is discouraged from doing activities and is asked to behave differently, he or she may grow up into an individual who is unfocused and easily distracted. But when children’s active qualities are appreciated and accepted, they are more likely to end up becoming considerate and highly social and engaged persons, she said.
Motherhood and careers
Kim Soo-jeong said after taking parenting classes, she lets her daughter litter toys around the house as much as she wants.
“I realized that she just likes them all littered on the floor. That’s how she likes it for some reason,” Kim said. “In the past, she’d cry when I organize them for her, asking me to put them back to where they were. So now I just let her be and have fun, but make sure she cleans the room in the end. I came up with this idea of ‘cleaning game,’ so she doesn’t think of it as an ordeal.”
Lee Ji-seon plans to go back to work in 2018. In total, she would have taken 6 years of break from her career. She said she doesn’t regret taking a long break and doesn’t feel insecure about being a teacher again. “I don’t think of it as a disadvantage,” she said. “May be it’s because I’m a school teacher. But regardless of your job, I think there is invaluable lessons one can learn from being a mother. It expands your life into something bigger, something more meaningful. I think being a mother will only make me a better teacher.”
South Korea is notorious for its long work hours, which often separate parents -- especially the fathers -- from their children. Lee said her husband quit his job back in 2014 to be a full-time parent, along with Lee. They are currently relying on their savings accumulated for 10 years before having the first child.
“I think the best gift parents can give children is their time,” Lee said. “We have no regrets.”
Yet not many Korean parents have the option of taking parental leave or quitting their jobs indefinitely to commit to child care. From 2010 to 2014, the number of double-income households increased from 27.9 percent to 31.2 percent.
“I think what Korean parents need the most is flexibility to spend time with their children,” she said. “Allowing us more time is the best way for the government to help us with child care.”
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