This year, I was blessed to connect with other stay-at-home dads thanks to a new community of fathers I connected with. One of them is my new buddy Josiah Ng. Today, I’m honored to have him share with us what he learnt from his son’s unexpected daily school meltdowns during most of the third quarter of 2023.
Over to you, Jo! (For info about my guest, check out his details at the end of this post)
Goodbyes are hard.
I should know.
My seven-year-old boy was crying every morning between July and September this year when I bade him goodbye at his drop-off outside the school gate.
If he wasn’t whining, he was wailing. At his worst, he was clawing his way back to me while being restrained by his school’s Vice-Principal, sometimes with the help of the school’s burly Operations Manager!
As my head reeled, I wondered: Why does he not want to go to school so badly?
Here’s where the story begins. (cue Schindler’s haunting violin soundtrack)
Koala Bear Spotted At The School Gate
It started in July, a week after the school holidays. That morning, we did our usual ‘goodbye routine’ — a hug, a short prayer, followed by a kiss.
But then, he started to ask for more hugs and kisses. Before I knew it, my son was a koala bear refusing to let go of its “tree trunk” aka my hip and thighs!
The Vice Principal noticed us and kindly allowed me to walk my son to the stairwell that morning (parents are barred from entering the school during morning drop-offs). My boy, still refusing to let go of me, started to make grunting noises (hmmm…might he be a real koala?). He was showing displeasure as I beckoned him to let go and get to class. Is he, I wondered, experiencing a delayed school holiday hangover?
Other kids were watching us now, on their way to class. Some were whispering to one another. Others were staring fixatedly. Having gone to school with no issues for the first six months of the year, my son was now generating plenty of curiosity among his schoolmates who stopped and asked what was happening (thankfully more out of goodwill than mischief).
Clearly, this wasn’t a usual occurrence.
In the end, the form teacher was called in. She managed to escort my son to class after much coaxing. I promised the kid I would be back to fetch him when school ended. Also, I told him I knew he could be the brave boy that he was deep inside.
As I walked away, I thought: Since most hangovers disappear after a day, that should be that right?
Unfortunately, that was only Day 1.
And The School Gate Saga Continues
In quick succession, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5 rolled passed, with my son refusing to let me go every single morning at the school gate. Before I knew it, the school week was gone.
A pattern was definitely emerging.
My wife and I tried to diagnose the situation. We asked indirect questions like, What do you like about school and teachers, and what or who do you not like? Are there friends in school that have made you sad?
The amateur psychiatric evaluation we did, while he played with his Legos, all pointed back to one answer from my boy: But I just want you, Papa…
The second week we had a chat with the form teacher. She did her best to sieve out what my son’s issue might have been. But there wasn’t anything in school that she suspected had caused this unusual behavior. She also ruled out bullying but promised to keep a lookout and ask around.
In the third week, the form teacher turned the spotlight on our homefront. Any changes in the family affecting your son? Has he been sleeping late? From experience, sometimes when kids sleep late, they act out the next morning.
In my frustration of having to deal with a seven-year-old refusing to go to school for God-knows-what reason every morning, I was actually quite annoyed that the questions seemed to point back to us the parents as the source of my son’s predicament.
But we went with it and tried our best to keep an open mind, having already exhausted other possibilities.
So I made the kid sleep even earlier and discussed with my wife what possible changes might have happened at home. Change after all is scary, even for adults. So we wanted to make sure we saw things from my son’s perspective. Perhaps there had been changes from his vantage point that had escaped us, but which to him were earth-shattering.
The Saga Continues As My Exasperation Escalates
As we did more sleuthing, another series of talks ensued with the school teachers.
Bullying was ruled out again. Soon, the Operations Manager was stationed daily at the gate (voluntarily thank God), to greet my son and walk him up to his class a few days each week.
By then, almost two months had passed. Still, the morning koala bear grips and cries continued.
I grew more and more exasperated and had to restrain myself from blowing up. Why can’t you just walk in, son? What are you really afraid of?
On alternate days, I toggled between soft (good cop) and hard (bad cop) tactics to test which worked best. I prayed different prayers. I changed routines. Some days, I even walked new paths around the school with him.
There were days I got so flustered I ‘whispered-yelled’ — a controlled grunting mixed with a soft You better walk in right now or else…, barely loud enough for anyone in front of me to hear. But my facial expression was so menacing I swear everyone else around could ‘hear’ my anger.
Guess what? The situation didn’t improve; in fact, it worsened.
One morning, it got so bad the boy didn’t even want to leave our house. I had to drag him by force all the way from home to school with curious stares from passersby. It was literally 15 minutes of deadweight. My smart watch clocked 119 calories burnt!
I wanted to cry when I returned home. I felt claustrophobic and smothered, not knowing what to do. In fact, it felt like quicksand. The more I tried to get my son out of this predicament, the more we sunk deeper.
Turns out, this was the first lesson I got from the whole experience.
Anxiety is quicksand.
And I was sinking fast!
[In Part 2 next week, find out more about the first lesson (and two others) Josiah learnt]
About My Guest
Josiah Ng is obligated to call himself a stay-home-but-go-out-too-dad because his son hated the name “Stay Home Dad”.
As the primary caregiver to his two boys since April this year, Josiah uses his time to tell them stories and enjoys creating worlds with them.
With a background in video production, Josiah previously led the film and social content division at DDB Group Singapore, where he directed a feature documentary — André & His Olive Tree — which broke Taiwanese box office records and is currently available on Netflix.
Josiah’s children are his daily humbling reminders to inspire and empower the younger generation through his many creative works. Apart from video, Jo’s also an accomplished writer and storyteller. His YA book, The Story of Number Nine, is evidence of this man’s varied artistic palette.
You can connect with Josiah via his Insta handle @thesociallydistanceddad