Is an insulated, curated, air-conditioned childhood the only kind of childhood worth having?

Many Singaporeans seem to think so, judging from their reaction to David Heng, 42, a father of seven children.

The Heng family, comprising father Heng, his wife Esther, 40, and their children ranging in age from 3 to 16, live on a budget of just $3,000 a month. Since being featured on the Channel NewsAsia (CNA) Insider series, they’ve become the subject of heated discussion. Singaporeans’ responses have been polarised: while some have given toys and food to the family, others have instead gone online to condemn David for having more children than he can support.

This is because Heng’s job as a youth counsellor pays only $2,600, while the family’s expenses are $3,000, leaving the family short of a few hundred dollars monthly. CNA reported that Heng’s parents help out, presumably financially. The Hengs also rely on welfare programmes to provide healthcare and education for the children.

Granted they aren’t living in the lap of luxury, but do the parents really deserve such harsh criticism?

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Is it irresponsible to have a big family?

The first major complaint is that David is irresponsible for having more children than he can realistically support, and that his children are suffering as a result.

However, nothing in the commentary or video on CNA indicates that the children are in any way deprived of their basic needs – they’re appropriately fed, housed, cared for and educated.

Perhaps the kids don’t get what they want all the time, and don’t enjoy luxuries like fine dining, tuition, or a domestic helper. But would their lack of those privileges mean an emotionally traumatic upbringing?

There are countless success stories of Singaporeans who grew up poor, but managed to attain success through grit and determination. Even our President, Halimah Yacob, managed to rise to the top despite having to juggle school and work at an early age.

Who’s to say that a less privileged upbringing is of a lower quality?

Wealth does not guarantee good parenting, even if it might offer an easier path to economic success. In fact, growing up with less might grant its own set of developmental benefits for the Heng children.

During the CNA documentary, we see Raphael, 8, facing a choice between a loaf of bread, which could feed many, and a tastier, albeit smaller snack. Both cost two dollars. After being reminded of those facts by his mother, Raphael chose the loaf of bread.

A sense of community, and an understanding of the value of money, are both traits that many parents would love their children to develop. The Heng children will grow up learning to share.

Heng is also doing his best to make ends meet. He isn’t idling, and was “working part-time on projects for children with special needs,” while also “freelancing for another company to bring children to heritage sites”. He also told CNA that he was switching to a “full-time job with better pay and more regular hours”. He also said he had to work harder after the birth of his sixth child, Hannah, in 2013, suggesting a willingness to make sacrifices in order to provide for the children.

Affection isn’t a zero-sum game

Another criticism was that the parents have to split their limited time and attention among the seven children, meaning less time given to each child.

father, support, government, family
Image Source: Youtube / CNA Insider

But there’s nothing to suggest Heng’s children are neglected, or that the parents are providing each child insufficient attention.

Besides, siblings can also act as peers and playmates, said Valentina Ho, 24, who grew up as the fifth child of eight, spoke to The Pride about her own experience of growing up in a large family.

“I never felt neglected. Actually, with that many siblings around, I was never lonely, and never had to worry about looking around for friends,” she explained.

Dr Foo Koong Hean, a lecturer at James Cook University and psychotherapist, also told CNA that having more siblings can have its benefits.

“Studies have shown that having more siblings lead to children who have stronger soft skills and higher emotional intelligence. They are also more active, less obese and enjoy better mental health,” he said.

“I’m still close to my sisters, and text them almost every day,” said Valentina. “Growing up, I did have to do things like wake up earlier to get ready for school, because we all shared a bathroom, but it was never a major issue.”

She noted that the experience helped her grow as a person, too.

“I feel like always having to share made me less selfish, and overall it was definitely a positive experience,” she said.

So allowing the children to grow up in one another’s company may not be a bad thing, and as Heng’s new job will let him spend more time with his family, their situation seems to be looking up.

Social assistance is there for a reason

Some netizens have also complained that the support the family receives from the government is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that the country doesn’t owe them a living.

However, we should consider the fact that programmes like the Community Health Assistance Scheme is about ensuring everyone has a safety net in case things don’t go according to plan. In Heng’s case, CNA reported that he had intended to start a business conducting enrichment workshops for [at-risk] youth and their guardians, suggesting that the current shortfall in his income is due to the company being less profitable than expected, rather than a wilful exploitation of the system.

father, support, government, family
Image Source: Youtube / CNA Insider

Ultimately, Heng’s actions were guided by a simple love for children, and he seems to be trying to provide the best life he can for his own using whatever resources are available. As for the children themselves, it’s too early to tell how they’ll fare growing up. However, criticising the parents won’t do anything to improve their situation. Raising seven children is a daunting task for anyone, and the added stress of online disapproval doesn’t make doing so any easier.

The kinder, more compassionate thing to do would be to understand Heng, and provide him support or at least a supportive environment instead of judging him for his choices.