Few can boast of summiting Mount Everest, but Stefen Chow, father of two can.
Now a filmmaker and photographer, Stefan is known for his solo travels with his kids. Yes, sans mother. Currently based in Beijing and hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefen shares how he has helped his family cope with the changes and how he is building resilience in his children.
Little Day Out Interview with Stefen Chow
Little Day Out: Tell us more about yourself, your family and your approach to fathering.
Stefen: I am a photographer/filmmaker, and I am a Malaysian who grew up in Singapore. I was very naughty growing up, and I was the trouble kid to every teacher. Sorry, ‘Chers.
I was fortunate to meet my wife in University, and we have two children, 4 and 6. We call them Little Chow (the older girl) and Littler Chow (the younger boy). We have lived in Beijing for more than 10 years.
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I am a hands-on father, and I love to bond with them on a buddy buddy level. I treat them like young adults, and I am seldom strict except when they cross certain lines.
What influences the way you father?
My parents have a strong influence over my own parenting style. I grew up apart from my own father as he was working in Malaysia while I grew up with my sisters in Singapore with my mum. I spent very little time with my father when I was growing up. Each time I went back to Malaysia during the school holidays, my father would bring me everywhere he goes, including to his office, business meetings, and even meals and drinks with his clients. He has never brought me to a playground because he was busy trying to make ends meet, and from young I understood his situation was hard. We are very close today.
I realised that as a father, I want to spend quality time with my children, and the experience I had growing up showed that children can comprehend adult situations, and they adapt. What develops the relationship between a parent and child isn’t the quantity of toys, let alone how much they cost. The key is mutual communication, spending quality time, and showering love in your own way.
What characteristics would you like your children to develop? Given that you were a Mountaineer, would you like them to scale mountains too?
I want them to grow up adaptable, independent, and become compassionate and useful citizens of the world. Whatever they wish to do when they grow up is their choice, but I will want to fill them in with as much experience and knowledge as possible. I think exposure to how the world works is important, and this is not from a tourist point of view. I have no interest in showing them the highest building, or the most popular sight in town. I want them to experience and understand humanity from different strata and appreciate there is goodness and struggles in every situation.
Without that comparison, you cannot have a grounded sense of your identity.
I have brought them to the mountains, and I have brought my girl to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal when she was 3 years old, but I have no particular wish for them to follow my footsteps. If they do, it’s their choice.
How has the COVID-19 situation affected your family?
From a financial point, we are badly hit. All my projects since the start of the year have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled for at least 6 months.
From an emotional point of view, the family is staying strong. My children are aware of the pandemic, and they are staying positive and motivated to do their studies and activities mostly indoors.
How do you talk about COVID-19 to the kids given the fact that you live close (relatively) to the epicenter of the outbreak?
We were in Singapore for a month before we came back to Beijing more than two weeks ago. The day before we left Singapore, I brought my children to the Universal Studios. They absolutely loved it.
The checks in China were far stricter. The police came to make sure we did our 14-day home quarantine. I told my children that the COVID-19 is really serious in China, and lots of people have fallen ill and even died. However, I also told them if we obey the rules and do what we need to do, we will be fine.
I always believe that under varying circumstances, including crisis, how we communicate with our children is paramount. If they need to know the truth, I would explain it as plainly to them as possible. A child’s behaviour is a mirror to their parents’. If we are anxious and afraid, they would be too. If we are confident, open and calm, they would feel the same way as well.
Have your children vocalised their emotions regarding being home or not being able to travel? How do you respond to them?
They were initially unhappy that they couldn’t go to school as they miss their friends and teachers. As time passed, we realised that they have become restless. We started a timetable to ensure that they keep up with homework, set them tasks and made sure they stay motivated. My girl, who has yet to turn 7, started reading books that would have been usually beyond her reading level. Matilda by Roald Dahl, Charlotte’s Web by E.B White and she has just started Alice in Wonderland. I have also accelerated their Math knowledge as a form of personal challenge for them. It has been fun for them.
They don’t really care if they travel or not. They understand they can’t do it anyway.
After exploring different ways to bond with my children when they were younger, I find that traveling with them one on one is the most efficient way. It takes me a few days a trip, but those few days are very intensive as we navigate a foreign place together. Children behave differently under varied situations, and it is the same with us adults, where we behave differently at work, at home, or with our childhood friends.
Traveling with them this way allows me to create a unique relationship and communication channel with them. It lasts beyond the trips, and I get to deepen that connection every time we go for another trip. That is the biggest reward I get.
There is no downside to this! 🙂
I have a more extensive answer here.
We know that your travels tend to be no frills. Do the children mind? Why did you choose this way of travel?
During these travels, I made it a deliberate choice to stay in the cheapest (and what I regard as safe) accommodation around. We have paid less than 10 USD for a room in Vietnam, or a 30 ringgit room in Sarawak, Malaysia. My children love it, and they see it as a form of adventure.
When you stay at higher end places, the hotels are just a place to stay. The staff tend to be polite and professional, but not the same kind of interaction you get when you stay at a budget accommodation or at a hostel. People there are much warmer, and the encounters more unexpected and interesting. This is all part of the experience.
Do you think the children have toughened up with the travelling? And how have you attempted to build resilience in your children?
Definitely. Both from a physical and mental perspective. We walk the entire day when we travel, and I average 20,000 steps a day on my apps. That means a lot more steps for them since their legs are shorter. When they were younger, I will just don the carrier with them on when they get tired and I will continue while they sleep. They will then wake up and continue the journey.
They are like little troopers, and I know this results from conditioning from these trips. And they look forward to these experiences.
I don’t coddle them, but I make sure we have good fun together.
After the COVID-19 crisis is over, where do you plan to travel to with the kids?
Hahaha. I don’t know.
I have always wanted to do a 10-day cycling trip around Taiwan with them. Before they become too big for the bike child carrier.
What advice can you give to fellow parents amidst the crisis and how can they encourage resilience in their own children?
Stay positive, share with them your own struggles if it means getting them to understand your situation too. Take it as a learning opportunity, and how we can all be better. Keep our chins up. They will understand, and they will be our pillars of support during this challenging period.
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Thank you Stefen for the uplifting and inspiring sharing. We appreciate the viewpoints of a father and applaud his hands-on approach. We know this crisis will eventually end and that will mean more adventures ahead!
To follow Stefen and the little Chows on their adventures, you can head to Stefen’s Facebook page for his brilliant pictures and anecdotes.