A Father's Day Special: An Interview with Neil Humphreys
“I’ve always wanted to be a dad…since I was 10 or 11”
Being a dad is a natural calling for Neil Humphreys, Singapore’s popular expat writer, and making sacrifices in parenthood is “no big deal” and something that he actually enjoys.
Coming across as refreshingly honest and child-like, he is not very different from the main character, Abbie Rose (named after his daughter), in his latest children's book series, Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase. His enthusiasm about his daughter and about parenthood is infectious.
This role model of a father opens up to theAsianparent about how his daughter is his inspiration, his “angel,” and how he wants to always be her ‘kaki’.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You have been writing children’s books nowadays, with the popular Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase series, which is being turned into a television series soon. Any reason why you made the move from books for adults?
A: I wanted something that I could write for my daughter, and all children just love storytelling, even adults.
What stunned me was how boring children’s books out there are. I’m not talking about the great ones, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo—those are fantastic classic books, but for every The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Gruffalo, there might be four or five that are simply substandard. In a book like those, there is no humour. There is no reason why a children’s book couldn’t be informative and funny, and be fun for both the child and the parent.
I very much follow two things. One is the Pixar model. In Pixar movies, like Finding Nemo, you get more jokes than you get from most adult comedies, and some of those jokes may go over the kids’ heads. There are just two levels going on there and there is nothing wrong with that.
So, I have that sort of thing going on with my book, with some jokes that the five- or six-year-old may not understand, but the parents deserve that: if they are going to read the book for 20 min, let’s make it fun for them as well.
And the second thing is, I actually adore the children’s book, Charlie and Lola, and it has become a very successful animated children’s show, absolutely brilliant. I think Dora the Explorer was one-dimensional, like a Mother Teresa. And anybody who has got kids, they know.
My daughter and her friends are nothing like Dora. They are silly, cheeky, funny, and irreverent, and say things, often the wrong things.
In Charlie and Lola, it’s a real relationship, loving but squabbling siblings, as it is in any household, anywhere in the world. And particularly, it shows the dynamics [of] an older brother–younger sister relationship and it reminds me of my own relationship with my sister.
In my book, Abbie Rose is an eco-warrior but at the same time irreverent, quirky, and funny. She does like animals, and she does want to help animals in the way Dora does, but she also makes mistakes, sometimes gets into trouble. But she redeems herself or others help her redeem herself.
Q: Is your daughter an inspiration for the Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase story?
A: Yes, most definitely.
When we went on a short trip to Australia, Abbie brought a pull-along Dora the Explorer suitcase. I was watching her one afternoon, and she was acting out being the airport staff checking you in, and she acted out being the stewardess.
She was using her suitcase as if it was her portal. She would take her suitcase to the room and say, welcome to Australia and she would go into another room, and say, welcome to America, and in her eyes, that was fun. For some illusive, magical reason, whenever she went into the room, that would become another country. So that’s when I got the idea of the magic suitcase being a portal in my story. She had done it for me!
Q: How would you describe your daughter?
A: She is an angel. I’m not religious in any way but if I was, I would say she is a gift from the gods.
I give my wife much of the credit for it. Abbie is such a wonderful, sensitive—probably too sensitive, she gets it from me—caring, compassionate, and well-behaved child. And to me, it’s not really rocket science. We just raised her the right way, taught her right, taught her to treat people right, to treat people the way she would like to be treated.
What makes Neil Humphreys a great father? Read on.
Q: What is your parenting style like?
A: I’m very independent with her. I got her climbing Australian mountains when she was six months old—I had her strapped on my chest. We went to America 18 months ago and she was only five then. We went to New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. all by ourselves, and I brought her on the trains, buses, and airplanes. She loved every minute.
We always have adventures, even in Singapore. I’ve taken her to Lim Chu Kang mangroves, Palau Ubin Chek Jawa Wetlands, and to Lazarus Island.
As parents, we know there is always a price to be paid for affluence. Children get soft. And for someone who comes from a very tough background, I am always paranoid about it. It’s a balancing act, particularly in Singapore.
I want her to have the resilience and independence that I have but not necessarily the hardships that I went through, so it’s that constant balance.
So, she has been doing household chores since she was three years old. It’s just very simple stuff, like put your clothes in the basket, make your bed and put your toys away, and she does it. She gets pocket money, and it’s $5 a week.
I do tell her when she does a bad job. If she does a drawing that is not her best, I will ask her what she really thinks about it, and get her to redo it. And on the flipside, if she does do well, I get emotional and I say, see, I told you we can do this!
On disciplining, I do say no a lot, like how my mother used to say to me, and I think that is necessary for a child to hear.
My wife and I grew up getting the occasional smack, too, and that seemed normal then, but we’ve never ever hit our child. That was more like an organic thing. We never said we wouldn’t before she was born, because I grew up in that world, but now I can’t.
Anyway, I also think there must be something morally wrong with a 1.94m tall guy who weighs 95kg putting his hand on any child, in any context. I don’t think I need to do that. If we as parents hit our child, in some cases, it’s because we have lost control, and it’s very difficult to tell ourselves that we’re hitting our child because we want to teach her the right thing.
Q: How has becoming a dad changed your life?
A: Everything is about my daughter. I’ve always wanted to be a dad. It’s a clichéd statement but I have never wanted to be anything else. I never had a direction with my career—things just fill in— but with the father role, I always knew since I was 10 or 11.
I don’t want to be critical of my dad and I’m not, but you know, when your parents divorce and your dad’s not around, and it is mum playing two roles, it makes you aware of that fundamental question, where’s Dad? My dad was a typical once-a-week dad or once-a-fortnight dad and all the conversations are about the McDonald’s burger, that sort of thing, and from then, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be like that as a father.
I accept that when you are going to be a dad, there would be sacrifices. I love being a parent, and people ask me, don’t you miss going to the restaurants or the cinemas, or even adult company. I say, no. If they are going to be boring company, frankly, I would rather spend time with my daughter.
I like being with children. I get invigorated by them and find their lack of cynicism uplifting. Any negatives that come with having a child comes nowhere close to the positives. Nobody, and no movie, makes me laugh like my daughter. To me, this is normal, not a big deal at all.
What does Neil have to say to fellow dads? Find out on the next page.
Q: What is the most fulfilling thing about being a father?
A: It’s always the little things that make up the big things, like the first time she rode a bike. The moment she got the balance and the pace, I saw that she was flying, with the wind in her face. I saw that look on her face and I thought, wow, she had never had an experience like that as she had only walked or run.
And when she did her first school concert at the age of three, she was very shy and my heart was pumping as she stood on stage with 30 pairs of eyes on her. It was a Chinese concert and the teacher spoke in Mandarin and I was thinking, my daughter would not understand. And then she just did it—children just find that inner strength.
So it’s all these little things that become the big things.
Q: How do you see your role as a father in your daughter’s life?
A: I’ve always wanted to be her mate, a ‘kaki’. I want her to be able to talk to me.
And I know there’s going to be a time when she wouldn’t want to talk to me. She’s going to be a teenager and I’m going to be telling her, "You’re not going out there," and "Who is he?", and she is going to hate my guts. It’s going to happen. But amongst all of that, I hope we would have cultivated a relationship long enough.
And I never patronise children, never talk down to them, and never question their intelligence. We never give them credit but they are far sharper than us. A child can spot something like an antennae, like a weak teacher from the door. They sense it, like a vulture smelling a carrion. My daughter even plays me off my wife!
Q: What is your Father’s Day message to all fathers out there?
A: Be there.
Honestly, you can buy all kinds of things, but just be there. That’s all she wants, really. That’s all I wanted when I was a kid. Just be there.
*All images used in this article were provided by Neil Humphreys.
theAsianparent would like to thank Neil Humphreys for his time. We do think that he is an awesome dad, and Abbie Rose is indeed a lucky girl!
Share with us what you think the role of a dad should be. Please leave a comment below.