Raising Compassionate Children Amidst COVID-19

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Raising Compassionate Children Amidst COVID-19

Teaching kids to care about others

By Sue-Anne Wu | 18 June 2020

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? – Henry David Thoreau

“I don’t care!” my second son yelled as he tried to wrestle a toy out of his brother’s hands. In that instant, all my son cared about was getting that toy – no matter what.

Isn’t this a common problem these days? Kids are self-absorbed and plain selfish. Bullies think they can get away with unkindness as long as it’s not seen while others are not mindful of the impact of their words and actions.

These are the problems that may arise when our kids’ empathy muscles are left untrained.

But why should we care whether our kids have empathy? I could cite research that shows empathy as a positive predictor of children’s reading and math test scores and critical thinking skills; or that it prepares kids for the global world and gives them an edge over other job seekers. Daniel Goleman, in his Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader?” named empathy as one of the “essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance.”

But perhaps what is most important is this: Empathy makes our children “decent human beings” who are able to recognise the essential truth that every person should be treated with dignity.

As Teo You Yenn writes in her book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, dignity “is a sense of being valued, a feeling of being respected, a sensation of esteem or self-worth. How and from where does one get it? In everyday life.”

COVID-19, in particular, has highlighted the need for more “decent human beings”. Unlike the narrative of independence we have been taught to embrace, COVID-19 has demonstrated more than ever our inter-dependence as a community – the actions of one can impact many.

It has also brought to light the inequalities in our society that often go unnoticed. During this period, my children and I are living in relative comfort, safe at home. However, this is not the case for many: Foreign workers housed in cramped dormitories live in fear; some children are scrambling for devices and a comfortable space in their home to do home-based learning; many elderly folks are bored and lonely stuck at home without their regular meet-ups at coffee shops.

What do we do? Will we, together with our children, remain oblivious to the needs of others in society?

Teaching our children to care

The good news is that empathy is a quality that can be instilled. Like a muscle, it gets stronger with use; the habits relating to it can be developed, practised and lived. Like learning another language, our children can cultivate this quality and improve at it.

  • Step 1: Find out how others live
    Read/watch the news: Reporters during this period have helpfully highlighted the far-reaching impact of COVID-19 on different segments of society in Singapore and other parts of the world.

    Letting our children read or watch the news can broaden their perspectives. I printed out articles like this one for my kids to read and showed them this video. It was vivid and impactful for the kids and helped them better understand the plight of others.

    Read a variety of books: Dr Michele Borba, in her book Unselfie, advocates reading to build our children’s moral imagination: “Books can be portals to understanding other worlds and other views, to helping our children be more open to differences and cultivate new perspectives.”

    Parents can go one step further and ask questions such as: If you were that character, what would you have done? Look at the character’s face... how do you think she feels? Have you ever felt like that? Be a mind reader... what do you think he’s thinking? Some books you can introduce to your children include 100 Dresses by Eleanor Estes or Mina’s Magi Malong by Eva Wong Nava and June Ho or Hannah Learns about Love by Rachel Nadia.

    Chat with your helper: If you have a helper, have the kids sit her down for tea and have a conversation. Get them to ask questions about how her country is managing COVID-19 and how her family is coping. Notice the similarities and differences between their lives and ours. Feel free to have more than one chat!
  • Step 2: Practise acts of kindness
    Even with social distancing in place, there are many opportunities for our kids to show that they care for those in need.

    Write cards: In a time where many may be feeling isolated, snail mail can bring much cheer. How about spending some time over the weekend to make some cards to encourage migrant workers in isolation?

    Or write an uplifting message to remind the elderly that they are not alone. Get in touch with a charitable organisation, such as itsrainingraincoats or Fei Yue who can help distribute these cards. Older children may wish to send messages online through platforms such as SGforFWS.

    Donate money: My children, like many others, have a habit of saving a portion of their pocket money for a “rainy day”. Challenge them to donate some of their savings to help those who may be going through financial difficulties, like their school canteen vendors. Or gift a meal through online platforms such as WhyQ or Lifestyle Asia. It may not be much, but every little act of kindness adds up.

    Acknowledge and appreciate others: How many times have we walked past a postman, construction worker or neighbour without acknowledging them?

    Being seen is a large part of feeling human. Let’s teach our children to greet everyone around them with a “Hi” or “Thank You”.

    One of my friends put out a “thank you” sign on their door with some snacks on a table to show appreciation for the delivery people.

These are by no means quick-fix methods to get our kids to care. But I believe with our modelling and encouragement, our children can make caring a way of life and grow to be more than decent human beings – just as we have seen many individuals and organisations step up during this pandemic to reach out to others.

Together, our individual acts and efforts can offer dignity to others and make our nation a better place.

© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


Sue-Anne Wu is a nature seeker and avid reader. She manages her 5 rambunctious boys (aged 4 months, 4, 7, 9 and 39) with a healthy dose of optimism and several shots of coffee.

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