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.
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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