An acquaintance recently related a story from her days as a kindergarten teacher. Once, in haste, she started throwing workbooks to her pupils at the back of the classroom. To expedite the process, she asked a boy to help her distribute.
To her horror, he started throwing workbooks as well.
“That was when I realise I can’t teach kids at that age. They are so impressionable; they imitate whatever you do. I’ve to be a good role model all the time,” she mused.
Nature and Nurture
Often, people who believe in the innate kindness of children quote a famous line from Confucius’ Three-Character Classic: “People at birth are naturally good.”
In a related article, Smithsonian (2013) cites research by Yale University’s Infant Cognition Centre involving a puppet show for babies that features helpful and hindering bunnies. Even after researchers switched the puppets’ shirt colours to reduce the possibility of error, the babies still preferred “helpful bunnies”.
But it takes both nature and nurture to raise a kind child. Nurture can significantly affect a child’s innate kindness, something Confucius also mentioned in his Three-Character Classic: “Their natures are similar; their habits become different.”
In the same Smithsonian article, Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia psychologist, says, “There are biological effects that people think are genetic, but culture affects them… Culture changes your brain.”
A viral story on Facebook tells of an anthropologist who tried to make children of an African tribe race each other to win a fruit basket. Instead, they held hands, ran, and feasted together. It is “Ubuntu” (“I am because we are”), a girl explains, a philosophy from the Xhosa culture that believes no one can be happy if everyone else is sad. Former South African president Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa.
Conversely, a CNN article (2012) on a rehabilitated child soldier explains why around 300,000 children are still involved in conflicts around the world.
“Because you can easily manipulate [children],” Ishmael Beah, an ex-child soldier from Sierra Leone, says in the report. “They also want to belong to something, especially if they live in a society that has collapsed completely.”
Raising Kind Children
According to The Washington Post (2014), “About 80 percent of the youth in [a Harvard] study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.”
In Singapore, we are not that far off. Grades are prioritised in our competitive society – but it is still possible to raise kind kids.
Richard Weissbourd, the Harvard psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common project, proposes these five steps to raising kind children:
- Make caring for others a priority (instead of saying: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”)
- Provide opportunities for children to practise caring and gratitude (and reward only uncommon acts of kindness, not what s/he is expected to do)
- Expand your child’s circle of concern (help him/her learn to care for the new kid in class, the school attendants, someone living in a different country)
- Be a strong moral role model and mentor
- Guide children in managing destructive feelings
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre (2010) suggests these five steps:
- Model kindness yourself (research reveals altruistic children have at least one parent who deliberately communicates altruistic values to their kids)
- Make kids personally responsible in some way
- Don’t reward helping behaviour (growth-mindset praise is good, but extrinsic rewards demotivate)
- Be positive (parents who express positive feelings and use positive, non-coercive discipline raise children who are kinder and more compassionate toward others)
- Expose them to need (exposing kids to the suffering of others helps them learn compassion and gratitude)
The emphasis on positive role modelling in both proposals brings to mind Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
It also surfaces this challenge by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein: “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”
In Singapore, since 2011, Children’s Day has been celebrated on the first Friday of October. This year, Children’s Day falls on October 3.
The annual celebrations can be traced back to 23 October 1961, when the first Children’s Day was celebrated and the Children’s Day song composed, according to Singapore Infopedia.
Zubir Said’s Semoga Bahagia (May You Achieve Happiness) is a paean to hard work and courtesy, extolling youths to be charitable and righteous to fulfil their aspirations. The second stanza reads: “With a clean and pure heart / Together we respect and do good / Watch your behaviour, oh youths / Uphold customs and cultures”.
This Children’s Day, we pay tribute to the village that it takes to raise our children, and to the little adults themselves, from whom we learn in myriad ways. Do we smile and forget like young children, or nurse grievances against perceived slights? Do we embrace our countless failures with gummy grins and persevere till we take our first step?
Have we stopped wondering/wandering like a child?
Albert Einstein notes, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”
And award-winning author Madeleine L’Engle writes, “You have to write the book that wants to be written.
“And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”