Parents can teach kids to have some empathy

Parents can teach kids to have some empathy

It was a poignant moment.

Vin Diesel, in the shape of an anthropomorphic tree, was weaving a protective nest of twigs around the Guardians of the Galaxy in an act of self-sacrifice. But as the woody hero plunged to his death, the last thing he (and I) heard was the annoyingly cheerful tune of the Candy Crush game theme song.

A boy, who looked to be about five years old, was pulverising candies like he was on a sugar high. In accompaniment: the rhythmic pounding of his feet against the seat in front of him and a bright shaft of light from his mobile phone.

"Could you put that away, please. It's quite distracting," I said, piping it up a notch so that his parents could hear me, and hopefully, help me out a little. His father leaned in to apologise. Or so I thought.

"Who said you have the right to tell my child what to do? You want him to make noise is it?" he snarled, imparting pearls of wisdom to his son: "You want to play, just play." I sat back in my seat in shock, then mustered the courage to relaunch my protest 10 minutes later.

To shut me up, the father plopped the child in between him and his wife, put the phone on silent mode and dimmed its screen.

But that was like, well, taking candy from a baby. The kid started to lose interest and threw a tantrum soon after.

I thought: Come on, parents. Taking a young child to a movie - especially if you know he isn't going to behave, sit still through it, or enjoy it - isn't fair to him or anyone else in the theatre.

My husband and I, for one thing, did not pay $23 to have our night out ruined by child-inflicted drama. We get our fair share of that from our four-month-old.

This year's Singapore Graciousness Index found that 81 per cent believed targeting youth was the best way to instil kindness and courtesy in society, but only a third - including parents themselves - believed that parents were actively reinforcing moral values in their children. Our score of 55, released last month, is the second-lowest since the index was started in 2009. I am disappointed, but other recent incidents seem to back these findings.

A fortnight ago, a man's Facebook post received flak online when he complained about being unable to drop his kids off in the rain because an ambulance was parked under a shelter, blocking his car from entering it. The post prompted a reminder from the Singapore Civil Defence Force to "give way to emergency vehicles" and was subsequently deleted.

Did this parent think that his son staying dry was somehow more important than saving a life? Would he have felt the same way if the person being saved was his mother or sister? What was he teaching his children?

My domestic helper's cousin, who arrived here from the Philippines to work as a maid, was allowed to eat only after her host family ate - and only if there was food left over. There seldom was.

Her employer, a mother of three, would mark the juice cartons with felt pens to ensure that she didn't drink anything from the fridge. Needless to say, her mobile phone was confiscated and she was not given a day off.

My helper received a frantic call from her last week. In hushed tones, probably so that her employer wouldn't hear her, she begged my helper to call her husband and children back home, to tell them that she was fine. She has since returned home.

Each of us looks forward to a good meal, a chat with our loved ones or a day off work, so why doesn't it strike us that domestic helpers might look forward to such things just as much and are just as deserving?

Talk about missed opportunities to teach your child some empathy.

Singapore isn't the only nation in which more people are getting caught up in a creeping, self-centred culture dictated by the question: "What's in it for me?"

A University of Michigan study revealed that empathy levels in the United States have plunged by 48 per cent over the past four decades, with the sharpest drop occurring over the past 10 years. In Britain, the empathy deficit is reflected in an erosion of social trust. The Guardian newspaper reported that in 1959, 60 per cent of people thought they could trust most other people. That figure has since halved.

The good news? Empathy can be learnt.

I read recently in Time magazine that children across the world are taking part in school programmes that teach just that. Roots of Empathy, the most successful such teaching initiative, started in Canada and has now spread to countries including Germany and New Zealand.

The teachers, strangely enough, are babies. Each baby, attached to a class of kids for a year, makes several visits with a parent and programme instructor. The students observe the infant and hash over topics such as: Why is the baby crying? Why is the baby smiling? What might he be feeling?

This attempt to understand the baby's feelings is then broadened to other situations. What does it feel to fail a test, to get bullied online or to be made fun of if you have a disability? Its effects have been astounding. A study in Scotland, for instance, revealed that the programme boosted cooperative behaviour in 55 per cent of students and put a dent in bullying. Such a programme hasn't reached our shores yet, and hopefully it won't need to, but parents can take a leaf from it.

They could start small. Perhaps by explaining to their child why a game of Candy Crush mid-flick takes away from everyone else's enjoyment of it.

This article was first published on August 31, 2014.
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