Are values taught or caught?

The behaviour of the parent impacts the child - whether they're aware of it or not

How do we build strength of character in our children? I asked my younger daughter this question, and this was her reply:

"For me, I learnt from your words and actions. You preached kindness and respect and I saw you practising it as you interacted with staff and students as a principal.

"Even when you had to discipline the naughty students, it was always done with kindness and respect. What struck me most was the joy you brought to people.

"So as a child, I learnt that joy was the result of treating people with kindness and respect. I think that really shaped me."

Through an experiment, a psychologist, Mr J. Philippe Rushton, demonstrated that role modelling was the most effective way of helping our children internalise values.

Often, adults are not aware of the impact of their actions. For instance, if a parent curses other drivers on the road, children in the car will think that it is acceptable and do likewise when they get angry.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In our day-to-day lives, we need to be more conscious of our own behaviour, even when it is not directed at our children, such as our response when something unexpected happens.

My daughter recounted an incident at a supermarket that I barely recall. She said: "That day, the wheels of a trolley ran over your feet. Instead of fussing about the pain it must have caused, you checked on the person using that trolley. The lady had tripped and you immediately checked if she was all right. I learnt not to care only for ourselves, but to also care for others."

Dr Helen LeGette, a leader in education with more than 30 years of experience, says in her book, Parents, Kids & Character: Twenty-One Strategies To Help Your Children Develop Good Character, "it is critically important that those who are attempting to influence children's character in positive ways 'walk the talk'."

If we want our children to grow up to be good and useful citizens, we need to inculcate the right values and habits. If we teach them to focus only on themselves, they will grow up self-centred, thinking that the world owes them a living.

Dr LeGette believes that good character is both taught and caught, so it is equally crucial to talk to our children about our personal and family's values.

She explains: "If we want children to internalise the virtues that we value, we need to teach them what we believe and why. In the daily living of our lives, there are countless opportunities to engage children in moral conversation."

Building character must be the work of both parents and schools. It does not just happen. We must work hand-in-hand to impart the same values. If we fail to do that, our children will be confused.

For example, a teacher was teaching her students to show care by giving up their seats to the very young, elderly and pregnant on public transport.

One eager student pledged to practise this on his way home. However, the next day, the student was downcast and refused to share his experience when asked.

He explained later in private that his mother had told him off for giving up his seat. The poor child was perplexed.

If we want our children to grow up to be good and useful citizens, we need to inculcate the right values and habits. If we teach them to focus only on themselves, they will grow up self-centred, thinking that the world owes them a living.

Schools provide learning experiences through activities such as Values in Action.

For example, South View Primary School embarked on a project, "Make it Right for a Better Ride" with LTA and SMRT to spread the message of graciousness and kindness when commuting.

Parents, teachers and pupils went to an MRT station to give out stickers with messages on gracious behaviour to encourage commuters to queue up in an orderly manner and to give up seats to those who needed them more.

We can actively support the efforts of schools by spending quality time with our children or as a family.

In primary school, suggested activities can be found in the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) workbook, which accompanies the textbook. The CCE syllabus is designed based on pupils' daily experiences and is primarily taught in the mother tongue languages.

If a family uses English as the language for family time, these books are also available in English and can be purchased where CCE textbooks and workbooks are sold.

Dr LeGette knows that children who have limits at home and parental expectations of good character have a much greater chance of success in school and in their future careers. Since we want to set our children up for success, it is vital that we put a strong emphasis on character building.

So how do we build the character of a child? My advice is to:

• Teach the meaning of the values

• Enforce acceptable standards of behaviour in line with the values taught

• Advocate the values regularly by reading stories that demonstrate them

• Model the values through your own action and words

This will set behaviour boundaries to shape your child's character. It is certainly no easy task as it takes time and effort, but we know character counts in life, and your children are counting on you.

After all, as the saying goes: "Character is how you behave when nobody is looking."

• The writer was a principal for 18 years in Kheng Cheng School, Radin Mas Primary and South View Primary. She is a lead associate, focusing on partnerships and engagement, in the engagement and research division of the Ministry of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Are values taught or caught?'. Print Edition | Subscribe