Parents teach their kids compassion

Children as young as one year old can learn to care for others if their parents lead by example, say parenting experts

Every Friday, six-year-old Micah Fong and his younger sister Victoria, four, are given some pocket money to place in four piggy banks.

Their parents usually give them four coins each to put in glass jars labelled Save, Spend, Donate and Invest.

Mr Fong Xiongkun, a 32-year-old Singapore Armed Forces regular, and his wife, stay-at-home mother and freelance writer Rachel, 31, started teaching their two elder children the basics of budgeting last year, inspired by an online article they had read. Their third child, Mark, is 10 months old.

When Micah decided to donate the few dollars they had accumulated to The Cat Museum they visited, which houses a variety of felines, his mother was pleased.

That episode, as well as another incident, where Micah made sure he found a missing toy fishing rod before the family donated the complete toy set to the poor, indicated to her that her children were "internalising" their family values.

Mrs Fong says: "Sometimes as a parent, you doubt yourself (and wonder) if you have raised them well, but they know what it means to be kind and have sympathy for others."

Practices such as saving money to be donated, regularly setting aside toys to be given to the less fortunate and volunteering as a family are some ways in which parents interviewed by The Sunday Times teach their children about compassion.

  • Instilling empathy

  • Mrs Pat Lim, a lecturer at Seed Institute, which trains early childhood educators, says: "Young children are aware of the social environment they are in and of people within this environment. They're always observing things.

    "Children are socially aware, so we can prepare them to practise empathy by building relationships.

    "We strongly advocate talking to the child. Even if you are just going to change a baby's diaper or bathe him, you can talk to him about what you are doing, which helps him feel a sense of connectedness to you. If I am showing care to my child, he would see that as something nice.

    "A pre-schooler might take his plate to the kitchen. The parent can say: 'That's very thoughtful of you.'

    "Older children can benefit the same way in building relationships through talking. If someone gets stuck in a lift, the parent could talk about how that person might feel and how other people can help him.

    "Talk about both positive and negative feelings. Sometimes, parents don't want to hear about the child's negative feelings, but if you don't talk about it, the relationship won't be built upon trust and the child is learning not to show empathy.

    "Compassion is about building on empathy and doing something about it."

Building such habits early is a good start, say parenting experts.

Ms Sarah Chua, parenting specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore, says: "Children learn best through observation and modelling the behaviour of those around them. Children as young as one can learn to share and care for others when such behaviour is consistently modelled to them.

"For children who are of primary- school age and older, parents can start to expose them to a bigger picture of life beyond their immediate surroundings. For example, they can encourage young ones to think of helping the less fortunate by raising funds for a cause."

There are also programmes and websites that help parents teach their kids how to be more caring.

Learning the value of compassion helps young children build social skills and relationships as well as understand the consequences of negative actions. This plays a role in tackling the social issue of bullying, says a representative of the Singapore Children's Society.

The society's services include the Choo Choo Train programme, which teaches children, aged five and six, how to treat others as they learn about values such as compassion, respect and responsibility via role-playing, story-telling and games. The programme is estimated to reach almost 600 pre- schoolers this year.

Addressing a societal need to be inclusive, including respecting people with disabilities, the Community Chest launched a new website ( featuring Sharity, its pink elephant mascot, about a week ago. Billed as a portal for teachers, parents and children to access information on caring and sharing, it also hosts a Sharity & Friends animation series.

Mr Chew Kwee San, vice-chairman of the Community Chest Committee and chairman of the Sharity Programme Sub-Committee, says the website and animation series aim to "help shape a more inclusive society".

He adds: "A study done by the National Council of Social Service in 2015 showed that six in 10 people with disabilities do not feel they are socially included, accepted or given opportunities to achieve their potential. We need to address this issue and change the mindset of Singaporeans, and we start with our young."

He says the animation series will address themes important to school-going children, such as learning difficulties, teamwork, filial piety and cyber-bullying.

Some families volunteer together as a way to instil compassion. It has also helped their kids feel more comfortable with marginalised people.

Mr James Foo, 45, his wife, Ms Jessie Lim, their daughter, Jamie, 14, and their son, Justin, 11, have been volunteering for the past five years at AWWA Senior Community Home for low-income seniors who do not have family support.

Several times a year, usually during the school holidays, the Foos spend a few hours at the home during tea time, supplying and serving tea and coffee, as well as local snacks such as bao and kueh, to more than 100 residents.

Mr Foo, a vice-president in the financial industry, says: "We want to expose our children to different facets of society... and we want them to think about others who are less fortunate than them."

It was challenging at first for his daughter, who started volunteering at the home when she was about 10. Unlike her own grandparents, whom she is close to, the seniors she encountered lived in small groups and often did not have any family visiting them. Some of them used wheelchairs, which she was unfamiliar with.

When she called out the numbers for a Bingo game in English and Mandarin, many elderly residents did not understand as they spoke only Chinese dialects.

Jamie says she no longer finds volunteering at the home "a hassle". "I see the importance of helping others. Even though the seniors at the home can't gain compassion from their own families, at least we can help them."

For Ms Joanne Ong, 38, teaching compassion to her son, Jayden, 11, has become a way of bonding with him when they volunteer together.

They have volunteered with people who have disabilities as well as at Open House events at the Istana, where they sold drinks.

Recently, she told Jayden about a shoe donation drive and he immediately pulled out three pairs of his old, clean shoes from the cupboard.

"He's very excited about volunteering now and he wants to spend time with me doing things that we both love," says Ms Ong, who works for a multinational IT corporation.

However, it is not always easy to teach children to show care and concern. Mrs Pat Lim, a lecturer at Seed Institute, which trains early childhood educators, says: "It is not necessarily a breeze to teach children about empathy because they have different temperaments.

"For example, a child with a feisty temperament who tends to go big on intense emotions or have feelings they are harbouring inside may take a longer time to feel for others, and grown-ups need to give them more time."

In the case of Allysha Maishara Madon, eight, her mother and other adults close to her have noticed how she takes the initiative to sit with friends who are alone and informs grown-ups when her friends are feeling sad.

She also massages her mother, Madam Yulistina, on the forehead when she has a headache. Madam Yulistina, 41, who is married to an administrative clerk, 67, also has an older daughter, 17.

She says she has always taught Allysha to be humble and considerate. She used to pack extra food for her to take to school so that she could share it with her friends.

Both nature and nurture have played a role in Allysha's caring ways, she reckons.

Mrs Cristal Lim with her daughters Annabelle, 18, and Isabelle, 11. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Ex-refugee inspires her children to give

Mrs Cristal Lim, 48, was a Vietnamese refugee. A few years after the Vietnam War ended, her family of six fled the country. They feared persecution as her father, who was working in the army, had been imprisoned for a while.

Before they were resettled in France, they spent six months in the early 1980s in Singapore's only refugee camp in Sembawang, which closed in 1996.

Because Mrs Lim, a Singapore permanent resident who works as a partner in a food and beverage group, experienced compassion as a refugee, she wanted to instil the value in her three children.

Some Singaporeans gave her small items such as a keychain, which she cherished in the refugee camp where she had no toys.

"I felt so blessed that somebody was thinking of me even though they didn't know me. I slept holding the keychain," recalls Mrs Lim, who is married to a 50-year-old lawyer.

She returned to Asia for business at age 26 and decided to visit Vietnam. "I saw the poor. I didn't want them to be forgotten. I wanted to teach my children that."

For the past 10 years, she has been making regular charitable trips to Vietnam, sometimes with her children. Last year, she worked on projects such as donating 1,000 jackets and 500 blankets to needy Vietnamese. Such projects are funded in part by donations from friends and non-profit groups.

Her eldest child, Annabelle, 18, has been inspired to work on philanthropic causes here. Her son, Lucas, 16, is studying in England. And her youngest child, Isabelle, 11, went on her first trip to Vietnam last year.

Annabelle handles partnerships at The Hidden Good, a group which conducts social experiments and holds events that aim to highlight the good in Singaporeans. She also volunteers to read with disadvantaged children.

The empathy she gained from volunteering has helped her in communicating the needs of poor communities to potential non-profit partners. "Having my mother take us to Vietnam and even before that, when she was telling us stories about the country, has opened me up to the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'Kids watch and learn compassion'. Print Edition | Subscribe