Straight As? But making grade in doing good is vital too

Any achievement in studies and grades will count for little if the young are not anchored by strong core values

Ahead of the new year, I buckled and signed my son up for Chinese tuition.

I had been holding out against extra lessons because I wanted to keep as many of his afternoons free from school stuff for as long as I could.

But the strain was showing. With his anaemic vocabulary and fractured grammar, he toiled over compositions and stumbled over comprehension passages.

The child we had raised to speak Mandarin at home now struggles to string together complete sentences in our mother tongue, much to our embarrassment.

I decided on early intervention when told to expect a jump in the level of difficulty now that he is in Primary 4.

On top of that, a friend whose son is in Primary 6 in the same school had warned that this will be a crucial year. The boys will be assigned to classes next year based mainly on their maths and science grades, she said, and the best resources are said to be devoted to the top class.


I don't expect my son to make it to the best class, but I sure hope he doesn't fall too far behind either.

I wondered whether I should be thinking about science enrichment too.

So as 2017 dawned, academic goals weighed heavily on my mind.

But rusty and lazy after the six-week, year-end break, my son came home frothing with indignation when his class was assigned homework on the second day of school.

I snapped and told him to suck it up. "The honeymoon phase is over. You are now in upper primary.

"Act your age."

Three years after he started school, I am still wringing my hands over the same thing: his lackadaisical attitude towards learning.

It took a friend to alert me to another side of him worth celebrating.

Just like how it is done in many other schools, the Primary 4 pupils were paired with those in Primary 1 on the first three days of school to guide the newbies during recess and help ease them into the new environment.

A friend sent us a shot of her son, K, with ours on the first day. Our boy had asked a classmate to swop their young charges so he could be K's buddy, she said.

Our sons had met several times at our social gatherings but weren't what you would call firm friends.

"I'm so grateful," my friend added in her text message. "K was very nervous so having your son as a buddy really helped."

My husband and I were pleasantly surprised. My friend didn't know this but our son had baulked at our suggestion for him to take care of K before school started.

The reluctance stemmed from some childish misunderstanding that arose when K came to our house a few years ago.

I never quite figured out the exact details but it had something to do with K playing with some toys that my son didn't want him to touch.

We were miffed that he could stay sore at someone for so long over something so trivial.

"K was so young then. He probably didn't even know he had upset you. Why are you so petty?" I said in exasperation.

"I don't care. I'm not going to do it," my son retorted, his face a sullen mask.

Our lectures fell on deaf ears - or so we thought.

Not only did he volunteer to be K's recess buddy, we heard later that he also showed K around the school.

When his chaperone services were no longer needed after the first three days, he still looked for opportunities to swing by K's class during recess or after school to see how his young friend was doing.

We were proud of him not just because he had displayed a caring side that wasn't often apparent.

We were moved that he managed to overcome his self-centred tendencies, cast aside his petty grievances and choose to be caring towards someone he once had little affection for.

Then a week into the new school year, I found a note in my daughter's pencil case left by her brother.

I'd heard him telling her to "check your pencil case" during the first few days of school but didn't probe when he refused to tell me what he meant. "Don't show Mama," he hissed at his sister, who entered Primary 1 this year.

It turned out he had written a few notes to ease her jitters.

The one I read, meant for her second day in school, was both encouraging and instructive.

"Don't be scared because Mama and Papa will not be at your school," it went. "In school, be curious, raise your hand and ask questions, because that is an important way to learn."

I almost had to wipe away a tear or two. This was from a boy who is still mean to his sister more often than he is nice.

"I didn't know you could be so sweet," I told him later.

"It's only for the first three days," he replied swiftly, lest I thought he was morphing into the world's best bro.

My son's gradual transformation reminds me of an e-mail that caught my eye amid the flurry of news alerts and Web links on New Year resolutions that landed in my inbox as Jan 1 came and went.

Headlined "What Really Matters in 2017", the reflection advised devoting more energy to building our "eulogy virtues" rather than burnishing our "resume virtues".

These are terms that New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks discussed in his 2015 book, The Road To Character.

Resume virtues are the skills that make us marketable and contribute to external success, while eulogy virtues are the traits that people talk about at our funerals - the stuff that really matters in the end.

Did we show integrity? Were we kind? Did we make an iota of difference to anyone's life?

Brooks argues that while we all know eulogy virtues are more important than the resume ones, most of us are still more bent on building a career and veneer of success than forging inner character.

It seems we adopt the same mindset when it comes to parenting too.

In one of its studies, a project under the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that personal success, such as achievement and happiness, takes priority over concern for others among today's youth.

This, the researchers concluded, reflected what the young believe adults value. About two-thirds of those polled reported that their parents would rank achievement above caring for others.

Expanding his eulogy virtues doesn't mean I will stop worrying about my son's grades or pushing him to work hard.

But it does mean I have to get my priorities right. Any achievement will count for little if he is not anchored by strong core values.

Going by the past two weeks, my son has shown that even if he doesn't do well, he can at least aim to do good.

That, surely, is a worthy New Year resolution I should adopt too.

  • Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'Straight As? But making grade in doing good is vital too'. Subscribe