Monday, October 25, 2010

Character first

I know many parents in Singapore who hold fast to the maxim "studies come first" but more and more, I've been feeling that this mindset comes at the expense of character building. While most parents would agree that character is important, the learning of values definitely takes a back seat to hitting the books. I suspect they don't really believe that it should take top priority. Afterall, you don't get graded on it.

The thing is, character building is a long-term process. It's not enough to just say the occasional "be polite" or "you should work hard" and expect an instant angel. In fact, children have a way of sifting out these platitudes, especially when they're not followed up with real action.

Even Christian parents fall into this trap. If you think that because your children are growing up in a Christian household, they will automatically become people of character, think again. Remember Eli from the Bible? He was an upright man, a priest in the House of God. He was the one who guided Samuel and I'm pretty sure he must have prayed for his children. Yet the Bible records that "Eli's sons were wicked men" - 1 Sam 2:10.

The message is that having good parents or coming from a "good family" doesn't guarantee that the child will grow up with values. Character building doesn't take place via osmosis. Nor is prayer alone enough. Regardless of how strong your faith is, if you don't study and don't do your work, you likely won't do well in an exam no matter how hard you pray. God's not a genie there to just grant you your three wishes. Likewise, if you don't do anything to develop your child's character, prayer won't be enough to make him or her a good person.

For example, if your child fails a test, what is your response?

1) Punish him.
2) Shrug it off.
3) Scold the tuition teacher and find a new one.
4) Redo the paper for him. (Don't laugh.)
5) Go through the mistakes with him and encourage him to keep trying.

If your answer is 1, your child learns that it's bad to fail.
If your answer is 2, he learns that it's not important to try.
If your answer is 3, he learns not to take responsibility for anything.
If your answer is 4, he learns that his parents will solve all of life's problems for him.

Obviously 5 is the preferred action. But it's tough because character building requires conscious and constant reinforcement. Ideally, your responses and actions should always be consistent with the values you are trying to promote. I'll be the first to admit that I have lapses, especially when I'm distracted by too many issues. Sometimes it's just easier to let it go or pretend not to see. You can't see results overnight and you don't know how many more times he will falter.

I find that in today's context, more and more parents seem adverse to letting their children work through challenging tasks. Eat what you want, buy what you want, do what you want, with no regard for consequences. If something is difficult, it's ok to give up or try something else. The path of least resistance is offered up on a platter like it's a measure of the parents' love. (You might like to read my earlier post on this topic here). It bugs me deeply because I see so many kids growing up to be self-absorbed and aimless... and their parents wonder why.

When Mrs Lee Kuan Yew passed on, what struck me was that in all the eulogies by her children, they recalled how she focused on instilling good, old-fashioned values. They were constantly taught not to throw their weight around, how she told the school principal to punish her children like everyone else if they misbehaved, how she didn't approve of expensive gifts being lavished on them, even though they obviously could afford them. It's about putting character first.

We as parents have a duty to bring up our children right. The Bible is full of passages exhorting parents to guide our children (and none telling us to make sure they excel academically). Of course we all know people who had crappy or absent parents and still turned out to be wonderful human beings but do you honestly want to leave it to chance?

Character building is like having a solid foundation for a house. Once that is established, there's a higher chance the other things will fall into place and this includes studies. Afterall, if a child hasn't developed basic virtues like diligence, tenacity and patience, the day will come when he will resist your efforts to force him to study. If you think you can strap your child down to the study table beyond age 15, good luck to you. But if he has been taught that results come to those who work and who persevere, these are the traits that will carry him through into adulthood.
"Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." - Proverbs 22:6


elan said...

How very true!
I have my lapses too and occasionally take the path of least resistance especially with my very strong-willed younger son - I know he's getting spoilt and I have to keep reminding myself not to give in so easily to him.
I have been stricter with the older one - who is a more compliant, responsible,helpful and placid child.
I'm pretty sure it isn't a chicken and egg thing ie stricter parenting ends up with compliant child and lax parenting a strong-willed one - he's been strong willed since he was a baby (jumped out of his baby cot at 8 months old when I was trying the "controlled crying"technique to train him to sleep by himself - put paid to my efforts to train him).


monlim said...

Elan: Each child has his/her own innate personalities for sure, I should know, I have 2 complete opposites! The challenge for parents is to be able to impart sound values using methods that work for the individual child. Requires lots of patience and creativity!

Benjamin Chua said...

Hi Mona(Jie)

Just to share to everyone, character building for children is one of the major challenge for parents in Singapore, how are parents going to cultivate values into children mind, changing their mind set to get them ready for the society, children nowadays mostly are being spoil by parents who love them so much, this is not wrong, but to change their character will be difficult, as they are so use to it, in secondary schools, best CCA for character building is the uniform group, rather than the performing arts and culture activities. Uniform groups will be a good choice, because it involves disciplinary elements which can mould the children in their mindset and also their way of thinking. Another good choice will be life skills adaption, there is also of skills to learn, different skills will allow them to take on different challenges and solving it. This is my little sharing, thanks for reading.

monlim said...

Ben: I do recall you mentioning uniformed groups as a way to build character. I guess it's because they emphasise discipline. Sports too, helps to mold character as it teaches discipline, perseverance and hard work. But at the end of the day, home has the biggest influence so parents have to do their part.

Anonymous said...

I agree that working on the child's character basically will fix many things in life down the road. I grew up this way myself. Once I started sensitising myself to the values system, everything went on auto-cruise...:)


monlim said...

QX: Sounds like your dd is in good hands :)

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