Do we lack empathy in raising our children?

Image credit: iStock

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

I report early for work every morning. Work is a giddy marathon of meetings with various department heads, some of whom I like but there are a couple I prefer to stay away from. I am sure you have attended meetings in which you can be invisible and unnoticed. Where I work, it is not so straightforward. I have to constantly feign interest, lest I get called upon to offer my opinions and worse still, suggest new ideas or solutions.

A few of my bosses seem to have seen through my ruse, and they will frequently question my commitment and performance. Whenever that happens, some of my colleagues will look my way; some snigger and giggle, and a few give me sympathetic nods. It is not like I am not trying hard. The thought of a job-personality mismatch has crossed my mind several times. Maybe I am not as fast a learner as my more esteemed colleagues. Nonetheless, it is downright discouraging to see my name languishing near the bottom of the performance charts.

To cheer myself up, I read. It takes my mind off the grind. On really bad days, I just want to go home and do nothing, to rid my mind of the bad vibes and negative thoughts. Unfortunately, that is usually impossible because I still have to meet external contractors or suppliers to clarify work issues, even if it means stretching the day late into the evening. On days like this, I miss my family the most.

To tide me through, I scroll through the family photo album in my handphone or re-read the heartwarming handwritten notes from my family, which I have accumulated over the years. Never mind that they are becoming scarcer. The happy memories they bring back are priceless.

I used to look forward to going home because I knew I would be welcomed warmly with hugs and kisses. During family meals, I would recount the high and low points of the day, and the rest of the family would listen with interest. Sometimes they would laugh with me, and other times share my sense of injustice with equal indignation.

Nowadays, I cannot remember the last time we had a pleasant meal without everyone busy swiping their handphones. All I am ever asked about are “Have I met my sales target”, “Have I signed any new clients” and “Did I get into my boss’ good books”. Any negative answer will be met with disapproving frowns and incessant nagging. My domestic life has become an extension of my work life; my home has become my second office! It is no longer my sanctuary because it now carries the same weight of performance-related expectations as my office.

Does the above sound familiar? What if I told you your kid is the one writing it?

She goes to school (office), attends classes (meetings) with various subject teachers (department heads), is judged on her grades (sales or work performance), gets humiliated by mean and ultra-competitive classmates (colleagues), sits through night or weekend tuition classes (after-office hours meetings with external contractors or suppliers); she goes back to a supposedly warm and nurturing home, but instead her parents nag her about her homework and upcoming tests (your spouse asking you if you have met all KPIs at work).

The adults can relax by going for drinks with friends, exercising, playing video games, watching TV, etc. Unfortunately, kids do not have the liberty to do likewise even when faced with the same hardships. All they are expected to do is to submit to their parents’ wishes and continue to mug. Under normal circumstances, some of us would have already tendered our letters of resignation. Kids can only be resigned to their predicament: keep toiling overtime to obtain good grades because it’s for their good, or so the elders say.

I am all for teaching young ones about the value of hard work, but I believe the child must first be self-motivated and the work ethic must be cultivated from within. A balance between clocking the hours and spending no-strings-attached quality time with family has to be struck. The way to do it may very well lie in empathy. It is defined by the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like in that person’s situation.

There are many parenting articles devoted to the topic of instilling empathy in children, but there are very few that teach empathy to parents. I decided to write about this topic because of an incident my daughter related to me. Spelling tests, routine mock papers and assessments are all part and parcel of school life. Worryingly, there are students in her class who experience minor meltdowns after each test if they think they have done badly for it. Recently one of them cried after a test. She told my daughter that if she could not score full marks, she would not be allowed to sign up for her preferred co-curriculum activity.

I shudder at the tremendous stress her parents are putting on their dear daughter. They seem to be applying the competitiveness of corporate culture at home. “If you can increase sales by another 8%, you will be rewarded with an additional 35% bonus, or otherwise get nothing at all!” I vehemently oppose any effort to impose such demanding standards on our young children. After all, they are in an institute of learning, where their sole responsibilities are absorbing knowledge and positive values that would make them future useful members of the society. Giving them a head start in the rat race is definitely not the answer.

If only parents can stop to think: do I want my children to suffer as I do at work? Am I over-taxing and over-stressing them? The world out there can be cruel and unforgiving, maybe the best I can do is to give them a happy childhood, so that years later, their childhood can be their sanctuary where they find solace and comfort in flipping through their family photo albums or re-reading wonderful words of love and encouragement we have written them?

If only I could be in my kids’ shoes ten years from now. Then I would know the answer.


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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