Lessons in compassion from kittens and food deliveries

Image credit: KC Wong

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

My family, together with two of my friends and their families, had a homestay in Johor over the Labour Day long weekend. This article is not about how much fun we had or what we did on this long overdue road trip. Instead, it is about what I did not do, which has continued to haunt me long after we returned home.

After dinner on our first night, the three families decided to split up because we wanted to do different things. We were to return to the guest house on our own after completing our errands.

My family needed to buy bottled mineral water, so we stopped at a large supermarket by the main road. As we were walking back to our car, I saw, on the tarmac next to a bus stop, a listless and vulnerable-looking kitten.

Being the animal lover that she is, my daughter fussed over it with many “oohs” and “aahs”. There was an Indian lady at the bus stop who turned her head momentarily to glance at my daughter and the kitten, before turning back to look out for the bus.

As if buoyed by the Indian woman’s nonchalance, I decided to do as the Romans do when in Rome and called out to my daughter: “Come on! Let’s go back to the guest house. Leave the kitten be. There’s nothing we can do.” Even I was unconvinced by the hollowness of my own words. My thoughts then were to get everyone quickly into the car for safety reasons, rendezvous with the rest of the gang and continue to enjoy our holiday.

What message are we sending to our kids? That it is alright to be apathetic? That compassion can be selective?

There are 10,000 ways I can imagine the kitten would meet its demise next to a busy main road in Malaysia. As if determined to turn my daughter into a realist, I added: “I hope he can survive out there.” I did not know why I said that, and I did not look at my daughter’s face; typical of a guilty person who avoids eye contact with his victim.

A week after the incident, I brought this subject up with my wife. “Do you think we could have done more with the kitten?”

“I think so,” she replied. It was the first time she had spoken about the kitten incident. “Why didn’t we?” Besides disease and filth, the lack of a permanent solution to look after the stray feline emerged as the most obvious answer. We could not simply re-settle the kitten at the guest house and transfer the burden and responsibility to our host.

“But what message are we sending to our kids? That it is alright to be apathetic? That not all lives matter? That compassion can be selective?”

We are our children’s role models. Our thoughts and actions, from the most trivial to major issues, have a profound effect in shaping the kind of people our kids grow up to become. That is why my wife and I constantly reflect upon ourselves and we are not afraid to disagree when we deem the other to be in breach of our principles.

To cite another example, there was another incident a week before the Johor trip.

I spend my available Saturday afternoons volunteering with an organisation that delivers pre-packed dinners to needy old folks who live alone. I usually rope in my wife and kids so that we can split our duties and ensure the food is delivered to the old folks as early as possible. Through this, I also hope to teach my kids compassion and empathy.

On one particular Saturday, my wife had made an appointment at 3pm with someone to visit our flat. Because of that, she could not join me for the deliveries. To compound my disappointment, my kids also chose to stay at home.

Later that afternoon, after my deliveries, I made my feelings known to my wife. She apologised for forgetting about the food deliveries when she made the appointment. However, what riled me more was her silence when the kids refused to join me. To me, parenting is a team effort. I thought she should have reminded and encouraged them to go with me to fulfil their duties and commitment. Our actions speak volumes about where our priorities lie.

I asked her: “If it was an enrichment class they had to attend at 3pm, would you still be so forgetful as to make other plans at that timing too? Would you allow them to stay at home and skip class?” Sheepishly, she admitted her answer would be “no”. What makes it okay to skip the food delivery but not okay to skip a weekend class?

Consistency must be the hardest thing to achieve. Both parents must be on the same page, and we must always keep in mind what values we want to impart to our children. Whatever we do now, we hope it leads to them getting there. Unfortunately, parents stumble too. My wife and I do not profess to know everything or have all the answers, but at least we try to ask the right questions. I still don't know what I could have done with the kitten though.


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

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