By Dr. Goh Chee Leong, Psychologist, HELP University & Director of HELP International School
PhD in Psychology (University of Otago, New Zealand)
“Suffering builds character” is a common refrain we hear from authority figures and parents alike. I very much enjoyed the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon which features the interaction between Calvin, the seven-year old boy and his father. In the series, Calvin’s father strongly believes that some hardship and suffering are needed for his son to mature.
This theme has gained momentum over the last 10 years in Malaysia, with more middle class parents complaining that their children have it a little too easy. This is particularly understandable for parents who experienced tougher childhoods.
“I used to have to help my parents in their shop after school since I was 10 years old. I had to clean up and be responsible even at that young age. My two sons now have everything done for them. The maid cleans up their room, cooks and washes up. They don’t even need to iron their own clothes,” says Mr. Lim.
While many parents are happy that they can provide their children with a comfortable life, many are afraid that a life that is too comfortable will limit the development and maturity of their children’s character.
“I think my daughter is not grateful enough for what she has,” comments Sharon, a mother of a 12-year-old. “She treats her property and everything she has as though it all came for free. She takes everything for granted.”
“I think my son has no patience,” relates Mrs. Phillips. “Whenever he wants something he throws a tantrum and expects that he will get what he wants straight away.”
Character education has become a crucial issue for parents. We realise that without character traits like determination, patience, gratitude, responsibility, respect and discipline, our children will struggle to realise their potential in the real world. The question is whether allowing hardship will help them develop these traits. Does no pain mean no gain?
The fact is some hardship is good for a child’s development. Of course this is in no way a license to neglect or abuse our child in any way, or to purposely bring about suffering so that they will learn. However, we should think twice about giving in to their every whim and fancy. Sometimes we have to have the courage to let them face some adversity so that they can grow emotionally and become more mature.
The following are some ways in which we can help our children learn positive values.
Let them help in household chores
One of the simplest ways to teach our children the value of responsibility is to involve them in household chores. This is the antidote to selfishness or self-centeredness. Of course, we must be wary of safety issues and should use our discretion in determining what chores our young child can do without hurting themselves or others.
“Since they were four years old, our son and daughter have always been included in the duty roster at home,” shares Mr. Foong. “Even though we had a maid, we still made sure that the kids helped in simple things like mopping the floor, washing the dishes and watering the plants.”
Let them wait
Children may sometimes want and expect things to be given to them immediately. They want their food now. They want to watch their favourite shows on DVD now. They want to go out and play now. In fact many teenagers still expect things to happen instantly and many of us as parents often try our best to rush so that they do not need to wait.
But waiting is not always a bad thing. It builds patience and encourages us to have realistic expectations.
Having said that, our expectations on how long our child can wait must also be realistic. A two-year-old may not have the capacity to sit quietly and wait for two hours before they can play. Patience develops gradually with time.
The key is to not be afraid to keep our children waiting sometimes. “Just wait a little while,” is a very important and valuable phrase in the parenting dictionary.
Mrs. King shares her experience with her three-year-old daughter. “My husband and I have been trying over the last two months to encourage patience in our daughter. Whenever she asks for something, like milk, or a toy she is looking for, our immediate response is to say ‘just wait for a bit’. At the start she was not used to waiting, but I have observed that she has become a little more patient. She knows that if she waits, we are trustworthy and will eventually deliver what we have promised.”
Learn to say ‘NO’ to your child
It is often difficult, especially for new parents to say ‘No’ to their child’s requests. Some children learn very quickly how to get whatever they want from their parents through crying, shouting, looking cute and sad etc.
As parents, our responsibility is to make judgments on what is best for our children. Sometimes we say ‘yes’ because what they are asking for is reasonable, sensible and deliverable. Other times, we should say ‘no’ because the request is not reasonable and is not in the best interest of the child.
Children have to learn their limits. They have to learn that sometimes in life you do not get what you want. Overcoming the sadness and disappointment is part of character development. As adults they will need to overcome many disappointments when their expectations are not met.
We need not be harsh or angry when saying no to our children. We can empathise with them and let them know that we understand how disappointed they are. But we must also stand firm on our decisions.
Let them do things for themselves
One of the common criticisms leveled at the middle class younger generation is that some of them lack resourcefulness, both in terms of their ability and their attitude. This may be due to the fact that some children grow up in environments where everything is done and delivered to them. As a result, they may develop an unhealthy over-dependency on others.
“Misha, my 20-year-old, really struggled when she first went overseas for her university education,” relates Puan Omar. “When she was growing up with us, we did everything for her. Over there she had to cook, clean, pay electricity and water bills, and manage her own bank account. While I am happy that she eventually learnt to be independent, I wished we had given her more training in that when she was younger.”
As we have seen, some hardship is not a bad thing for our children. Letting them struggle and try a bit helps develop important character traits like responsibility, patience and resourcefulness.
It may seem a lot easier, emotionally, to try and spare them the hardships, but this may leave them ill-equipped to deal with the world when they eventually grow up and venture into it on their own.