Three years ago, Benjamin Tan, then 15, often played truant from school.
It pained his mother, housewife May Tan, 46, who feared he would fall in with the wrong crowd and fall behind on his grades. Her remonstrations did little to help. He tuned her out.
So, she cut a deal with him: complete two months of moral education classes, and she would lay off the nagging.
For good measure, she paid for his drum lessons.
Tan shelled out $280 for eight weekly classes at non-profit organization Xiyao Culture Association, which runs secular lessons imparting values like filial piety, respect and concern for others through story-telling, poetry, skits and team activities.
The association has consistently had more than 50 students aged three to 16 in such classes since 2004.
The classes of about 20 students with volunteer mentors forced Benjamin to confront the dynamics of the parent-child relationship.
Having to act out the role of a parent in skits, for example, put him in a parent’s shoes and set him thinking.
In one class, for example, he had to confront his parents’ mortality, when told a story about a poor man who became rich but could not enjoy his affluence because he longed for those poorer but happier days when his parents were still alive.
Benjamin, now 18, said: “The classes touched my heart, changed my mind. As a child, you always think your parents are invincible, but I started to see that they have their own worries about their health and finances, without worrying about mine too.”
Other parents turn to character-development classes run by their church, mosque or temple, with these tied to the values linked with their faiths.
Housewife Joyce Chin, 44, said she does not have disciplinary problems with her three children aged 11 to 16, but puts them through classes at Xiyao to build their character.
“It is ‘inner good education’ for when they grow up and face adverse situations, so that they do the right thing,” she said.
She has read enough news reports about bright young scholarship-holders going astray.
“They may do very well academically, but they use their cleverness in the wrong way,” she said.
Parents may be responding to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement last September that character education and values will be put front and center in schools.
This is all the better to keep young Singaporeans grounded in moral resolve, confidence and self-awareness in a world where traditional social structures are crumbling, he said.
It is an issue parents are thinking about. On the education portal kiasuparents.com, there is a discussion thread on where moral-education enrichment classes are being run.
Xiyao Culture Association teacher Tham Hup Leng says the school has not had a boom in enrollment for the classes it runs, but has definitely fielded more calls inquiring about them in the past two years.
Some may say the onus should be on parents, not teachers, to instill values, but Chin believes in exposing her children to as many adults as possible so they absorb more.
“It still takes a village to raise a child,” she said.
But child counselors and psychologists say ‘teaching character’ can be tricky.
Raymond Cheong, from the Children/Youth Learning & Development Center, says character is ‘caught and not taught’, in that children learn from making mistakes, so it is better to correct bad behavior than to introduce good-behavior “rules.”
Psychologist Daniel Koh says learning character in a classroom can be restrictive, as values are dynamic.
Koh, who runs private practice Insights Mind Center, said: “Moral values are something alive and progressive. They are reinforced by family values, culture, people, experiences and society. They are not something that lessons can cover or maintain, as they have to be practiced and constantly reinforced.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times