When I was in primary school, we received letter grades for character, such as “Kindness,” “Helpfulness,” and “Behavior.” On the bus ride home one day, the girl next to me took one look at her report card and burst into tears. She had received a low grade for Mathematics. “But look,” I said. “You aced your Character Report!” If I thought that would console her, I was wrong.


“Who cares? My mom doesn’t even look at those,” the girl said. Apparently, her parents were only impressed when she scored straight As in academic courses. But when it came to caring for others? Well, it didn’t seem to count for as much.


Want Successful and Happy Kids? Teach Them Empathy.


According to a recent study by Harvard University, even though parents talk about being caring and considerate, a majority of kids appear to value academic achievement over helping others. About 80% of the youth in the survey believe that their parents prioritize success and happiness over empathy. I’m sure that the girl on the bus believed the same about her parents.


To many Singaporeans, the fact that high achievement is the uppermost objective among youths might not be too surprising. After all, we have a reputation as a top-notch education hub – something to be proud of, indeed. But in Singapore’s highly competitive and extremely rigorous education system, students have the near-singular mission of excelling in school. And they’re not the only ones to feel the pressure. Their parents feel it, too. There are mothers who take time off work or who actually quit their jobs to help their children study.


The problem is that our children could be so focused on fighting for perfect marks that they’re in danger of falling behind on developing character and compassion.

Ironically, “when children can empathize with and take responsibility for others, they’re likely to be happier and more successful,” reported The Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.


According to child psychologist and author Michele Borba, “happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences…Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance.”


Empathy is the key to social emotional development and human interaction; it allows you to understand and respect another person’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with their view. Encouraging empathy at an early age prevents bullying and other acts of violence. In addition, this perspective-taking ability fosters strong relationships and enables children to become better collaborators, which will benefit them greatly their whole lives. Someone who can empathize and take responsibility for others is more likely to thrive in the workplace, where success is often founded on effective collaboration.