When kids have a voice at home, they will develop the confidence to speak in public, say parents.
After the MH370 tragedy, IT auditor Kamal Kamari, 40, got each of his four children, aged 11 to 16, to “give a theory based on facts” on what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight.
Says his 41-year-old civil servant wife, Liza: “They speak their minds. We don’t judge.”
Their eldest son Khaizuran Kamal, 16, says attending speech and drama workshops when he was seven to 12 years old made him “comfortable in speaking up”. He asked to stop the classes when he felt “I could take it on my own”.
Discussing hot topics of the day among themselves in the family is vital and something the parents started when the children were in primary school. Being able to do so will impact the way they handle themselves in the boardroom in the future, says their dad.
He explains: “The top honcho of a corporation is usually a foreigner, not a Singaporean, because Singaporeans are not able to sell ideas to top management. So they are seen as not having the competence or are inept.
“We have the brains but not the mouth.”
He is clearly of the same opinion as Member of Parliament Hri Kumar Nair, who said in a Facebook post earlier this month that teenagers in Singapore are good at problem-solving but are “often let down by their standard of spoken English and a lack of confidence to persuade or articulate their views on their feet”.
Most Singaporeans interviewed agree with the politician, who expressed the view following the release of the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, in which local students emerged No. 1 worldwide in problem-solving.
But parents, students and educators are divided on whether the reticence stems from a lack of confidence or is a cultural or character trait.
Former drama teacher Joanne Poon, 39, recalls having to “incentivise the expression of views” for a theatre module class she was lecturing at Singapore’s National Institute of Education in the late 2000s.
It was only after she assigned it 20% of marks that some very shy students “offered their views non-stop”.
Adds Poon, now a housewife: “It could be a fear of being mocked or being seen as unintelligent. And they are unsure if their different views will cause them to be excluded from a social circle.”
Engineer Lye Puay Foon says that is exactly how his 13-year-old son, Jia Hao, feels.
Says Lye, 46: “He said to me, ‘If I give my point to an opposing view, people may think I’m a smart aleck or I may get penalised by the teacher if I say the wrong thing. So it’s better for me to keep quiet’.”
For other reticent Singaporeans, being slow to respond may be a character trait, adds Lye.
“Some people are just shy. They need time to digest an issue before speaking up.”
At the other extreme, there are also people who speak for the sake of being heard and he has told his children to “speak with sensitivity and at the right time”.
Cultural and character traits aside, having a voice at home is key to having the confidence to be heard in public. In such homes, parents say they engage their children daily on issues big and small – from dining options to the Little India riot.
Karen Chuwa, 42, a public relations practitioner, says she asks her two young daughters specific questions at the dinner table, such as “What interesting things did you learn?” rather than a question like “How was your day”, which receives monosyllabic answers.
“For example, they may say, ‘We learnt about pigs and Thomas made a joke about the pig.’”
Though she is more interested in knowing what the teacher taught, she would ask what joke Thomas made.
“Go where the child wants to take the conversation.” Doing so gives the child confidence to lead a discussion with those outside the home, she believes.
Chuwa, whose 39-year-old husband runs a television production firm, also gets their two daughters, aged 12 and nine, to “share air-time”.
Elder daughter Sarah Chuwa, a visual arts student at the School of the Arts, recalls how three years ago, her sister Caroline was “going on and on” with suggestions for games and cake for her birthday party.
Says Sarah: “My mum saw that I was annoyed by it and told me to be open to Caroline’s ideas because she wanted to support me.”
She carried that lesson over to school. When working on a class project, she reminded her teammates to not immediately dismiss the ideas they did not like from someone else in the team. Both she and her sister attend ACT 3 International’s drama classes, which helped, according to the mother.
Like Kamal, Chuwa says the power of persuasion will be a boon “in the workplace”. “It’s a lot to do with influencing, not just completing a task. If you are not able to convey a point of view or get others to see what you see, you may not be able to contribute as much as you want to.”
In her family, Poon and her teacher husband elicit their two daughters’ views on anything from the latest Government measures (“we explain them in simple terms, of course”) to where to go on a Saturday (“with pros and cons” explained to them).
Her four-year-old, Paige, is a “little shy and won’t express herself readily with strangers” but seven-year-old Maeve has “tons of opinions”.
“She is confident in expressing her views as no one has really ever mocked her for it and this helps her to continue having the freedom to express herself without the fear of ridicule,” says Ms Poon.
Teacher Chia Hui Ping concurs, saying: “If we constantly provide students with ample space to speak honestly and freely, with no fear of being wrong or judged by others, they will feel more confident to offer their views.”
Growing up, her father “always encouraged” her to ask questions, no matter if they seemed “awfully basic and ignorant”, says Chia, 32, who teaches at Nanyang Girls’ High School.
“Therefore, he taught me not to worry about coming across as silly because, often, the most basic questions are the most relevant.”
Mark Minjoot, 42, principal of Greendale Secondary School, feels that parents can help by teaching their children how to “refine their ideas and think more creatively or critically”.
Higher technical officer Faridah Halim encourages her four children, aged 14 to 25, to question her way of doing things at home, whether it is air-drying plastic containers instead of wiping them or why she has several bank accounts.
“When they are used to making suggestions and asking questions at home, they have much confidence in giving opinions in school.
“Teachers tell me that my kids always raise their hands to ask questions,” says Faridah, 50, who is married to a 52-year-old electrical engineer.
Her third child, Ezreen Nursatein Anuar, 19, a final-year law and management student at Temasek Polytechnic, appreciates that her mother does not clamp down on her questions.
She says: “It’s healthy for kids to have different opinions from their parents. I don’t struggle when presenting in front of the class or when making my views known.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network