“Look at that bird. He has no family or friends. He has to dig rubbish to look for something to eat. Don’t you think he is pitiful? You are lucky to have a home, a daddy, and a mommy. That’s why you have to always finish your food, and share your things with those who don’t have any,” says Katarina Devi to her four-year-old son as they walk home from school. To this mum of two, any moment is a teaching moment, and even the short stroll to and from school can be turned into a lesson in compassion.

Earlier this year in her kindergarten, my elder daughter learnt the song ‘We Are The World’ by Michael Jackson. The YouTube videos accompanying this song show images of sick children and children in war-torn countries. When my six-year-old daughter saw these, she had a hard time understanding what they were and asked me why the children are in such a sad state.

What I did, was first to break the news to her that children in other countries are often less privileged than we are here in Singapore. Then I invited her to think about what she could do to help make them happier.



My daughters are young, but I hope to help them learn empathy. After all, it has been shown that even children as young as two to six years old, with parental guidance, can learn to identify with the feelings of others.

“If you watch a group of two- or three-year-olds play together, you may notice that if one child acts out by hitting a playmate, for example, another child may begin to act out, too. It is almost as if the second child were saying, ‘I know you are feeling angry, and I’ve decided that I’ll feel the same way you do,'” explains Dr Charles Flatter in a study.

The professor of human development at the University of Maryland at College Park Institute for Child Study adds that “by age two or three, children can usually empathise with feelings of happiness, sadness, and anger because they experience these emotions intensely themselves”.

We may not see children who has to scavenge for a living in Singapore, but it does not mean the phenomenon does not exist. In downtown Jakarta, just 80 minutes away by air, there are children who live in pockets of urban slums. When our family travelled to the Indonesian capital, we brought our daughters to these areas so that they could get a closer look at how these children live.

A group of children work on the streets, earning between Rp. 200 and 500 (two to six Singapore cents) every time they assist a motorist to make a turn on the narrow roads. The children risk life and limb, working in groups to momentarily halt oncoming traffic as the turning car makes its manoeuvres.

When no opportunity for such work arises, the children simply cash in their dignity and ask motorists for their spare change. Indeed, these street children in Jakarta work and play in situations that endanger them physically and psychologically everyday.

I’d like to believe that seeing how these children live has taught my daughter to appreciate what she has. After the Children’s Day celebration at her school this year, she said to me, “Today is a very happy day for me” and went on to describe the school party with its yummy snacks and the gifts that she had received. Then she asked, “Can we help spread this happiness to more places on earth and get all children off the streets?”

This holiday season is a good time for parents and children to get into the spirit of giving together. We may not be able to help the street kids in Jakarta directly, but here at home, there are initiatives that anyone can easily participate in:

Fold A Heart

No money required. Simply click click click to fold a heart. The SingTel Touching Lives Fund donates $1 for every heart received to help children with special needs.

Treat A Doggie

This dog rescue accepts expiring dog food and treats.

Pass It On

Donate preloved items such as household appliances to those who need them.

Croon A Carol

Proceeds from this CD of Christmas carols, a collaboration between local artistes and musicians, go to children with rare disorders.

Design A Bag

Go to the Blessings In A Bag Christmas Party — it’s free! — this Sunday, 16 December 2012 and buy a bag ($20) for you or your child to customise into a work of art. Leave it with the Blessings In A Bag team, who will fill it with supplies for local kids facing adversity and kids undergoing treatment for cancer and other terminal illnesses as part of their Love Is Loud programme.

All photographs courtesy of Alexander Andy