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I was on holiday with my grandchild in Japan and, after drinking her canned corn soup, she asked me where she could throw away the empty can. To my surprise, we could not find a dustbin.
To my even greater astonishment, I realised there was no rubbish in sight. There was no litter near the dispensing machine, and the place was spic and span. I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the streets, and I marvelled at the inhabitants' civic-mindedness.
One of the traditions of Japanese education is that students do soji (cleaning). Soji starts after lunch and lasts for about 20 minutes. This happens four times a week and, on the last day of each semester, there is a longer sprucing-up session called o-soji (big cleaning).
Throughout cleaning time, the public announcement system blasts cheerful marching music. Every class is responsible for cleaning its own classroom and two other places in the school.
Through cleaning, values such as responsibility, cooperation and discipline are inculcated.
Although students need to take care of only the areas they are accountable for, they are more considerate of cleaning staff and less likely to litter or mess up public areas.
These days, many Singapore students attend after-school activities such as enrichment programmes, tuition or sports classes - activities that parents hope will help with academic achievements or furnish their child's portfolio.
Few are expected to help out with everyday responsibilities. Some parents even react adversely when children are asked to help out with such responsibilities at school.
Here's some food for thought: Research by Dr Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and psychologist Richard Weissbourd from the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that children who help out with home duties or chores actually do better in school, and that they are more empathetic and caring.
In fact, children who participate in everyday responsibilities perceive themselves more positively, have a stronger sense of self-worth and are less stressed. Interestingly, the effects are comparable to those of affectionate hugs and fun play with their friends.
These children also feel good that they are contributing. They feel wanted, needed and bonded to the family. They see that they have an important role to play in the family, and the daily responsibilities help to make caring and helpfulness second nature to them.
In the past, helping out with housework was part and parcel of growing up in my family.
My mother would assign a room to each of us.
My elder sister was responsible for the living room, and my twin sister and I were in charge of a bedroom each. Our duties included wiping, dusting, sweeping and mopping, and making the beds. At mealtimes, we took turns to set the table, and everyone had to wash their own dishes.
My mother made us understand why and how chores were to be done. She also showed us ways to make the beds and tools to use for cleaning. She motivated and rewarded us occasionally, but also laid ground rules and meted out consequences if we did not follow them.
In retrospect, not only did my siblings and I learn how to clean and organise, we also learnt time management. No chores done, no playtime! We grew up learning to be responsible for a comfortable home environment, and members of the family naturally were thoughtful towards one another. For example, we were mindful not to mess up the house as we knew we would not want the areas we were responsible for to be a mess.
It is common for many of us now to outsource household work or leave it to domestic helpers. This raises the question: How do we get the children involved?
A friend of mine made sure her children understood that the role of the domestic helper was to support the family with certain everyday responsibilities, but everyone in the family had a part to play in keeping the home clean and doing the duties assigned. For example, the children washed their own shoes and the family washed the car together.
Experts recommend that if you want an independent, caring and helpful child, you should give your child everyday responsibilities.
Start them young, set clear and realistic standards according to the child's stage in development, and assign age-appropriate tasks.
Pre-schoolers can put away their own toys, books and shoes. With adult supervision, they can also help make their own beds, clean and set the table for meals.
Primary school children can sweep or mop, and help in dusting and clearing the plates. They can also help with cooking, laundry and cleaning the bathroom with adult supervision.
Adolescents need more autonomy, so they could be asked to care for younger siblings, plan and cook meals, and run errands such as buying groceries for the family.
Give encouragement and praise, and show affection and love when your children put in the effort. Be patient, do not nag and accept that it will take time to start a child on everyday responsibilities.
Sometimes, a child might take his or her time to complete each task, but remember not to intervene. Explain time management to them.
If you take over the task, the children will be deprived of the satisfaction they experience when they complete the task, and it will cultivate irresponsible behaviours. They might think that they are not capable of doing it, lose their self-confidence and stop trying.
Steer clear of financial rewards if your goal is to instil values such as care and responsibility. Putting a star on a chart for a young child and giving positive verbal affirmation are much better ways to reinforce and motivate.
To nurture responsible, independent and caring adults of tomorrow, we as the adults of today have to let children experience the important part they can play in helping and caring for the family, and let them be socially responsible for their surroundings and environment.
The writer was a principal for 18 years in Kheng Cheng School, Radin Mas Primary and South View Primary. She is a lead associate, focusing on partnerships and engagement, in the engagement and research division of the Ministry of Education.