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Vietnam should teach kindness to children

Tuesday, September 24, 2013, 12:06 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Mark Ashwill is the managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company that provides education and training solutions. He was the country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009.

Ashwill recently talked to Tuoitrenews about how to supply a better-balanced education to Vietnamese children, following a veteran educator’s letter to parents at the beginning of this academic year, which fell on September 5.

Associate Professor Van Nhu Cuong, a 76-year-old mathematician who has written many textbooks for high school and college students, suggested in the letter that parents should not overrate and indulge their children too much.

He also touched on many hotly debated issues like excessive care for children, after-school classes, and Internet addiction. The English translation of this letter can be found here.

Following is Tuoitrenews’ interview with Ashwill.

What struck you most about young people, e.g. from kids to young adults in their 20s, in Vietnam when you first came to work here?

How over-programed and stress-filled many of their young lives are, with a long list of extra classes and enrichment activities. Children who are overscheduled do not have time to be children, to play with others or even by themselves on occasion. Play is considered to be such an important contributor to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children that it was recognized by the UN as a right of every child. It’s unstructured time that gives children the opportunity to use their imagination, learn to solve problems, and develop social skills. 

I understand that parents want the very best for their children but “the best” should include helping them live a life that is balanced - intellectually, morally, physically and spiritually.  I’m reminded of the theory of multiple intelligences developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, a Harvard University professor. It includes visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. We all have different aptitudes and “intelligences.” The challenge is to recognize and develop them. A lesson here is that children should be encouraged to explore and discover their intelligences but not be pressured into doing something for which they have little or no aptitude, i.e., trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This also means that “one size doesn’t fit all” in terms of learning styles.    

On the bright side, I’ve also noticed many young people who look beyond themselves and their narrow world by getting involved in community service activities. They are passionate about making a difference in the lives of people less fortunate and in the larger society. In addition, I’ve found that young Vietnamese are open to the world and open-minded in many respects. That’s a source of hope and optimism.

School children and university students have a heavy load of schoolwork. Do you think this is to blame for the lack of 'soft-skills' education?

I do think that the K-12 curriculum should be reevaluated and have heard that the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training is doing precisely that. Perhaps this will be an opportunity to create some room in the curriculum and include more opportunities for schools to focus on age-appropriate soft skills development. 

Soft skills relate to an individual’s EQ (emotional intelligence), which refers to personality traits that enable someone to interact effectively with other people. These include social graces (e.g. manners), communication skills, conflict resolution and negotiation, creative problem-solving, strategic thinking, team-building, etc. I see soft skill development as a responsibility shared by both parents and the education system.

So what role do you think schools and parents should play in order to provide a well-balanced education for our young generations?

While schools play a key role in providing a well-balanced education and properly socializing children, including through non-academic programs such as sex education, financial literacy and career orientation for older children, I think that most of the responsibility for raising happy and well-adjusted children rests on the shoulders of parents and other caretakers.

There are limits to what schools can do on behalf of children. Too often, they are blamed for many of society’s problems when the blame lies elsewhere. One of the most important and rewarding roles that a person can play is that of a parent. Many parents need to spend more time with their children, teach them, guide them, discipline them, support them, love them unconditionally and, when necessary, discipline them.

One of my favorite quotes is this one from Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who wrote a book entitled The Last Lecture and died of pancreatic cancer in 2008:  "The key question to keep asking is, 'Are you spending your time on the right things?' Because time is all you have." That applies to raising a child and a range of other activities in life.

One parental responsibility is to help children become good people and good citizens. This includes helping them to learn the art of kindness, which of course is related to empathy and compassion. In a speech to the class of 2013 at Syracuse University, where he teaches, Professor George Saunders had this advice about the value of kindness: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.


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