Empathy is a big buzz word in parenting, child-rearing and 21st century skills at the moment. We all know what it literally means, i.e. to understand someone else’s situation or feelings by putting yourself in their shoes. We all know it’s a good quality to have, and one we should encourage our children to have. But how do you really put it into practice?

  1. Show your own vulnerability

One of the things that most surprises children is when they realise their parents are not the demi-gods they always imagined, and I think this is particularly in Asian cultures. The stereotypical parent not only shelters their children from worries about things like health and finances, but focuses all conversations, questions and attention on their children. I went through my childhood blithely clueless that my parents lives didn’t revolve around just me. It never occurred to me to ask my parents how they were because it simply wasn’t part of the way we talked to each other.

Children need to learn, in an age-appropriate way, that you, too, have difficulties and concerns, which gives them the chance to show empathy towards you in a role-reversal that provides important lessons and experience in how to behave in society.

In the beginning, you may need to help them with how to do this, which can be as simple as, “How was your day, Daddy?”, “What can I do to help?” or “I’m sorry to hear that”. And then, when they do this, or you hear about them doing this with other people, it’s important to acknowledge and praise this, so they feel its value.

  1. Model conflict resolution

Most parents have the natural instinct to protect their children from unpleasant experiences, including arguments or fights between themselves. However, it’s inevitable that your children will witness some of this (and I would argue, actually, it’s healthy for kids to see adults disagreeing verbally, even if it’s a bit heated). In such situations, the important thing is to resolve the conflict in front of your child i.e. acknowledging wrongdoing, apologising, and saying what you will do (or try to do) in the future.

  1. Introduce charity into your child’s life

Here’s a little snippet of conversation between me and 5-year-old Alex when we passed a panhandler:

“Did that woman want some money?”



“Maybe she doesn’t have enough.”

“Do you have money?”


“Why don’t you give her some money? You have to share.”

I was left dumbfounded by this exchange, because of course, he was right, but not at the right age for me to talk about more effective ways to provide charity and the possibility of being scammed. I mulled over this for a while, and think my friend Catherine has the right idea about this.

She gives her sons pocket money, and they divide the money up into three categories – Save, Spend, and Give. Hand in hand with this is a discussion about possibilities of who to give the money to, and this can then be expanded into focused research online on charitable organisations, whether local, regional or international. Depending on the age of your child, you may also want to go into how to find out how legitimate these are.

  1. Read books which encourage empathy

Books are a great gateway into conversations about the lives of others, so it’s a good idea to seek out books of different cultures and lives than your child’s own. Ones which we’ve looked at are:

Grace for Gus, by Harry Bliss

The Red Bicycle, by Jude Isabella and Simone Shin

Little White Duck, by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez

The Unforgotten Coat, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

People, by Peter Spier

The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi

At the Same Moment Around the World, by Clotilde Perrin

This Is How We Do It, by Matt Lamothe

The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers

The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig

Mirror, Jeannie Baker

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (this was recently made into a movie with Julia Roberts, also worth seeing)

Ask your child questions, and encourage them to ask questions, especially ones that get them to imagine themselves in those situations – How would they feel? What would they do? How is it different from their lives? How is it similar, despite the outward differences?

  1. Try hard things and value failure

Children have a tendency to avoid new situations and difficult tasks because most adults shower kids with praise which children then become addicted to. Besides the fact that we should encourage a growth mindset rather than a fixed one (read Carol Dweck to find out more), so that children associate failed attempts with opportunities for learning, failing more often will also make children more empathetic towards others who fail. If a child is always surrounded by peers who are privileged, well-supported and resourced, and groomed for ultimate success, they are more likely to view failure as laziness or a lack of intelligence. There is nothing less empathetic than an entitled, privileged person.


There’s so much emphasis on achievement and success, both in school and in life, that it’s important not to lose sight of the role that kindness and compassion play in making us human and humane. As parents, that’s something we have direct influence over our children, (as opposed to musical talent or an affinity for maths), and the more we bear that in mind and in our own behaviour, perhaps the less antagonistic and fraught our world would be.


By Uma

Uma is a Malaysian mum who works in teacher education. She has a six-year-old son, Alex, and currently lives in Singapore. 

Most parents, at one time or another, think “Wow, my kid is amazing!” But we’re not experts, so we don’t really know how amazing they are. What you experience is normal for you. So it was for us, with Alex. He developed the way he developed, and though I had some familiarity with milestones, he didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

It was a month into Alex starting primary school when we received a message from his teacher – could we have a meeting about Alex? I assumed it was to talk about his progress in French, which was productively behind English.

To our surprise, we were informed by the teacher and someone in the special needs department, who’d had some sessions with Alex, that they suspected he was ‘high ability’. From their observations and some reading and maths proficiency tests, they’d ascertained that Alex was actually performing two grades above his current one. However, since he was one of the youngest in age for his year, they recommended moving him up only one year.

To Move Your Child Up, Or Stay The Year

At this, my husband and I naturally gravitated towards opposite ends of the spectrum. I immediately felt protective of Alex and wanted him to stay in his year, with the kids he’d just got to know. My husband, however, had found school very easy all through primary school and in retrospect wished he had been more academically challenged earlier on. He didn’t want history to repeat itself with Alex.

And so we mulled over this, talking to a handful people around us – other parents, educators, friends, and family.

Some people will tell you that children need to experience rigor and challenge from an early age, in order to develop the expectation to work hard for successes, experience failures, and learn resilience through the difficulties. What’s the point of sitting through lessons you’ve already mastered? The danger is creating a bored and listless child, and cultivating an expectation for school to be easy, making the later years of study a much tougher mountain to climb.

Other people will emphasise the importance of kids having the time and space to develop socially and emotionally with peers close to their own age. High ability isn’t necessarily linked with emotional maturity, and especially in the teen years, puberty can make a year’s difference feel like a lifetime.

Formal testing

We were still on the fence when the class teacher asked to see us again, this time with a request for our permission for the school’s learning specialist to meet with Alex and test him more formally using a test called the WISC IV (Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children). Sure, we said, why not. The results confirmed what his teachers had suspected – Alex scored in the 98% percentile. As we discussed Alex’s likes, behaviours and temperament, the specialist continually pointed out what were supposedly typical features of kids in the same boat: an intolerance for ambiguity; perfectionism that was a little scary at times; and love for the acquisition of data, to be manipulated in variations.

For one of the subtests, the report included this snippet: “Alex did this test less enthusiastically, probably because it was not intellectually motivating and therefore unsatisfactory. He did the minimum to please the examiner.  He also did not appear to be stressed by the stopwatch, and showed no urgency in accelerating. In addition, his perfectionism prompted him to verify all his answers before moving on to the next item.” Yup, that sounded like my kid!

Making The Decision

Ultimately, the specialist assuaged our concerns. Alex was still young, he said. We didn’t need to make the decision now whether to move him up, or even at all. Some kids needed stimulation in class to remain engaged. Other kids got that outside of class. We would see how it went and go with the flow. This, along with his class teacher’s observations that Alex still really loved playing and was perfectly content to read quietly on his own after he’d finished his work, were what made us to decide to keep him where he was.

At the end of the year, we received an official recommendation from the principal to move him not to equivalent of Standard 2, but Standard 3. We decided to keep him with his age group. Standard 2 has started off fine. The academics are mostly a breeze for him, but we have chosen for him to chug along rather than go full speed ahead for now. Meanwhile, outside of school, he swims, sings in a choir, reads voraciously, and he and his dad scream at the TV when playing video games.

What Do I Do About My High Ability Child?

Some final thoughts about things to consider if you find yourself in a similar boat:

  • Ask your child for their opinion about moving up, but be clear that you will make the final decision. Don’t put the burden of making a decision on them.
  • Find out how the teacher differentiates within the class. Are higher ability kids given more difficult tasks? Less differentiation might make for more unengaged kids if they find the material easy.
  • What extra-curricular activities can your kid be involved in to challenge them? Judo? Chess? A foreign language? A musical instrument?
  • How physically big is your child? If they’re quite tall for their age, and mature, there are fewer social/emotional factors to consider.
  • Can they try the higher grade gradually or for certain subjects first? If it’s not a good fit, can they move back to their original class?
  • Be careful about how much you reveal to your child about their ability or IQ. A child who is labelled smart may understand that being smart is more important than failing and learning from mistakes, and that approval is linked to the label.
  • Most importantly, IQ is but a number. Don’t pin anyone’s dreams on it.


By Uma

Uma is a Malaysian mum who works in teacher education. She has a six-year-old son, Alex, and currently lives in Singapore. 



Squeals of excitement would be the best way to describe the reaction from Alex when he discovered what was in the mysterious box of goodies that had arrived. We tore open the bubble wrap and packaging. He was delighted to see his name on the top of the box.

When we opened it, the first thing we saw was the ‘playbook’ with all the instructions of the activities in store. The booklet opens with a fun riddle. For each game, experiment or task, there is a quick visual reference about how long it takes to prep the task, how much adult involvement is required and how messy the activity will be. I definitely scanned through this quickly to decide which ones we could do there and then, and which ones we needed to save for later.


After that there are clear visuals of the materials needed and step-by-step guides on how to assemble the items. Because all of the props are separated in packages of various size, colour, label and material, it’s a bit like Christmas opening all these up!


The theme of Alex’s box was air, and so he learnt a lot about air pressure with a series of seemingly simple but nevertheless mind-blowing (eyes agog at the discovery!) experiments involving tubes, bottles, balloons, food colouring, plasticine and straws. His favourite prop by far was the dropper, because obviously, all scientists need to have their own droppers.


All in all?

Some activities took 20 minutes, while others were done in less than one. All in all, I would say there was a couple of hours’ worth of engagement here, with opportunities for expansion if you supplement this with Internet research, books or videos on the topic.

As a parent who isn’t very DIY when it comes to hands-on learning with my child, Atom & The Dot is a godsend, and I would’ve signed up immediately for a year’s subscription, except they don’t do international shipping at the moment.

For those of you in Malaysia, however, I highly recommend Atom & The Dot if you have a 5-8 year old that you want to give a present to, whether it’s your own child, or niece or for a birthday party you’re going to. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be a fun learning experience for everyone involved.

What we like:  They even have a recycling programme for all the bits and bobs in the boxes – that’s what you want to see in any company working in the 21st century economy.

What could be improved? One suggestion I would make to Atom & The Dot is to include references to find out more about the topic.


Rating: ★★★★★


By Uma.

Uma is a Malaysian mum who works in teacher education. She has a six-year-old son, Alex, and currently lives in Singapore. 


Pictures from Atom & The Dot