Flashy event for underprivileged kids – more harm than good

Industrial and Services Co-operative Society (ISCOS), which helps ex-offenders and their families, organized a community event on Sunday morning. As part of the event, underprivileged children and youths whose parents were or are in prison were taken for a spin in sports and luxury cars.

I applaud the effort put in by and good intentions of the organisers and the owners of the sports and luxury cars. But that is about all the good things I can say about the entire event.

The idea of giving underprivileged children and youths a short ride and thinking that that somehow benefits the children is very ill-conceived. Why? Because I think that the children and youths get negligible benefits from the activity, and it sends a wrong message to the children and youths.

First, negligible benefits to the children and youths. So one child said that it was exhilarating when the car went faster. Well… the child would have felt the same exhilaration going to USS and taking the Battlestar Galactica ride.

Besides the “thrill” of being in those cars, what other benefits were there? Oh. The kids got to see some places that they drove past. Going on a guided tour of Singapore could have achieved that. And so what even if the kids have not been to those places?

What is indicative of the whole experience is what one of the drivers said: that the boy did not talk much during the ride. Were there any meaningful interactions between the drivers and the kids? Does not seem to be the case. So it seems that the kids just got a very expensive tour around the Marina Bay area. Is that useful or meaningful for the kids?

Second, the event sends the wrong message to the children and youths. Some defenders of the event say that being driven around in flashy and luxury cars will inspire the kids to “dream big”. Really? Oh, so one kid said that he would like to own a car when he grows up. And that makes the whole event meaningful. Really? He got that inspiration because he sat in a flashy car? Not because he has seen other cars on the streets, not because his school mates have parents who drive cars, not because of the influences on the media?

Now let’s assume that the event truly had great influence on the perspectives of the kids. What is the kind of message that we are sending them? Are we saying that having flashy cars is a de facto definition of success and if the kids aren’t able to achieve tt then they aren’t successful? Or if they don’t want to achieve tt then they lack ambition and are thus less worthy members of our society? Is tt the kind of message that we want to be sending? That success in our society depends on the amount of consumption you are able to conspicuously flaunt? Do we really want to become such an acquisitive society (if we are not already)?

Some defenders of the event also say that being given a ride in flashy and luxury cars will inspire the kids to “work harder”. Really? Will being given a ride in flashy cars really inspire the kids to “work harder”? How do we know that for sure? How do we know that the kids don’t go away feeling demoralised because they don’t have those flashy and luxury cars and believe that they never will and since that is how success is defined in our society, they are and will always be failures?

Even if they they are inspired to “work harder” and get those cars, will they be inspired to do it in an appropriate fashion? Or will they be inspired to do it through whatever means, by hook or by crook? That they will be inspired to get those cars even if they have to be crooks, even if they have to sell drugs, even if they have to be loan sharks, they will do it because they are so inspired to get those flashy cars.

Perhaps that is the sort of inspiration that this event gave them. And as a result, because they are so inspired to succeed and success is measured by whether they have flashy cars. So they will do whatever it takes to get those flashy cars. Never mind the lives they destroy along the way. Is that the message that the organisers want to send to the kids? Definitely not. But there is a good chance that that’s not the message that the kids got. Do we really want the kids to work hard because they are driven by the desire to own flashy cars? Or would we rather hope that our kids work hard because they want to lead meaningful lives, creating value and actively contributing society?

I don’t doubt the intent nor the good heart of the organisers and the owners of the cars. But it is disappointing that they did not think this through further and from the perspectives of the children and also consider the messaging to the wider community. Rule 1 of any volunteering/social work: first do no harm. If there is a good chance that what you intend to do may cause some inadvertent harm, DO NOT do it.

So what could the organisers have done? How could these well-to-do people still contribute to enrich the lives of the kids? For a start, the event should encourage natural and meaningful interaction. It should not even have any possibility of making the kids feel inferior. Perhaps something like archery tag at the Gardens by the Bay would be good. Fun, lots of running around, screaming, laughing. Then a good meal after that, where volunteers can talk to the kids about the game as well as about each other. It then becomes a natural platform for volunteers to encourage the kids in a wholesome way.

Of course, the volunteers would need to be trained in how to talk to kids from that kind of background – to manage the complex emotional issues that the kids may have, how to navigate around the inferiority complex that some of the kids may have and how to truly inspire the kids. Doing all these take effort. But I am sure that the people who drove those flashy and luxury cars would be big-hearted enough to spend that time so to truly make a meaningful impact on the kids. It just takes a little bit more wisdom and empathy to carefully think through the event, see things through the eyes of the kids, and consider things from the perspectives of society as a whole.

Not easy. But I am sure it can be done.

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