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The Learning with series: Dr Tan Lai Yong (Part 1)

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The 4Cs of Learning (Part 1: Curiosity and Care)

Curiosity “So, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

Too many children and students have been asked this simple yet loaded question. After answering it innocently, the child soon notices that certain adults frown and ask if the child might consider becoming a professional like a doctor or an engineer. Of course, the child does not understand what this really means but since that’s what the adult wants to hear, he smiles and nods. Unknowingly, and perhaps unintentionally, the adult risks pushing the child’s ideas to the background.

In an interview with Dr Tan Lai Yong, he shared that it was more important to nurture the natural curiosity in children because very often, we are too focused on exams and grades.

Dr Tan grew up in a family with low income and had 6 older siblings. They were blessed with a nurturing mother. Although she did not go to school herself, she had in her kindly fundamentals about parenting.

When he was seven, his mother told him that it was time for him to go to school. When he asked why he needed to go, she replied, “To play!” That same wisdom was in turn passed on Dr Tan’s own children when he told them to go to school to play – with numbers, music, sports, mathematics, languages, and of course friends.

Listening to Dr Tan and his sharing about his mother’s wisdom compels us to think harder about how we should make time to find ways to nurture the innate sense of curiosity in our children.

Care John Maxwell once said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Dr Tan recounted some of his teachers who were very humble and cared deeply for the students. They taught the students fundamental values such as being neat and being polite. They emphasized the importance of clean, not new, shoes. These were lessons that were ingrained in Dr Tan because of the genuine care that the teachers demonstrated. As he said, “Their sense of care and affirmation won a lot of respect. When there’s mutual care and respect, you learn so much better.”

Apart from his teachers, Dr Tan also recounted the care and love that his mother showed to him. After getting into medical school, Dr Tan shared the good news with his mother. Knowing her son’s strengths, she replied that it would be a tough journey for him and that he did not need to excel to bring her any glory or ‘face’.

Instead, she assured him that he was her son and would always be her son.

When a child is given such powerful assurance, their fear dissipates, and they are much more ready within for the adventure ahead to learn and excel.

Let them know that we care before we care about how much they know.

(Stay tuned for Part 2: Clarity and Cheng Zhang 成长)

Dr Tan Lai Yong is a medical doctor by training. In 1996, he and his family moved to Yunnan, China, to serve in the community and train village health workers. He has received numerous awards for his excellence in teaching in NUS. He has 2 grown children and still enjoys the outdoors very much. In the past, he has led trips to countries like Botswana, China, India and Myanmar.

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