Just like we don’t want our kids to be the smelly kid or the outcast in the corner, we also don’t want our child to be the class bully. A few things come to mind when I think of mean kids: my fifth grade school year and being shunned by my circle of girlfriends for some unknown reason, crying about it for weeks, and then being welcomed back into the fold for some equally unknown reason, the movie Mean Girls, which was popular a few years back, and the recent spate of headlines linking cyber bullying to teen suicide. Compassion, or the lack of it, is an ongoing problem. But, just because we don’t want our children to be bullies doesn’t mean we want them to be too nice either. So, as parents, how do you dance on that fine line of making your children decent, empathetic human beings without creating Pat and Patty Pushovers?
Empathy goes beyond just sharing. It is our ability, as humans, to feel what another person feels. It is what makes us human and, therefore, is one of the most important things that we can teach our children. Oftentimes the communal connections that we make by being compassionate and empathetic grow self-esteem and confidence, which protect our children from exactly what we fear for them: isolation, aggression, and low self-esteem.
Take advantage of teaching moments
How oft en have we all heard the phrase, “Put yourself in their shoes”? Th is is a valid, if clichéd, teaching tool. Say your child pushes little Susie. Ask your child, “How would you feel right now if you were Susie?” Really wait for that answer. Really. Resist the temptation to insert your own answer in their mouth. You might not get the answer you were expecting or looking for, but give your child the opportunity to start to practice the concept.
When you have extra to share, be it with those shiny Salvation Army buckets before the holidays, during a church service, or with another member of society, don’t hesitate to explain to your child what the charity is for, who needs the money, and what the money gets used for. If you just give your children money and tell them to hand it to what ever entity you happen to be donating to, kids have no idea why they are giving money. Modeling philanthropic behavior and explaining its significance can have a powerful influence over how a young person starts to value things like humanity over money.
One of the simplest ways that I can think of to help kids start to make community connections is through volunteering. Get involved in volunteer projects oft en and lead by example. If your children see you involved in community projects, they will begin to understand the importance of them in their own lives. Habitat for Humanity is a great weekend family project for people with children of all ages.
Start young and make it age appropriate. So many of us have an overabundance of stuff and I know that children are not immune to this either. Ask even your younger children to gather up toys that they no longer use and donate them. Explain to your children who will be the recipient of these toys and why donating is a nice thing to do. Also, make donating a part of your routine. So many of us wait for special occasions—Thanksgiving or Christmas—to donate canned goods or clothing, when people are in need year-round.
Personalize Broad Social Issues
Talk about social issues at the family dinner table or in the car on the way to or from school or soccer practice: homelessness, hunger, the environment. Brainstorm ideas about how your family can make a difference to a cause that is of particular interest to your family on a local level. Whether it is organizing a food drive in your neighborhood or volunteering to collect older, unused cell phones from family members for a woman’s shelter, there are myriads of ways to get your whole family involved.
When we include our children in social causes, we teach them important life lessons and we give them tools to succeed throughout their lives: critical thinking and problem-solving skills, compassion, and confidence. Empathy is not just about learning to not be selfish, it is about learning that we are part of a bigger picture; we are not lone entities, but part of a community and what we do does matter, from something as simple as sharing cookies to something as big as helping to build a house.
www.volunteeringinamerica.gov is a good place to start your search for volunteer opportunities in your area.
MOLLY FULLER is an editor for the online literary magazine, Buried Letter Press. She has her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and her BSJ from Ohio University. She currently resides in the heart of it all in Akron, Ohio. She has written for various publications since 2007.