Becoming more extra-centered and less self-centered. Learning to feel with and for others. Empathy, tolerance, brotherhood. Sensitivity to needs in people and situations.
Some children have a natural and seemingly inherent sense of caring and sensitivity. Such cases are rather rare, however, and the self-centered "surrounded by mirrors" perspective of life is typical of most children, particularly adolescents. In fact most of the problems teenagers face (whether taking the form of rebellion or of extreme shyness and withdrawal) stem from their rather intense preoccupation with self.
Nevertheless, children can begin to learn sensitivity and unselfishness at a very young age, and they should learn it as a skill and a capacity as well as a value.
Children have difficulty empathizing and applying their own feelings to others. A child can feel crushed one day because Jimmy didn't invite him to his birthday party and the next day forget to include someone who looks lonely in the basketball game at recess. Adolescents love to borrow clothes, but many hate to lend them and often forget to return them or to "repair the damage." It takes real effort on the part of parents and sometimes a very long time for most children to realize that the world does not revolve around them, that others' feelings are crucial and that there is a great deal to be learned from giving up something they really want for the sake of someone else.
Give responsibility. Try to bring out your children's appreciation and empathy for the difficulties and challenges of others. A recent Harvard study pointed up an interesting connection between how much responsibility children were given and their tendencies to be altruistic and extra-centered. Apparently children who are given everything but responsibility not only become spoiled but actually tend to begin to lose their sense of caring and concern.
During this month reemphasize and redefine the responsibilities you give your children and the dependability you expect of them. Discuss, whenever you get the chance, the responsibilities that others have and how we must be sensitive to the burdens other people have.
Teach by example and active listening. Show children the attitude of empathy and the kinds of sensitivity that you want them to mirror. Try to make your own listening and caring more obvious. One way to do this is "active listening." Instead of the normal parental tendencies of directing, managing, and interrogating children, try to really hear what children say. Paraphrase back to them what they have said in a way that reassures them that you heard what they said, have understood it, and are concerned about it. This technique is sometimes also called Rogerian technique after Carl Rogers, the pioneering psychologist who found that people of any age will tell you more if you listen rather than ask.
The practice of active listening will, in addition to encouraging your children to say more to you, set a profound example of the kind of sensitivity you hope they themselves will develop.
Say, "I'm sorry." Show your children your sensitivity and help them feel sensitive toward you. Whenever you have made a mistake or misjudgment or even been a little insensitive to a child's needs (through your own busy-ness, preoccupation, etc.), go to the child and say you're sorry for not being more in tune and sensitive to what they were worried about or needed.
Make an effort to tell your children how the things they do make you feel. This will help children be more aware of your feelings and be more sensitive toward them. If a teenager tells you that you are weird, tell him that that hurts your feelings. Sometimes children think of parents as people on whom they can vent their feelings without making a dent. Tell them not only the hurtful things but the positive things. For example, "It makes me feel so happy when I see you cleaning things up without being asked or helping your little brother with his homework."
Remember that unselfishness does not come naturally. Try to maintain your patience as you implement this "month." Everyone, although in varying degrees, is born with a certain amount of selfishness. There is no quick fix for learning to be unselfish. It is a process that takes thinking and practicing and a certain amount of maturity to develop.
Praise. Reinforce -- and cause repetition of -- unselfish behavior. Heap praise on signs
or symptoms or even brief glimpses of unselfishness in children of any age! Let's face it, an act of simple sharing in children -- particularly small ones -- is cause for genuine celebration. And it also calls for praise and recognition. When a child shares, or gives, or sees and responds to needs in another, praise him, pick him up and hug him, and point out what he's just done to anyone else who is around.
Review the activities and stories that go along with this months value. Make sure everyone in your family understands the value so they can see how they can apply it in their own lives and situations.
Talk about the Monthly Value every morning and remind your family to look for opportunities to use the value throughout the day. They may also observe how others don't understand the value. Get your children to share their experience with the value each day at the dinner table or before you go to bed. Be sure to share your experience each day as well. It will help your children know that you are thinking about the value too.
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