Mother Teresa, I am not. There are times when I yell at my kids, make promises I don’t keep, or fantasize about running away to Tahiti (alone). Still, I try my best to teach my children to be kind, considerate, good human beings. These are the little, everyday things I do:
I help my kids see why being a good listener rocks.
In our texting/Snapchat/Facetime world, it seems like the art of listening in real life is getting lost. I know I’ve been guilty of giving my smartphone more eye contact than a child who’s talking to me. These days, whenever my kids have something to say, the iPhone goes away and they get my undivided attention. When we’re in the car and talking, I ask questions about what they’ve told me instead of just distractedly saying “Great!” and “Wow!” (Sound familiar?) If I’m stressed out about something and not capable of fully tuning in, I’ll ask for a parent time-out. (“Honey, I need five minutes to myself and then I’ll come find you.”) It’s not possible to outright teach a kid how to listen, so I do my best to show by example how good it feels when someone’s truly listening to you.
I ask them to consider how the other person feels.
The other day, my daughter was talking about a kid she knows.
“She is sooooo annoying and nobody likes her!” Sabrina said.
“OK, imagine someone said that about you, how would you feel?” I asked.
“Well, she’s not hearing me!” Sabrina replied.
“Honey, my point is that she would feel so sad if she knew that’s what people were saying about her — wouldn’t you?” I responded.
Sabrina grudgingly agreed. Our talk isn’t going to put a perma-stop to this sort of thing, of course, but I’ll keep right on using social situations like this to grow her empathy.
I encourage my kids to show their the appreciation …
Kids tend to take the kajillion things we do for them for granted. I don’t expect thank-you notes (chocolates are preferred!), but I’ve definitely let my children know that, say, I spent a lot of time planning our vacation and that it would make me feel good to hear their gratitude. Which also shows them that there’s nothing wrong with asking for something that makes you feel good. If a neighbor or family member does them a favor, I ask the kids to tell them how awesome it was, or to draw them a picture to express their appreciation.
… and I also teach them to show the love.
“Love you!” we say to our kids and spouses countless times a day. We kiss them, hug them, lavish more kisses on them. But taking the time to explain just what it is that we adore about our kids doesn’t just make them light up — it shows them how to be affectionate in meaningful ways. The other night, as I tucked my son in, I lay down next to him, and let him know how awesome it is to be his mom. I told him how lucky I was to have a son who was sweet and nice to other people. I told him that he was so smart and great at bowling (his favorite sport). I told him that he brought me so much happiness. Max was beaming.
Oh, and if by this point you think I am beginning to resemble Mother Teresa, after I walked out of the room Max proceeded to ask for a snack, and then water, and then he wanted his nightlight on, then he wanted more water and finally I hissed, “No! You have to go to sleep! NOW!!!” in this evil voice. So, there.
I help them understand how to be truly sorry.
Recently, I was upstairs on a Saturday morning getting dressed when I heard a howl coming from our kitchen. Sabrina has been reading my Judy Blume books from childhood, and it seems like Max had grabbed Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret out of Sabrina’s hands and torn the cover.
“MAX BROKE MY BOOK!” Sabrina sobbed.
Max looked guilty as all get out.
“Max, time to say you’re sorry,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, dutifully, as most kids would.
But “sorry” alone wasn’t going to cut it. I found some book tape, and I had Max helped me repair the book; that way, he had to actually think about what he had done, and it also conveyed an apology in a much stronger way to Sabrina than words alone.
I expect my daughter to treat people with disabilities as equals.
This is a given in our house; Max has cerebral palsy. Sabrina’s learned firsthand that kids with special needs deserve to be treated like any other child, from not hesitating to approach them at the park or playground and saying “Hi!” to including them in activities. She’s seen kids make fun of Max on occasion, and knows just how hard it can be for other children to accept those with special needs. We’ve talked about everyone having their own special abilities, and that different doesn’t mean someone is any less of an amazing human being. One of my proudest moments was overhearing Sabrina tell a visiting friend who asked what’s “wrong” with Max, “He has cerebral palsy and it doesn’t matter because he can do lots of stuff!”
I enable them to give back.
Donating money to a cause isn’t an easy concept for kids to grasp; I’ve found that small, concrete actions have the most impact. We do what we can. We’ve donated Max’s old disability equipment to his school. Last holiday season, the kids collected gloves and scarves for kids in need. At the breakfast table, we rip off box tops from cereal boxes for school drives to raise money. The best thing we can teach our kids about pitching in is that little, everyday things can make a difference and that doing good doesn’t have to involve some major effort.
I talk the talk when it comes to honesty.
When I was a kid, we went to visit an aunt and uncle who lived in San Antonio, Texas. I remember checking out The Alamo and exploring the River Walk. But most of all, I remember what happened when my uncle paid a bill for a restaurant meal. The cashier gave us back ten cents too much. My uncle pointed that out, and then he asked me to return it to her. I did, and he gave me high praise. To this day, I can picture handing over that dime. These sort of things stay with kids; the best way to raise honest kids is to be honest yourself. This means not telling white lies around them, including the kind where you concoct a fake excuse to bail on an activity.
My daughter is sometimes shy about meeting kids in new situations; I gently encourage her to say hi. My son resisted learning how to ride a bike because he has coordination issues; my husband and I kept on him until he got the hang of it. Both kids practice math on this cool IXL website, but often try to weasel out of the bonus rounds; I always make them. Pushing kids to do things that they consider difficult doesn’t just instill confidence and determination — it prepares them to be adults who don’t always take the easy way out and who can rise to the occasion, traits that will make them appreciated in the workplace … and in life.More On