Has your child ever hurt another by saying something unkind or failed to help to someone in need? In fact, you not only cringed in embarrassment, you might have wondered where you’d gone wrong as a parent.
But just how do you “teach” kindness? After all, it’s not as straightforward as teaching her the alphabet and 123, or even how to put on her own shoes. If anything, the parents of today are too indulgent with their children. Dr Foo Koong Hean, a James Cook University (Singapore) researcher and psychotherapist, likens this trend of parents splurging and being overly indulgent with their children to “filial parenting”.
“Parents are doing everything and anything to be filial to their children, so that they have a good life and don’t suffer,” explains Dr Foo, who has just published Negotiation Parenting or How to Not Raise a Brat in Today’s Complex World.
The sad result is a younger generation that feels “extra special, entitled” and who “find it hard to accept failure”, Dr Foo says. These are the very reasons why this cohort fails to consider the needs of others — in other words, to be kind and compassionate.
But no matter how old your child is, you can help junior become that nice kid by tweaking your parenting approach.
Make it a point to remind her that others matter. A simple way is to talk about your feelings more.
1. Build empathy
Empathy ― the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people's feelings ― allows us to feel an attachment to our family, friends, and even strangers. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes also triggers other caring emotions like gratitude and compassion.
But first, junior needs to accept that the world doesn’t just revolve around her. Says Dr Foo, “If you are constantly serving her and making sure she’s eaten, she’s not going to worry about whether others — her sibling, or even you — have had your meal.”
Make it a point to remind her that others matter. A simple way is to talk about your feelings more. For instance, if you’ve had a hard day at work, you can share with your little one that you were nervous during your presentation, and the relief you felt when a colleague helped you out. Read books and watch shows that express the way people feel — you can then talk to your child about how you identify with a certain character, and ask her whom she can identify with.
Another way is to expose her to the less fortunate in society. Volunteering for a social cause, or baking cookies for a neighbour’s disabled kid will help her realise that, there are other people and things in the world worth caring about.
2. Promote gentleness
Whether it’s a younger sibling or a pet, point out that she has to be careful and gentle in the way she treats them. If she grabs her younger brother roughly, take her hand and show her how a gentle touch feels.
Make sure your child is also on the receiving end of gentleness. When she is sick or hurt, showing gentle care and concern won’t just help her experience compassion first-hand, she’ll learn how to show compassion to others. And sure, there’ll be times you get mad at her, but instead of yelling, speaking in a soft and controlled, but firm voice, to show her that shouting isn’t the way to go when she’s angry.
3. Walk the talk
From an early age, your child is watching your every action and word, thereby discovering what she’ll deem “appropriate behaviour”. So, you should be mindful of how you respond to your child when she talks to you, and how you resolve conflicts, for instance, when another child snatches her toy.
When you come across a person in need — that elderly neighbour who can barely carry her shopping bags, or a child at the playground who has scraped his knee after a fall — stop and offer help, even if it is not convenient to do so. This will show junior that it is important that we try and help others.
Dr Foo points out that it is not enough to simply give your child instructions or orders. “When parents tell their children not to walk against the crowd, they often don’t tell them why. They pull them away and say, ‘Be careful. Watch out.’ If you don’t explain the situation, your child will not know why she has to do that and will keep on blocking others’ way,” he notes.
4. Give them the chance to help
Children love feeling like they can make a difference. So, from a young age, get them in the habit of being “useful”. Let them start with chores at home — from feeding the cat to setting the table before meals. If you have more than one child, a chore schedule would help each kid keep track of what he or she has to do.
Dr Foo, who once ran a childcare centre for nine years, emphasises that nurturing kind kids starts at home. He adds, “A lot of things are done in school, but are undone at home. I’ve met parents who say that their job is to spoil their kids and it’s the school’s job to discipline them,” he laments. Remember, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your child’s learning begins at home.
Children love feeling like they can make a difference. So, from a young age, get them in the habit of being “useful”.
5. Point out acts of kindness
Read books to your kids on kindness, compassion and tolerance, Dr Foo encourages. This way, when junior sees a real situation taking place, they will know what to do. He suggests that you help your child process her thoughts about the situation. Ask questions like, ‘How do you feel about this? How do you think the other person feels? What is the way you should act?” If you constantly help your kids process and understand such situations, a thoughtful response will come naturally to them.
And watch what your kids are watching on TV, Dr Foo advises. “Lots of shows are purely for entertainment, but we have to explain to our children why some characters behave a certain way, when they’re acting kindly or being mean, and what is wrong or right.” That’s what the “parental guidance” rating is for, he notes.
6. Start a family culture
Most kids these days don’t know what their family values are, Dr Foo notes, “They don’t know what being kind or courteous is because they are being served and everything has been handed to them.” If children are uncaring or don’t notice others’ needs, they will lack both self-awareness and an awareness of others.
The key to this, Dr Foo says, is to foster a caring family culture — for instance, say something like “In our family, we respect our parents, we hold kindness and caring for each other as virtues.” Write down this motto, give it to the kids, and tell them that “this is what we do in our family”, he suggests.
If they don’t understand what this tagline means, explain it, then ask them to contribute their suggestions. When they have a say in the development of these values, they will feel a sense of ownership towards them.
By the way, if you don’t feel you already have a family culture, or even a set of family values, now’s the time to start, Dr Foo urges.
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