Monday, March 21, 2011

How Do You Teach Your Kids To Be Grateful & Empathetic?

So, first off.  Princess Party on Saturday... a hit!  Check it out!

Yummy cake - red velvet!  Came from Simply Sweet.

Now that we have that out of the way.... my daughter did a couple of things on the day of her party that were cringe-worthy.  The first was as follows... as I was making a play date for her with one of her little friends, she said in front of another little friend that she didn't want any more play dates with her.  She said it twice.  The second thing she did was after opening all of her presents (thankfully at home) she started to cry and said "Is that all of the presents I got???".  Wow.  I know she just turned 4 (officially today... although she's spending her birthday at home sick), but wow again. 

That begs the question, when do children learn to feel both gratitude and empathy?  And how do you teach those qualities?  My responses to these two incidents were as follows:  (1) "Of course you still want a play date with your friend, don't be silly" as I tried to make light of the matter.  And later, I said to her that although she may or may not want a future play date with her friend, that saying it front of her would really hurt her feelings (and gave the example if it was said about her... wouldn't she feel bad?).  I told her it's OK to think certain things but that we don't always want to say them out loud.  This was a tough one because you can't force a child to like and want to play with another child, so she should be free to make those choices.  It was really more trying to teach her not to hurt other's feelings. 

(2) With respect to the comment about the presents, I tried to point out all of the great gifts she got.  When that didn't work, I tried the old, "Well, if you don't want them, I'm sure there is another little girl who would be more than happy to have them!".  You can imagine she didn't like that very much.  All of a sudden, the gifts looked much better again and not another word was said on the topic.

Now I don't want to give my daughter a bad rap here, she's truly a very generous child and great at sharing.  But she's still a child (so don't hold this stuff against her!).  So I question myself, did I do the right thing?  Did I handle this well?  Was there something else I could have said?  It's difficult at this age to say things in a way that they will understand and ultimately, be able to grasp the concepts.

My son's school is doing a fundraiser tomorrow on International Water Day to raise money for the victims in Japan.  I'm not quite sure at 6 years old that he can grasp the magnitude of this natural disaster (nor can many of us adults) but I think it's essential to teach him to be charitable and to want to help others.

Is it only through our repetitive actions as parents that these traits become a part of a child's personality, or is it a maturity thing?  Not all people end up being empathic - some definitely more so than others (or to be grateful for the good things in their life).  Is that because their parents didn't teach them or because it was just not part of their personality?  I found an article about teaching your child how to be grateful - it was mostly about setting an example.  One thing I did try with my son that seemed to really work was to have him tell me 3 things each night before going to bed that he was grateful for from his day (in kid speak - what were the three things that made you happy today?).  It seemed to also end the day on a good note before going to sleep.

Teaching empathy, on the other hand is a little harder.  I found another article (there is ALWAYS an article) that says children don't really learn this until they are 8 or 9.  Basically, we need to help them understand what it is by labeling the emotion, praising the behaviour and labeling others behaviour so they learn what it is.  It was actually quite a good list of suggestions.

I guess at some stage, there is a transition from being in the "me" phase, to gradually being aware of how the rest of the world is affected by your behaviour.  And then of course, what you do with that recognition.  I think we are all born with the capacity for empathy, but that it definitely needs to be nurtured for it to fully bloom.  So for now, I will continue to do my best and try and teach my children to be kind, grateful and generous and hope the lessons stick - it's all I can do.

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