(CMR) Raising a child to be compassionate today can be challenging, especially with all the bullying, racism, hate, and wars happening. Social media has made it even more difficult as children are often caught in the conflicts on the various platforms available to them.
While the environment in which you raise your kids can be hostile and go against personal values, parents still have a role to play. Here are 10 ways Elizabeth Foy Larsen and Maressa Brown (parents.com) suggest parents can raise a compassionate child.
Model Empathy– Your priority in teaching compassion and kindness to your kids is to embody those characteristics yourself. Nina Kaiser, child psychologist, said parents could model empathy and compassion in a few ways. This can be through service, such as taking a meal to a neighbor who is ill. Another teaching moment: If you hear your child talking about a peer negatively, you can encourage them to think about the situation from the other person's perspective.
Discuss the difference between in-person and online conversations- Even adults struggle with understanding that tone and intention don't always come through on a screen, write Evie Granville and Sarah Davis, creators of the website and podcast Modern Manners for Moms and Dads. “It's so important to help children understand from an early age that when we're chatting online, our friend can't see our face or hear our voice,” advise Granville and Davis. “It's easy for someone to end up with hurt feelings when a conversation best had in person instead takes place in a text.”
Emphasize the permanence of social media–
Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, encourages parents to talk to children about the permanence of posting on any social media platform. “Even if a post can be deleted, there will always be a digital record of their interactions,” she points out. And while Romanoff notes that these negative feelings are normal and okay to have, understanding how to manage them in a healthy, non-destructive way is key. She suggests parents and children:
- Think and process how they're feeling before taking action.
- Consider the impact of the person on the other side of the screen.
- Reflect on whether or not they would stand by their comment five or 10 years in the future.
Show some gratitude- “When individuals have more gratitude, they are more likely to be generous and helpful in the future,” notes Romanoff. She recommends that parents set up regular opportunities for modeling and practicing gratitude: “For example, at dinner, make it a ritual to go around the table and have each person share what they are grateful for from their day,” she advises. “It's a great way to launch dinner conversation, share about each person's day, and model and reinforce gratitude.”
Be consistent in your modeling- If you tell your child to be mindful that their words have an impact on others' feelings, but then you berate your partner or another family member for a minor misstep, you're sending your child confusing messages, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the Gaslight Effect. Your best bet: Make it right in front of your child by apologizing to whomever you argued with.
Boost your child's feelings vocabulary- Learning how to identify and label emotions can help with processing them, but it can also make your child more aware of other people's emotions—and ultimately show them empathy. To do this, ask your preschooler to help make “feelings flashcards” by cutting out pictures of faces from magazines or newspapers, gluing them to index cards, and tagging whatever emotion they convey on the back. As your child gets older, the emotions can get more nuanced—surprise, shyness, confusion, irritation—and you can add body language to the facial gestures. And when you read books together, encourage your child to name the emotions of the different characters.
Point out and praise kindness- When you watch your child offering a playmate some apple slices, call attention to it by saying, “That was very kind of you to give them a few when you didn't have very many.” Then add something like, “I'll bet they were a little envious that you brought a snack to the park when they hadn't. How do you think it made your friend feel when you shared with them?” Just watch out for lavishing praise on your child for fairly ordinary tasks, as this won't bolster empathy. “Overpraising is a distraction,” says Polly Young-Eisendrath.
Value compassion over happiness- One expert points out that parents often prioritize their child's happiness above anything else. “This can become at odds with teaching children compassion and kindness to others when it conflicts with their own short-term happiness,” Romanoff notes. “For example, if your child wants to quit the sports team, encourage them to consider their obligation to others and the commitment they made.” And instead of the quick fix (bailing on the extracurricular), you can try to get to the root of why they want to quit, suggests Romanoff.
Raise fully aware children- You may worry that introducing kids to life's harsher realities will be too upsetting. But the reverse is actually true, says Dr. Carter. “When you expose children to the sufferings of others, they end up feeling grateful for what they have and proud of being able to help someone,” she says.
Celebrate differences- Look for opportunities to have conversations about tolerance and respect. Please help them to appreciate children with special needs. Teach your children to love and respect others who may look different from them.