This got both Chris and I thinking about our children, the messages that we teach them paired with what they are learning from their friends and teachers at pre-school and through books, TV and movies.
This past summer I read a great article in The Washington Post on raising nice kids and both Chris and I have tried to incorporate some of the messaging on raising nice, kind and happy children into our parenting toolkit. During a meeting at daycare the other week we were told that both of our kids are two of the most polite kids in the entire school. I guess this means that Chris and my active roles of the Please and Thank you division of the "Polite Police" is paying off. I am very proud of this, but am also keenly aware that being a polite person is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to becoming a kind person. At the same meeting, I was told that Jack's extreme empathy continues to stand out above and beyond his peers. This is something that both Chris and I have noticed about Jack for a long time, and both speculate that he is going to grow up to be a caregiver of some kind (like a nurse), but at this age it's not really something we could have taught him. It's simply the way he is.
Jackie and the baby goats, my little animal whisperer, even at a year.
Molly, while polite, doesn't have the same (ahem) natural affinity towards empathy, despite knowing all of her pleases, thank yous and you're welcomes .
How can we teach our children or encourage the development of empathy in our kids?
For infants and toddlers Children Zero to Three suggests verbally empathizing with your children, talking about your feelings and the feelings of others and modelling how to show empathy to others (for example: let's go give Bobby a hug and a band aid to make him feel better) to nurture the beginning of empathy.
Psych Central suggests that at three years old you are able to begin to comprehend conversations about other people's feelings and some of the impact/consequence surrounding making others feel bad. By around five years old you can begin to discuss hypothetical problems or scenarios to your child by asking questions like, "How would you feel if..." At eight years old they will begin to differentiate point of views and that the perspectives and feelings of those around them may differ from their own.
Sesame Street talks about helping your children develop their own emotional repertoire by giving them the emotional language they need as well as positive reinforcement. I particularly liked their positive reinforcement commentary on encouraging empathetic actions, "One child's red crayon breaks and she bursts into tears of anger. The other sees what has happened, empathizes with the anger, and offers her his crayon. The first child quickly accepts and both children resume their colouring. What's a good strategy for a parent observing this interaction? You can reinforce a child's helpful behaviour by saying something like this: 'I noticed how you offered your crayon to your friend. It must have made you feel good to help her. It made me feel good to watch you.'"
We've been taking positive reinforcement seriously around our house. The other day when I shared some of my dinner that I couldn't finish with Chris, Molly turned to me and said, "I'm so proud of you mommy." It's a little out of context, but I'll take it as a win.
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