Teaching Children to Think of Others

kids - 5 yr old bBy Kathy P. Behan

One concept that I’ve always had a particularly hard time with is that life isn’t fair. Oh I know that in reality the good guy doesn’t always win, and similarly, the bad guy doesn’t always get exposed as the creep that he really is. But I don’t like it. It bothers me — a lot.

Most children agree with me. They often have a highly developed sense of fairness, especially when it comes to their own rights. They’re particularly conscious of whether or not they’re getting “theirs.” The rub, of course, is that as parents, we also have to convey the belief that they should be concerned about other peoples’ treatment as well.

A lot of parents do a great job getting the fairness message across to their children. But all too often, there are others who don’t. Maybe they figure that as long as their kid is getting his share, that’s all that really matters. This kind of parent is usually easy to spot. For instance, they’re the ones who always let their kids win at any game they play.

In a misguided attempt to protect their children from disappointment, they inadvertently teach their kids that rules are for other people, and that exceptions should be made for them. They mistakenly believe that they’re doing their child a favor. The ironic part is that these parents are wrong — their kids ultimately lose, and in much more important ways.

For starters, what does a child learn by always winning? (a) Winning is fun. (b) Winning is important, (c) I should always be allowed to win. The answer is all of the above.

The satisfaction of winning is an easy lesson to learn, but children should also be taught how to lose graciously. They should understand and consider how other people feel. Beyond winning and losing at games, being sensitive to another’s perspective is essential to all kinds of relationships. Empathy doesn’t just develop automatically. It’s cultivated, and kids should get plenty of practice.

On the day I was writing this, my middle child gave me a great example of empathy in action. Brendan was telling me about what happened in kindergarten that day. Apparently, all the kids suggested names for the class fish, and Brendan’s name had been chosen (“Tiger,” for his stripes — in case you were curious). As I was congratulating him, he said, “Yeah Mom, I was really glad that my name was picked, but I was also kind of sad, too.” When I asked him why, he explained that there was a run-off between the two most popular names.

“My friend Laura was the person who thought up the other name, so I felt bad for her because her name lost.”

Even though “Tiger” was a clear winner over “Lovie” (Laura’s suggestion), my pride in Brendan had nothing to do with his name being picked.

There are times though, when a me-first mentality does seem to have some benefits. It may help make a person successful at sports, business, or any other endeavor that requires aggressiveness. But when it comes to matters of the heart, these people can be dismal failures. Even though they may be splashy and accomplished, they lack important kindness qualities. That’s why they don’t make very good friends. When push comes to shove, they can’t be trusted. They only care about what’s in it for them. Plus, they may often have a hard time connecting with other people.

Contrast this with a little guy I know named Steven, a 6-year-old who really knows about friendship. Steven was put in a sticky social situation, and yet handled it like a champ. It seems a little boy wanted to be his friend, but the child was always mean to one of Steven’s other buddies. Steven explained to the boy, “I won’t be your friend if you hurt other kids.”

Even though Steven risked incurring the new boy’s wrath, he stood up for his “old” friend, and tried to protect him. Overly-indulged children are often oblivious to other people’s feelings, thoughts and motivations, since so much of their focus is on themselves. But they’re all too sensitive to their own desires. Take Lana for example (her name has been changed to protect the guilty). She was playing a game with some other children where they would take turns jumping from one beanbag chair to another. One little boy took too long jumping onto the next in the lineup . Instead of talking to him about it, Lana jumped directly on top of him, and knocked him to the ground. When questioned, she seemed surprised that I reprimanded her. “He was in my way!” she shouted, fully believing that this justified her behavior.

Not surprisingly, innate selfishness has other negative consequences. Because of their limited thinking, spoiled kids often don’t have a good sense of themselves. After all, their parents are constantly telling them they’re beautiful, bright and the best at everything, so they develop a distorted view of themselves. In their hearts, they know they can’t be as perfect as their parents think, and it makes them confused and unhappy. Because they can’t trust their parents’ judgment, they also have doubts about their own.

This distorted perspective makes it hard for them to be honest. They probably don’t know how. And their dissatisfaction with themselves may lead them to try to make the people around them equally uncertain, and miserable. For instance, take a child I’ll call Kim, who has a lot going for him. He’s good-looking, gifted, and excels at most sports, yet he won’t play games honestly. Even though the odds are good that he’d win most of the time, he cheats and bends the rules in order to ensure victory. His goal seems to be not only to win everything he plays, but to make other kids feel bad about themselves.

After playing a street hockey game, he remarked to one of the boys, “We don’t really like you. We only invited you because we wanted a lot of kids on each team.” It’s scary to consider that this deliberate cruelty came from a nine-year-old boy.

In order to do ourselves, our kids and our world a favor, we have to teach our children to be attuned to others. They must understand that everyone has feelings and that we should all be considerate. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do so. And after all, to do anything else just isn’t fair.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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