By Melanie Ernould, Psy.D.
I have a friend who is divorced and raising a 7-year-old daughter. He and his ex-wife are immersed in a battle to see who can “out fun” the other. While the girl is lovely and sweet, I can’t help but wonder how much entitlement this is building in her. I am the parent of a 3-year-old girl, and I want to raise her to be a person who cares about others more than her own pursuit of fun or entertainment. But I look around my house and see the shear amount of toys she already owns, because she has two doting parents in two separate households, and also several sets of doting grandparents, and I feel a little nervous. My interactions with this friend and his daughter have me thinking about this topic a lot, particularly with the blast of commercialism that we face during the holidays.
I also had a friend who, for her son’s birthday party, requested that guests bring a book to donate rather than gifts. I thought this was a wonderful idea for many reasons, but at the same time, I remember the pure joy and excitement I felt on those few days each year that I got to open a pile of presents just for me. I’m not sure I feel a child should be completely deprived of that experience either. So how do we raise children who get to experience this joy, but also understand exactly how lucky they are to experience it? How do we raise little people who actually enjoy giving to others as much as they enjoy taking for themselves? I’m not sure I can answer that definitively, but it is a continuous dance to figure out the right balance for each individual child.
Here are 6 ways to help keep your child grounded in humility & empathy:
- Don’t overdo it with gifts over the holidays. Sometimes when grandparents are involved, this is hard to avoid. Do your best. Carefully evaluate what your child actually needs. Consider more experience-based gifts, such as museum passes or a trip. Check out this Huffington Post blog post for 18 non-toy gift ideas for children.
- Consider family activities that are less about manufactured entertainment (think Disneyland) and more about spending quality time bonding and connecting with nature. Go on a hike, bake and cook, or do an art project together. For an excellent resource on ideas that are arranged by season, see Amanda Blake Soule’s The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder Through the Seasons.
- Simplify your life in general. There are many, many things in our households that we don’t need. We think we need them, but we don’t. Re-evaluate your priorities and whittle down your stuff a bit. Clean out your closets and drawers and have your children help you donate items to charity. Start having a conversation about giving to others, and about the unnecessary possession of stuff. In addition, when you do need something, consider finding it used. I recently read this interesting blog entry about a family that happily simplified their lives.
- Model giving behaviors and humility. Apologize often, take responsibility and admit mistakes. As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. And the most effective lessons are through our own actions. Talk with your children about what you do for others such as volunteering and giving to charity. Additionally, when you express empathy to your children, they are more likely to grow up to be empathic individuals themselves. Research shows that parents who model empathic and caring behavior toward their children and others in front of their children are more likely to have children who demonstrate empathy and prosocial attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg-Berg, & Mussen, 1978; McDevitt, Lennon, & Kopriva, 1991; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979).
- Participate in volunteering activities with your family, and make them fun! Experience is also an incredibly effective teacher. We tend to isolate ourselves in our bubbles, ignorant to the plight of others. And in our society, it is easy to do so. Instead of turning a blind eye, expose your children to opportunities to give to those who are less fortunate. According to Wilson (2000), volunteering is associated with positive life-satisfaction, self-esteem, health, educational and occupational achievement, functional ability, and mortality. In addition, youth who volunteer are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as school truancy and drug abuse.To make the lesson of giving stick, it is important to do this all together as a family and in a way that can be fun for your children. Check out CBS Local’s list of great family volunteer opportunities.
- Finally, have frequent conversations with your children about empathy and giving to others. When a conflict arises, help your child understand the position of the other person. In addition, read books together and ask them questions to get them thinking. Many books can be a starting point for a conversation involving perspective taking, but these books deal with the concept of empathy specifically:
- Hey, Little Ant (Hoose, Hoose, and Tilley, 1998)
- The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need (Berenstain & Berenstain, 1999)
- Those Shoes (Boelts & Jones, 2009)
- Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (Applegate, 2014)
- The Invisible Boy (Ludwig, 2013)
- Charlotte’s Web (White, 2006)
- Prairie Evers (Airgood, 2012)
- Junonia (Henkes, 2011)
- Mockingbird (Erkine, 2010)
- Each Kindness (Woodson & Lewis, 2012)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 2004)
References and Further Reading:
Eisenberg-Berg, N., and Mussen, P. (1978). Empathy and moral development in in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 14(2), 185-186.
McDevitt, T. M.; Lennon, R.; and Kopriva, R. J. (1991). Adolescents’ perceptions of mothers’ and fathers’ prosocial actions and empathic responses. Youth and Society, 22(3), 387-409.
Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 215-240.
Zahn-Waxler, C.; Radke-Yarrow, M.; and King, R. A. (1979). Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development, 50(2), 319-330.