Scare-mongering or common sense? The jury’s out on celebrity nanny Emma Jenner’s article: “5 Reasons Modern-Day Parenting is in Crisis“.
After two decades of caring for other people’s children, Emma believes she can sum up the problem with modern parents with one simple test: Pour your child’s milk into a pink sippy cup. If they declare, ‘But I wanted the blue one!’ Do you a) Put the pink sippy cup down in front of them and deal with the consequences, or b) Pour the milk into the blue sippy cup?
On more than one occasion, I’ve opted for B. Does that mean I’m a failure as a parent? That I’m growing selfish, self-indulgent children who have me wrapped around their little fingers?
Watching my kids grow into loving, caring little people every day, I’d have to say ‘no.’
My decision to give my child the cup they want instead of telling them to ‘suck it up’ is deliberate. I want them to learn from my example that they can be flexible; some things just aren’t a big deal, and caring about the desires and feelings of others is more important than a small inconvenience. According to this Harvard psychologist, I might just be on the right track.
After much research, Richard Weissbourd has concluded that raising kind kids is as simple as modelling kindness yourself.
The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:
1. Make caring for others a priority
Why? Parents tend to prioritise their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate, or deciding to stand up for a friend who is being bullied.
How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honouring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend, and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.
- Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say, “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
- Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
- Emphasise caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.
2. Provide opportunities for children to practise caring and gratitude
Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving — and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.
How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition — whether it’s helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job — makes caring second nature, and develops and hones youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practising it.
- Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbours and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
- Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television, and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
- Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.
3. Expand your child’s circle of concern
Why? Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is to help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.
How? Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.
- Make sure your children are friendly and grateful to all the people in their daily lives, such as bus drivers or waitresses.
- Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
- Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.
4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor
Why? Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. “Should I invite a new neighbour to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”
How? Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.
- Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.
- Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner, or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.
5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings
Why? Often, the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.
How? We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
- Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose, exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while, she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.
A few days ago, I was working at my desk as my ‘nearly 4-year-old’ walked past and saw me shivering. Without saying a word, he walked into my bedroom, grabbed my dressing gown and brought it into the office… ‘For you, Mummy,’ he said quietly, then silently walked out of the room.
So yes, I’ve failed the sippy cup test, but I think I’m still winning at parenting.
“You must first teach a child that he is loved.
Only then is he ready to learn everything else.”
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova.