Tag Archives: teaching

Unspoken words and Untaught Lessons

5 May

Teaching our children becomes second nature once we enter the world of parenthood. It’s as natural as breathing. We teach them to say “mama” and to tie their shoes. We teach them to wash behind their ears and to say “please” and “thank you.” As they get bigger, the lessons get bigger. “Respect your elders, treat others as you want to be treated and remember that no one can ever take your education away from you.” There are lessons on top of lessons, most of which are directly taught with purpose. I guess what I worry most about is the incidental learning. It’s what they hear when we don’t know they are listening, it’s what they pick up from the behaviors we unknowingly model, and what they read between the lines. Children are immature, and they are supposed to be. This immaturity, while appropriate, allows children to make false connections and assumptions about the world around them. Based on the knowledge they have and their egocentric ways, they often believe they are the cause of most things, good and bad. They are the reason their parents are in a good mood and they are the cause of their parent’s divorce. It’s all about them and it should be. It is developmentally appropriate for children to see the world in this way, in a way that revolves around them. They are sponges for everything we say and do. We teach and they learn.
I cannot begin to imagine all the things that you teach your children. I know while it is natural to you, it is also important. My guess is that you talk to them often and find the teachable moments when you can. I applaud you. It’s hard to catch them all. Even the best parents leave things unsaid and lessons untaught. While we don’t always know the incidental lessons they’ll pick up, there is one lesson I’d like to put on your radar so it will be sure to reach your children. I don’t doubt for a second that they can answer anything I ask them about being kind to their neighbor and washing their hands before they eat, but I wonder what they would say if I asked them… “How do you know you are a good person?”
Being a good person is different than being good at things. So for all the soccer games and gymnastic meets we go too – they only tell our kids they are good athletes (at least we believe they are) and we support their efforts. When we buy them toys and electronics it is because their behavior and their grades are good. If that is the case, then what are we doing and saying to let them know they are a good person? I bring this up to you because it matters, a lot.
I won’t ever forget that feeling when I could not answer the question myself. Someone asked me and I was speechless. I had the best parents. They did everything for me, they supported me, they taught me lessons and they bought me things. Life was good, but was I? I was pretty sure I was. Wasn’t that the message they were sending me all those years? Isn’t that what my mother was telling me every time she bragged about me in front of me? Indeed it was.
Although I didn’t answer the question that day, I can answer it now. The journey has been long but it doesn’t have to be. If your words aren’t exact, it leaves things open to interpretation. Why risk it? This is our children’s self image we are talking about. The question doesn’t have to be so difficult and the response can be automatic if the lesson is taught early and often.
While in that moment, I did not know for sure how I knew I was a good person, I knew for sure there was an unspoken message and an untaught lesson I had to get my children… and fast! Over the years it has now become second nature to praise my children for being good people. If ever they were asked how they know if they were a good person, I believe they’d say, “My mom tells me I am.” When I hear stories about what happened on the playground, I respond with things like, “Wow, you are a good friend. I like the way you handled that.” When I see a kind gesture between my children, they are likely to hear, “You’re a good brother, I saw how you helped your sister out.” If you watch your children closely enough, you’ll find ample opportunity to use my favorite line, “Your heart is so good.”
My advice to you is this…Catch them being good! When you recognize that your child does a good thing, makes a move from the heart, shows kindness, empathy, or concern for others, take advantage of that teachable moment to teach them that they are a good person. It’s an invaluable lesson that is more important than eating our vegetables and remembering to say “Yes sir.”


Empathy: Why We Should Nurture It in Our Kids

14 Jul

Empathy is the ability see and value what another person is feeling or experiencing.  When we see someone crying tears of joy at an important reunion and notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy.  When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel an emotional pull to help, that’s empathy.  It’s a core-skill for what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior – the actions that are involved in building close relationships, maintaining friendships, and developing strong communities.  Some say it appears to be the central reality necessary for developing a conscience as well.  While raising empathetic kids may seem like a daunting task, you should know that kids are empathetic by nature.

I imagine most of us do this already when we tell our kids to “think about how what you did made your sister feel.”  We are inviting them to recognize that it is important to take another’s feelings into account.    Here are a few more ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy:

  • Help your kids put words to their emotions.  Feelings are complex bio-chemical realities that take place in our whole bodies, but not necessarily involving our logical brain!  Naming them can be trickier than we sometimes realize.  We have so many words in our language to try to express the various shades of sadness, anger, and fear.  Helping our kids find the right words that express what they are feeling is a great way for them to come to understand the feelings of others.
  • Feel out loud.  Modeling the behavior you want your kids to emulate is one of the best parenting srategies around.  Kids are watching us all the time and what we do influences them as much or more than what we say.  Share your thoughts and feelings about situations in the family, what friends are going through, what that kid at school your is complaining about might be feeling, and even what you see on TV.  It doesn’t have to be a heavy lecture- just simply share what the other person may be feeling, how it affects you and that it makes you want to consider how to help.
  • Include empathy as part of discipline.  Make sure you include conversations about how people are affected by a problem as you are creating the solution.  Have them consider how their sibling may be feeling after getting hurt.  Show sympathy to the perpetrator too, so they can see how this empathy can guide consequences as well.
  • Reward empathy.  Pay attention to when your kids are responding out of empathy, reaching out to help, or changing their behavior out of concern for another.  Let them know you recognize it and support what they are doing.  Feel free to give them an “out of the blue” treat too – it won’t hurt!
  • Be patient.  Even as adults, we are not perfectly empathetic all the time.  It’s a lot to ask kids to put others first and to have the emotional energy to notice other’s feelings all the time.  As with all things, progress is slow and accumulates over time as their skills (and brains) develop. 

Keep pointing these moments out and modeling the skills as best you can.  Our kids will get there, just like we did!

I’d love to hear your comments and stories of how you model empathy for your children!   Thanks for reading!



*Information adapted from a Steve Palmer article