Therapist Kavi Kilawan isn’t surprised that today’s parents are struggling to encourage their children to embrace, and demonstrate, kindness. There are several factors behind this, he explains. “Parenting strategies that tell children that they can, and should, have anything they want has created a sense of entitlement.”
This is exacerbated by a culture that emphasises the here and now: we job hop every time there’s the offer of a better salary, we stream movies when we want to see them, and we shop online at all hours rather than waiting for the shops to open.
Speaking of technology, while our devices have undoubtedly gone a long way in addressing that elusive work/life balance, our children are paying the price. It might be useful to be able to see your emails while you’re at home, but Kavi warns that constantly checking your phone sends a subliminal message to your children that they are unimportant.
All of this contributes to a milieu where relationships lack the depth and meaning they once had. While your child is unlikely to feel the impact while she’s still very young, she’s not as oblivious as you might think. In fact, says Judy Strickland, a child counsellor and founder of Hope House, children are directly affected by the interactions they see around them. “The increase in bullying – and not only verbal teasing, but real violence – shows us that children aren’t being taught about kindness from the beginning.” It’s about role modelling, she adds. Children emulate their parents’ behaviour, so if your kids see you sniggering at someone or giggling at a bit of nasty gossip, they’ll do the same.
Step by step
Sharing and kindness mean different things to different age groups. While it’s not reasonable to expect your one-year-old to hand over her favourite teddy bear without hesitation, she should understand the concept of sharing by the age of three.
However, understanding a concept doesn’t necessarily equate to embracing it with glee. This is where role modelling comes in. While there are usually tears when the issue of sharing arises, it’s up to you to show your child that this isn’t the way to behave. But this doesn’t mean you have to be unyielding.
Judy says that one effective strategy is to allow your child one item that’s particularly loved and valued, which she doesn’t have to share at all. This will take the sting out of having to share the rest of her possessions.
Kavi believes that the key to encouraging sharing lies in empowering your child. “Imagine, for instance, that your child has a set of pencils that she wants to keep to herself. If you point out that she can be like a teacher if she lets her friends use the pencils and demonstrates how to use them properly, she might be more open to the idea,” he says. This addresses your child’s inherent instinct to show herself as superior to others. In this scenario, she gets to be the leader and enjoy some authority.
This approach doesn’t work for every situation, of course. No amount of coaxing your child to show her friends how clever she is, is going to convince her that it’s a good idea to hand over some of her Smarties. In these cases, you might want to introduce a reward system such as an extra bedtime story if she shares her toys on a play date. In this way, sharing takes on a positive association.
Look to yourself
As parents, we don’t want our children’s virtues to stop at sharing. We want them to blossom into kind people; a quality that is distinctly at odds with the narcissism and self-serving attitude fostered through our Instagram culture and influencer economy.
With this in mind, Judy says that planting the seeds of kind behaviour actually has very little to do with our children, and everything to do with us. It’s difficult to insist on courtesy if your own exchanges are characterised by a lack of manners or consideration.
It’s not easy to remember this when it’s 7.30pm and your instructions to put on pyjamas are being ignored (for the fifth time) by one child, while the other is pulling on your dress and nagging for chocolate. Keeping your cool in situations like this isn’t just difficult, it can feel impossible. But that’s fine, too. Judy says that occasional anger isn’t only to be expected, it also presents a learning opportunity, depending on how you handle the situation. “If you wait until everyone has calmed down, then apologise and explain that you shouldn’t have reacted the way you did, you’re showing your children that you’re not perfect; that it’s OK to mess up and to take responsibility for their actions.”
Having discussions about emotions and your reactions to situations is important. In fact, says Kavi, regular conversations with your child – about any topic – are critical, as they establish open channels of communication and help you to understand your child as an individual. This, in turn, makes her feel valued and cherished, which lays the foundation for solid self-esteem and, ultimately, good relationships.
Younger children, especially, struggle to empathise with others since this is a skill they only develop as teenagers, says Judy.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.