How Do You Teach A Child To Be Kind?
First think about why you’re teaching morality?
Most parents want their children to be kind, thoughtful, and decent to other people and to know right from wrong. In short, to be moral So the question is, “How do you teach a child to be kind?” All parents are attuned to screams of “I want it; give it to me!” and “He hit me!” No matter what we’re doing or where we are, our ears prick up to those sounds quicker than three-year-olds hearing the word “ice cream.” We always hope our child is going to behave nicely, be kind to their fellow playmates, and be thoughtful. Frequently though, particularly when they are little, what we hear more of are screams of “I want it!” It’s mine!’ Then suddenly, the picture of our grown child as the manifestation of love, generosity, and compassion fades to that of Attila the Hun.
Now, I’m not suggesting teaching our little ones morality is going to get us up there with the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Mother Teresa, although that would be nice. I’m sure most parents would be happy with a child of theirs who knows clearly the difference between right and wrong, tries hard in the grey areas, and is generally a decent person to be around.
So how do you teach morality, and more importantly, when? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute, but right now I want to let you know what got me thinking about the whole morality question.
We recently expanded our family by acquiring a lovely new miniature dachshund puppy, Digby, who is ten months old and extremely cute.In order to prepare for our new arrival, I downloaded a book on dog training and have been leafing through pages of information about how to get little Digby to stay and lie down and do all those other important things.
Having said that, one of the pages I came across had me killing myself laughing, not because what it said was all that silly but because somebody actually needed to say it at all. You see, it went on at length to explain why it was that you couldn’t teach your dog morals. Apparently, dogs simply don’t get the idea of sharing. Well, who knew? All I could see as I read it was some new dog owner going red in the face, desperately trying to get her dog to understand that snatching a bone from another dog simply wasn’t nice. “You’re being nasty to Dodger!” Share! Stop it!
Ok, we can all have a laugh at the expense of doggie parents trying to teach their Basset Hounds, Labradors, and Shih Tzus the importance of being nice, but there are parallels in the world of parents and kids. You see, I can’t tell you how many times I see parents launch into lectures about the grey areas of morality with kids who can barely yet understand the concept of “no,” let alone the whys behind the “no.” If you can’t figure out why your two-year-old won’t “understand” you and do the right thing because, well, the right thing is obvious, then I’m always here to help, so please check out my services.
How to teach a child to be kind: Believe it or not children are hard wired to be good
However, the good news is that children are luckily very different from dogs, and they have an innate preference for the good guys in life. In a study at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, researchers found that 8-month-old babies faced with a character who had aided one puppet and obstructed another clearly showed a preference for the good puppet, the one who’d helped out. They also showed an interesting tendency to want to punish the bad characters, but that’s another story. If you’re interested, you can read all about the study here. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
So what we can learn about morality is that babies are hardwired for it. Surely, though, that should mean that teaching it to children means doing it at a time when their ability to determine right and wrong matches their level of understanding of the situation. As their understanding of their world grows, so will their ability to figure out morality.
As my doggie training book aptly pointed out, when you try and teach your dog morality, all the dog hears is “blah, blah, blah, no, blah, blah, blah.” When you try to teach morals to an eighteen-month-old or a two-year-old, they all hear the same thing. But it is the repetition, done in simplistic terms and so often that you start hearing yourself in your sleep, that makes the impression. That requires exceptionally simple explanations over long periods of time. If you begin when your child is a toddler, you should have a child who understands basic morality by the age of four, though they are still learning.
Teaching morality then needs to be simple and done at the right time, but that message is frequently muddled by our society at large, which seems to think that explaining complex ideas to very small children is a good idea. I’ll give you an example of a question I was asked when I gave a class at a local library. One mom in a class I gave asked me what to do about her two-year-old son, who was just not listening to her. Apparently, he would remove all the books at that same library and pull them all over the floor. After I’d dove a bit into the situation, I found out that she’d tried many times to take him on her knee and explain to him why he shouldn’t do that. She’d explain patiently just how unkind it was to the lady who had to clean them up after him and how, by his actions, the library looked messy. She wanted to let him know all the things that were wrong with this thoughtless kind of behaviour. “But what should I do?” I remember her asking. “He just doesn’t seem to listen.”
The bottom line is that he was refusing to listen to “no” because it had not been consistently pointed out yet that “no” did indeed mean “no.” Instead, mom, with the best of intentions, launched into a long lecture about the “whys” of the “no,” long before it really had any benefit or even reached a point where her little guy could understand it. In fact, all the long-winded explanations were working against her because all she was doing was giving a whole lot of cuddles and attention to a behaviour she’d rather see the last of, which I pointed out to her would pretty much guarantee that the behaviour would continue.
So what should you do? Show, don’t tell
So what did I suggest she do instead at the time? Well, show, don’t tell. Telling is abstract. Showing is physical and, as such, much easier for a little guy to grasp. Lecture, and you get a confused kid. Showing him by saying “no” firmly and then picking up the library books with him and handing them back to the librarian will, with time and patience, result in a clean floor and eventually a greater understanding of why. As the child grows, a verbal explanation eventually supersedes a physical one. So when it comes to how you teach your child to be kind, keep the active rather than the passive in mind. Show, don’t tell. Then, one glorious day, they’ll just know what to do all by themselves, and you’ll have a compassionate, kind, and thoughtful human being standing in front of you, Mother Teresa or Gandhi notwithstanding, of course.
Would you like to read more about parenting, try this article, the problem with parenting today.
If you think of your child as ‘special’ that’s wonderful. If you’re telling them that you might want to think again.
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