I can recall the first time my children witnessed me paying it forward while in the Starbucks drive through lane. I glanced in my rear view and saw someone who looked rather spent – and it was only eight in the morning. “I’m buying her coffee,” I told my girls, and they looked at me as though I had two heads. Who is she? they wanted to know, craning their necks to look behind us. Why are you doing it? I attempted to explain the pay it forward idea – that you do something good for someone to help them out without expecting anything kind in return. For days they talked about the lady in Starbucks.
Fast forward a year or so and my oldest daughter and I were walking out of a grocery store in California. A homeless man stood outside, in the shade, to escape the heat. We’d just purchased a package of cookies, which my daughter held on to as though they were a life preserver she needed for rough waters. “Let’s give him one of your cookies,” I said. “He might enjoy that.” My daughter looked at me as though I, well, had two heads; then she smiled, took one out, and gave it to me to hand to the man. To this day, three years later, she still talks about this.
I’ve tried to teach my children to do good for others when there is no ‘reward’ attached – nothing monetary, no gifts, no tangibles. I want them to learn the concept of being good to others, and how that can make you feel. We try to use this concept each day in our home with chores. We do them because it helps the family as a whole. We try to do this by using kind words, by adopting a child at Christmas, by giving our gently used items to a shelter for women and abused children.
So when the tsunami struck Japan, I decided to work with them on a goal that we could set for raising money to send to Red Cross – money that could be used for those that had lost everything they’d had in life. The catch this time – I wanted them to be in charge of what it is they want to do.
I love what Dr. Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D. and author of the book “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go,” wrote to me during my research for this post. She said, “Acts of service and kindness free us and our children from self-imposed me-focused lives by widening our circles of compassion.” So true, and so easy to do. To children, the world is about me. I want this, I want that, why does Suzie have this and I don’t? Getting them to understand that many people have less than they have is important, I believe, in raising well rounded adults who care and understand about others.
My girls are young, and at first they didn’t understand the idea that we would raise money to give away. “Can we buy toys with the money we make?” was one question, followed by, “You mean we’re giving all the money we make away?” We looked at the less graphic pictures of Japan – of houses in rubble, of people standing on the street with nothing but the clothes they wore. Then they understood that what we were doing would help these people.
Dr. Jennifer Freed, a psychology professor and the co-founder of Aha! , a non profit serving 1000 teens and their families, says, “It is a fact that the single best predictor of being good with people in work, love, and life is the ability to have empathy. Empathy is something we can learn and can be fostered early.” It is, she goes on to say, the most important tool in getting along with others and, therefore, having a successful life.
So how do we teach our children to be empathetic of others?
We must show kindness to others. Make respect a factor in your home life by encouraging children to use kind words and do good things for family members. Help them understand we work together as a team for the good of everyone.
Model respect as you speak to your friends, family members, and strangers in the grocery store. Remember, your children pick up everything you do and say – and they will in turn copy that. If you are having a bad day and a bad trip to the grocery store, don’t take it out on the cashier. Think about how you would feel if the words you were saying to someone else were coming from your child’s mouth.
Expose your children to giving back. Dr. Kuczmarski says, “Children/teens can give of their work, energy, time and support.” Many schools have community service programs as part of the curriculum, she adds, which expose children to the importance of giving to others. “Examples include assisting in soup kitchens, reading to the blind, volunteering at hospitals, helping with physical rehabilitation needs, and tutoring younger kids with their homework.” We can encourage this by taking them to work with community service programs or, in my case, setting up a lemonade stand, letting them do all the work, and giving their funds to an organization that helps those in need.
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