As parents, we want our children to grow up to be caring people, who can do good deeds for others. But when we see our children tease or get teased, and push, pull and grab, we often wonder how they will ever grow up to be caring, productive members of society.
"Growing up and becoming a caring person is dependent on the kinds of experiences we have when we are young. Children are not born with the ability to care fully formed; they develop into caring individuals by how we work with them, how we model our behavior, what we teach them, and what we do together," says Diane Levin, Ph.D. author of Remote Control Childhood and Senior Advisor to this Web guide.
Teaching children how to take responsible action is a process that develops gradually over time. From preschool to high school, it's a process of working together to solve problems directly connected to your children's immediate experience. It's important to discuss factors that may impede the development of caring such as violent media and a commercial culture that makes wanting more important than doing.
Raising children who care may be one of the most important things you can do as a parent. This guide provides strategies and ideas to help you find your way.
The Caring Continuum:
How Caring for Others Develops
A child who cares is someone who learns how to help other people. This child feels he can make a difference, has ideas of what actions to take that can make a difference, and feels motivated to do them.
Children are not born with a fully-formed ability to care. This sensibility develops gradually and the experiences children have can build or undermine its development.
As parents, it can at times be frustrating watching our children "not care" or "not care enough." Learning how caring develops can help us foster their caring impulses. The insights below offer a picture of how this process develops over time.
The ability to care starts with infancy. When young babies are held, fed, comforted, smiled at and played with, they feel cared for and develop positive caring attitudes towards their environment. An early sign of caring is when a baby coos towards a mother, father, or caregiver.
Gradually young children learn to do things in caring ways. Between the ages of one and two, children begin to express caring through their actions. When they hug Mommy and Daddy and get a response, they are learning things they can do to make others happy and feel good. They play-act caring by hugging a baby doll or stuffed animal and becoming its caregiver.
Preschoolers start by caring mostly about themselves and only gradually gain awareness of the needs of others. Predominantly egocentric, they often can't understand the point of view of another person, who is upset. But they begin to understand when guided by caring parents and teachers. Through discussions they can begin to see "win-win" solutions to problems and how helping one another makes everyone feel good, because everyone's needs are met.
School-age children begin to balance caring for themselves with caring for others. While still egocentric, they begin to realize that it can feel good to help others, and start to see the positive effect they can have.
Being a caring child does not mean caring all the time. It does not mean that your caring child will never hate his sister, never grab the candy, or will be "good" all the time. Instead, a caring child will take caring actions and experience caring feelings integrated within a larger range of feelings and responses.
Practical Ways to Nurture Caring Kids
When you are encouraging kids to care, the goal is not to show children one "right" way to think about or respond to a problem. Instead, help them come up with strategies that make sense to them. Here are some ideas:
Help children take actions that grow out of their own concerns. Talk about what could be done to help solve problems. No matter how well-intentioned you are, don't tell your child what he must do.
Strategize tangible ways kids can make a difference.
* Contribute a portion of their allowance or make a holiday gift to a cause they can understand. Look through your mail together from nonprofits and let them choose.
* Gather old toys and clothing to give to a local charity.
* Volunteer at local organizations that help those in need.
* Give a gift of "service" to a parent, friend or grandparent.
Show children there are many ways to care. Children can demonstrate caring by doing household chores, by getting homework done and getting to bed on time, by finding ways to help neighborhood friends or schoolmates in need, and even by being a good sport when you lose a game.
Help kids deal with problems in inclusive ways. Don't expect children to always feel generous and try not to make them feel guilty about it. Comments like "you need to be nice" or "share with your brother" may promote more feelings of anger and resentment than caring. Instead, ask questions that inspire kids to think of solutions, such as: "What can we do if you both want the ball?"
Make sure children know it is the job of adults to make the world a safe place. They should not think that their own sense of safety and well-being is dependent on their own actions. "To reassure them and give perspective, you might discuss the fact that adults will always keep them safe, as everyone does their part in making a difference," advises Carlsson-Paige.
As children get older, talk about the causes of problems, not just the solutions. Discuss why a problem came about, what others are doing to try to solve it, and ask them to come up with their own solutions. Allow your kids to ask questions. "Research shows that children who do community service often discontinue unless they learn what caused a particular p problem or condition," advises Levin.
Talk With Your Preschooler About Caring
* Young children can relate caring best to issues in their daily lives. You can nurture the development of caring kids by asking simple questions.
* "The playground's dirty, what can we do to clean it up?"
* "Marion, Josh and John all want to play different games. How can we solve this problem so everyone feels good?"
* "Barbara hurt her knee. What can we do to help her feel better?"
Respect What Your School-Age Child Cares About
* Help your school age children take action on issues important to them.
* If she cares about helping animals, suggest she volunteer at an animal shelter, or make a donation to a wildlife organization.
* If he is concerned about hunger, volunteer together to serve a meal in a soup kitchen.
* If she cares about the environment; help her organize a block-wide street clean up, and pick an organization that does environmental action.
Why do some kids seem to care and others may not?
Numerous forces can undermine the development of children into positive social beings. While none of these might be considered harmful in moderation, too much of them, especially without discussion, may lead to kids who don't care. These challenges include:
Our "Buy Me That" Culture
Our "buy me that" culture promotes consumerism over activism. This can turn the focus of children's behavior from "I can do it" to "I want it." "Acquiring things as a source of happiness can permeate a child's sense of herself," says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., author of Best Day of the Week and a professor at Lesley University. "A child may begin to identify herself by what she has, wears, and plays with, rather than what she accomplishes from using her internal resources. Identification with merchandise can cause some children to tune out the needs of others and define well-being as what they get instead of what they do."
Too Much Screen Time
Over-exposure to passive media such as TV, video games and movies, can take children away from actively participating in their lives. While media in moderation is fun, fine and expected, over-consumption can lead to kids who don't care. "When children watch TV, they are interacting only indirectly with their world," comments Levin. "They are having second-hand experience where they passively observe the actions and ideas of others."
If children are primarily engaging in passive play, where they imitate what they see on TV, they are less likely to be stimulated and take creative action on their own. "Highly-structured toys that are linked to TV programs and movies can make kids play look more like a TV script than an innovative play experience," notes Levin.
TV, video and online games containing violent, anti-social, teasing and bullying behaviors can inhibit the development of caring It also undermines children's ability to feel powerful and effective from their own actions.
"Children who watch media with a lot of mean-spirited behavior, both in words and actions, can learn that hurting others is a regular and normal thing people do to solve their problems. In addition, a vicious cycle can be set up whereby children need media, media violence and media-related toys to feel strong, instead of finding strength in their own creative and positive actions," states Carlsson-Paige.
Read More at PBS Parent's Guide to Children and Media (www.pbs.org/parents/childrenandmedia/)
Problem-Solving Deficit Disorder
* "Children who spend a lot of time passively watching media, playing with highly structured toys or focusing on buying things may not be learning how to find and solve problems that arise from their own direct experience. As a result, they may not be learning how to be active agents who can affect their world. I call this 'problem-solving deficit disorder.'
* "On the other hand, 'pro-active solution developers' think of themselves as problem finders and problem solvers, who can have a positive impact on their world. It we want to raise children who care, this is what we need to help our children to grow up to become."
Diane E. Levin, Ph.D.
Some materials for this article were adapted from works by Diane Levin, including Remote Control Childhood, published by NAEYC. and the article, "From 'I Want It!' to 'I Can Do It!' Promoting Healthy Development in the Conusmer Culture," Exchange Magazine.
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