Being a parent is really, really difficult.
In addition to keeping them safe and healthy, parents are tasked with ensuring that children grow up to be good, productive members of society who care about other people. There are a number of schools of thought on how to achieve this goal, but the Make Caring Common project at Harvard University has identified 7 things that parents can do to have the best chance at raising kids who care.
1. Love and care for them in order to show them how it's done.
The easiest way for your kids to understand love and compassion is to show them it yourself. In order for them to know how to give love and compassion to others, they need to feel it themselves. Keep the lines of communication open and set time aside just for them. They will notice this and it will make a difference.
2. Practice what you preach.
"Do as I say, not as I do" really doesn't cut it when dealing with kids. They see you when you gossip, when you make a cruel remark, and when you scream at strangers in traffic. Children idolize their parents, and when they see you acting badly, they'll do it too. On the plus side, they also see you when you take time to talk to a stranger, when you help carry boxes for a friend, and when you bring food to a sick relative.
If you slip up and do something regrettable, go ahead and fess up and make it right. Children don't need to see their parents as infallible. It's okay for them to understand that grown ups are human and that doing the right thing isn't always easy, and it's best to right any wrongs as soon as possible.
3. Set the bar high for moral expectations.
While perfection isn't attainable, it's perfectly fine to set the bar high for what is deemed acceptable behavior. They will know that caring for others is a priority and will always strive to achieve that goal.
4. Remember that practice makes perfect.
For some children or in some situations, being considerate doesn't always come naturally, and they might not always get it right on the first try. Give them ample time to practice by putting it on their daily to-do list, just like doing homework and changing their underwear. Getting in the habit of asking them to describe three kind things they did for other people at the end of the day is a great way for them to understand that they need to be doing things for others, and it also gives you a chance to discuss how they're doing with their kindness goals.
5. Expand their horizons.
Without the necessary life experiences, most kids don't even know in what ways they can help others. Introduce them to concepts like physical disability, poverty, and animal conservation, and find out where their true passions lie. By showing them that the world is so much bigger than what goes on in their house or at their school, they'll be more likely to want to take action to make it a better place.
6. Help them find opportunities to demonstrate compassion.
In order to do the right thing, children need a place to start. If they're having trouble with friends or have an elderly relative in need of assistance, and it's something they're capable of dealing with, guide them toward making a compassionate choice. If they want to do something that is a little outside of their ken, offer what assistance you can, but let them tackle as much of it as possible.
7. Develop strategies for dealing with negative feelings.
Not everyone will be happy or feel compassionate all the time. There are circumstances in which anger or frustration will overwhelm your child, and they may want to lash out at others. Explain that while negative emotions are totally normal, and that there are ways to manage them.
Teach children to give their bad feelings a name so they are able to express how they're feeling, and then talk about what to do to make it better, or use that frustration for something constructive.
[Image credit: iStockphoto/Tomwang112]