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How (and Why) to Teach Kids to Care


Raising caring kids is a goal most parents strive for — and one that's becoming increasingly challenging given the violence, in media and real life that children are inevitably exposed to these days. There is some good news, though. While researchers once believed that kids had to learn to care, it seems they may possess this ability even as toddlers.

One study found that children as young as 21 months show signs of empathy when their parents are upset (crying or arguing).

Another study, this one published in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Developmental Psychology journal, found that even young children who are aggressive and disruptive show "concern for the welfare of others."

A caring heart
However, the startling finding is that this concern can decrease as children reach school age. What has the potential to affect a child's caring for the better? Warm and supportive parenting. As the study's authors pointed out, negative parenting can have the opposite effect.

"Our results … show important links between parenting style and children's prosocial development. … The present results clearly suggest that mothers who are overly strict and harshly punitive, who do not tend to reason or establish reasonable and consistent rules, and who strongly show their anger or disappointment with their children are likely to impede their children's prosocial development," reads the study.

Fortunately, as a parent you don't have to just sit back and hope that your child turns out to be a compassionate, caring individual who shows concern for the welfare of others. You can take the following steps to actively ensure that your child grows into a caring adult.

7 steps toward softer hearts

1. Teach your child the importance of charity. Every so often, go through your closets and drawers to find clothing you don't wear anymore or toys that are no longer used. Have your children do the same. Donate the items to Goodwill or the Salvation Army and explain to your kids that their donation will go to someone in need. Other methods include traveling to nursing homes to visit an elderly "grandparent" or volunteering at a local homeless shelter as a family.

Children should also be encouraged to donate a portion of their allowance. The award-winning Money Savvy Pig is an excellent tool to help them do this. Much more than an ordinary piggy bank, the Money Savvy Pig has four chambers, one for each of the "money choices" that children have when they earn or receive money: save, spend, donate or invest.

It's up to them to decide how much should be "donated," and as a parent, you can monitor their donations and discuss their importance. Children can then decide where to donate their money (for instance, to a local humane society, a charity of their choice or buying toys for needy kids).

2. Let your kids know what type of behavior you like and what you don't. If you spot your child doing something not so nice, let her know. But rather than saying, "You're not nice," (which could hurt her personally) say something like, "When you took your brother's toy, it made him cry. That wasn't a very nice thing to do. I'd like it if you shared your toys with him, and I think he'd like it too." If your children learn that caring behaviors are important to you, these behaviors are likely to become important to your kids, too.

3. Be caring, yourself. Children learn by watching others, which means that if you're caring to others (and to your children), your kids are likely to be also. Take time to help an elderly neighbor plant flowers, volunteer your time to tutor needy kids after school or say hello to a homeless person. Whenever possible, involve your kids as well and point out to them how something as simple as a caring word or smile can brighten someone else's day.

4. Teach your child to respect all living things. Taking a stray animal to a shelter or feeding ducks in a pond can help your child learn the concept of respecting others. It's also important to let your child know that you respect him, and praise him when he does something kind.

5. Expose your child to books and TV that teach caring. Many books and TV programs can encourage caring in kids. Take your child to your local library and let her choose some on her own (or ask the librarian for help). You may also want to limit the amount of violent TV your child watches; a study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that kids who see kindness on TV may imitate it, so the same may also hold true for violence.

6. Let your child nurture. Giving kids a chance to take care of a younger sibling, pet or even a plant can help them learn the importance of taking care of others and how good it feels to do something nice for another person or animal.

7. Encourage kids to "contribute" their own special talents. Everyone has unique talents, and letting kids share theirs will increase their sense of self-worth while instilling in them the importance of giving. For instance, if your older child is gifted at music, encourage him to donate music lessons to the needy, or if your child is an honor student, encourage him to tutor kids after school.


Reprinted with permission from the Security & Wellness e-newsletter

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