Some children have a natural and seemingly inherent sense of caring and sensitivity. Such cases are rather rare, however, and the self-centered “surrounded by mirrors” perspective of life is typical of most children, particularly adolescents. In fact most of the problems teenagers face (whether taking the form of rebellion or of extreme shyness and withdrawal) stem from their rather intense preoccupation with self.
Nevertheless, children can begin to learn sensitivity and unselfishness at a very young age, and they should learn it as a skill and a capacity as well as a value.
Children have difficulty empathizing and applying their own feelings to others. A child can feel crushed one day because Jimmy didn’t invite him to his birthday party and the next day forget to include someone who looks lonely in the basketball game at recess. Adolescents love to borrow clothes, but many hate to lend them and often forget to return them or to “repair the damage.” It takes real effort on the part of parents and sometimes a very long time for most children to realize that the world does not revolve around them, that others’ feelings are crucial and that there is a great deal to be learned from giving up something they really want for the sake of someone else.
Give responsibility. Try to bring out your children’s appreciation and empathy for the difficulties and challenges of others. A recent Harvard study pointed up an interesting connection between how much responsibility children were given and their tendencies to be altruistic and extra-centered. Apparently children who are given everything but responsibility not only become spoiled but actually tend to begin to lose their sense of caring and concern.
During this month reemphasize and redefine the responsibilities you give your children and the dependability you expect of them. Discuss, whenever you get the chance, the responsibilities that others have and how we must be sensitive to the burdens other people have.
Teach by example and active listening. Show children the attitude of empathy and the kinds of sensitivity that you want them to mirror. Try to make your own listening and caring more obvious. One way to do this is “active listening.” Instead of the normal parental tendencies of directing, managing, and interrogating children, try to really hear what children say. Paraphrase back to them what they have said in a way that reassures them that you heard what they said, have understood it, and are concerned about it. This technique is sometimes also called Rogerian technique after Carl Rogers, the pioneering psychologist who found that people of any age will tell you more if you listen rather than ask.
The practice of active listening will, in addition to encouraging your children to say more to you, set a profound example of the kind of sensitivity you hope they themselves will develop.
Say, “I’m sorry.” Show your children your sensitivity and help them feel sensitive toward you. Whenever you have made a mistake or misjudgment or even been a little insensitive to a child’s needs (through your own busy-ness, preoccupation, etc.), go to the child and say you’re sorry for not being more in tune and sensitive to what they were worried about or needed.
Make an effort to tell your children how the things they do make you feel. This will help children be more aware of your feelings and be more sensitive toward them. If a teenager tells you that you are weird, tell him that that hurts your feelings. Sometimes children think of parents as people on whom they can vent their feelings without making a dent. Tell them not only the hurtful things but the positive things. For example, “It makes me feel so happy when I see you cleaning things up without being asked or helping your little brother with his homework.”
Remember that unselfishness does not come naturally. Try to maintain your patience as you implement this “month.” Everyone, although in varying degrees, is born with a certain amount of selfishness. There is no quick fix for learning to be unselfish. It is a process that takes thinking and practicing and a certain amount of maturity to develop.
Praise. Reinforce — and cause repetition of — unselfish behavior. Heap praise on signs or symptoms or even brief glimpses of unselfishness in children of any age! Let’s face it, an act of simple sharing in children — particularly small ones — is cause for genuine celebration. And it also calls for praise and recognition. When a child shares, or gives, or sees and responds to needs in another, praise him, pick him up and hug him, and point out what he’s just done to anyone else who is around.
Sample Method for Preschool Age: “Put Yourself in the Picture” Game
This game lets children practice at empathizing with someone they have never met or spoken to. Watch for pictures in magazine that show people in situations that are unusual to you and your children. These could range from a man on a horse in the mountains to a girl in a magazine clothing ad. Almost any magazine has several pictures or advertisements that will work for this exercise.
The game consists of looking at the picture and attempting to describe how the person in the picture feels. This can start on a physical level as you try to imagine what he sees and hears, whether she is cold or warm, and so forth. Then try to go beyond the physical and speculate how he or she might feel emotionally. Have a discussion about it. Let each person imagine how the subject feels and express his or her own observations.
A variation of the game is to give each player a different picture to study, then have them give a short speech or write a brief theme on what the subject feels.
Sample Method for Elementary Age: The Noticing Game
This game trains children to see more that is outside themselves and thus to be less self-aware. Form a habit of playing “the noticing game” when you are traveling or going to any unfamiliar place with children. Ask them, without notice or warning, to close and cover their eyes. Then ask them to describe, as best they can, the room or scene they are in (the walls, the lighting, the carpet, the trees, the sky, etc.). Let them also play the game on you. The exercise in observing and being aware of where you are and what is around you is good training for empathy and sensitivity.
Sample Method for Adolescents: The Mirror-Window Lesson
This can help adolescents conceptualize and appreciate the difference between self-centeredness and extra-centeredness. Try to get a piece of one-way glass (mirror from one side, window from other). If you can’t find one, a plain piece of glass will do. Point out that when it is dark behind the glass, it is a mirror — all you see in it is yourself. When it is light behind it, you see through it — you see other people and not your own reflection. Point out to your children that life is much the same. When our minds are dark and self-centered, we only see ourselves (“What’s best for me?” “How will that affect me?” “What can this person do for me?”) In this mode we are always unhappy and self-conscious. But when we light up and look at other people — trying to listen, trying to see their needs, and so on — we “lose ourselves” and quit worrying about ourselves and feeling self-conscious.
*** For lots more methods, great discussion questions, and wonderful audio stories for children that will help you teach your children about each month’s value, check out our Alexander’s Amazing Adventures program.