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Raising a Good-Hearted Child

Role models and empathy of emotions

"Being a role model is key," says child therapist Jennifer Coon-Wallman of Lexington, Massachusetts. If you want your child to display integrity, empathy, and responsibility, you need to embody these values. If you want your child to speak politely and display respect for other people, you have to speak politely, even when your temper's running short. If you want your child to learn to value property -- yours and others' -- demonstrate it by tending to your own things: Pick up books and newspapers and put away clothes and dishes. Better yet, allow your child to participate in these activities with you. Toddlers are especially interested in wiping up and wetting sponges, and creative parenting can turn these potential weapons of destruction into tools of utility.

Emotions and morality have a strong connection. Studies of people with lesions in the brain's emotional center reveal that they not only have difficulty experiencing the normal range of human feeling but also tend to act in socially deviant ways, such as using inappropriate aggression. Emotions, in other words, serve as critical benchmarks for good judgment and behavior.

You need to teach your children how to identify what they're feeling, a task that doesn't come naturally. When a child can identify and articulate the spectrum of emotions that accompany human experience, he has taken the first step toward empathy: understanding himself so that he may understand others. To help kids accomplish this, look at picture books together in which characters display happiness, anger, and sadness, then point these out. Reflect back to your child what you notice he's feeling: "I see you're sad that we have to leave the zoo now."

These remarks are like little lightbulbs that illuminate through language. If your child can learn what he's feeling, then he can extend that beyond himself, and compassion is cultivated.