As parents, we want our children to grow up to be good, kind people who are happy and successful. But while "values" is a popular buzzword these days, we're not always sure of the best way to give our kids the solid foundation they need to withstand the inevitable growing pains and stresses of life.
While certain traits are inborn—some kids are naturally more optimistic or persistent, for instance—there are several different ways that you can help your child develop other desirable emotional skills.
Show Your Love
When a child feels valued, he's more likely to want to become the best person he can be. Even a baby is more likely to be eager to please, more attentive, and more cooperative if he's securely attached. The opposite is true too: As your youngster gets older, he's more likely to rebel if you're constantly criticizing him for not being thoughtful or honest.
So let him know how special he is by spending time alone with him each day. With a toddler, it could be as simple as spending a half hour together playing and reading. With your school-age kids, such shared activities as preparing a meal, shooting hoops, or going out for ice cream together can help you stay connected.
Practice What You Preach
Children watch the way we handle our emotions, and how we interact with other people and solve problems. And what they see is usually a more persuasive lesson than anything we say. Whatever the situation, ask yourself, "How would I want my child to behave?" and try to act accordingly. And make sure she has opportunities to see you doing positive things in everyday situations, such as thanking a relative or helping a neighbor.
Help Him Sort Out His Emotions
Understanding one's own feelings is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence (or EQ, as it's popularly known). A child who can identify his anger (for example) will be able to handle it better and may even be able to calm himself down. Recognizing feelings sounds simple, but it can be tricky—even for adults. After all, how many of us are guilty of yelling at our kids in situations where we were actually afraid that they'd hurt themselves?
A youngster who can do this successfully is also better able to identify other peoples' emotions and empathize with them. To help yours get into the habit of thinking about his feelings, describe the ones you see him expressing. For example, say, "I see you kicking the ground and looking angry. Do you want to talk about what's upsetting you?" Don't negate them ("You're not that tired") or convey mixed messages about your own ("I said I'm not mad!"). This can confuse him and make it more difficult for him to correctly interpret his own (and others') emotions.
Praise Good Behavior
Complimenting your child when she does something admirable is far more effective in promoting positive values than berating her for doing something wrong. Show her how proud you are of her actions—whether it's telling the truth or sharing a toy—by praising her in front of the whole family.
It's also important to encourage her to feel proud of her good deeds; eventually, her own satisfaction, rather than your praise, will be her motivation for doing positive things.
Another effective way to teach social and emotional skills is through stories. The simplicity and repetition of many children's books and movies help kids remember such eternal verities as being kind to others and persevering in the face of adversity. Role playing with dolls or puppets can also help young kids express their feelings. And telling stories from your youth lets older children learn that you once faced the same quandaries they may be experiencing now.
Helping Little Ones Grow
With these general principles in mind, parents can work with their child in developing important values and "people skills." Here are some specific strategies for encouraging them in your youngster.
Marianne Neifert, M.D. is a pediatrician and the author of Dr. Mom's Parenting Guide.
The ability to assume someone else's point of view comes naturally for most children (even toddlers will attempt to comfort another child in distress). But it's a skill that must be nurtured.
When you respond promptly to your baby's needs, you're actually teaching him empathy. Infants who are cuddled, loved, and cared for—in short, whose emotional needs are consistently met—are likely to readily demonstrate caring behavior when they get older. (By contrast, toddlers who have been abused may be more apt to hit a crying playmate.)
Once your baby is talking, start to boost his emotional vocabulary. When he starts to whine or cry when you leave the playground, for instance, give him the words he needs to describe his feelings. You could say, "I know it makes you sad when we have to go home. But when we get there, we can fingerpaint." Talk about what a character might be thinking in the books you read together. Encourage your toddler to use word pictures: "Happy as a bunny in a lettuce patch," "mad as a raging bull," or "silly as a circus clown." You can turn this into a game, by conveying various emotions only through body language and facial expression. Little ones will get a kick out of imitating you. You can also try to get toddlers to see things from another person's point of view ("How would you feel if Tommy didn't share toys with you?").
Children naturally tend to be self-centered and preoccupied with their own needs and wants. With a little nudging, however, they can learn how good it can be to share things with people.
Your example provides a strong model. My kids still remember an incident that occurred long ago, when they were preschoolers. We were getting gas when we noticed a homeless person at the station. At first, my children were frightened. But when I offered the man a sandwich and soda, and they saw how happy that made him, they realized that this was a person in need—not someone dangerous or scary.
When you contribute to a worthwhile cause, you're teaching your child the value of generosity. But even the simple act of helping a neighbor can make a difference—and can show her that giving includes both material possessions and time and energy.
There's no reason why kids can't learn this lesson early. A 3-year-old can help you select some clothes she's outgrown or toys she'd like to donate to needy children. Praise her whenever you see her perform a generous act—whether it's sharing her playthings with her baby brother or, when she's older, contributing some of her allowance to charity.
Chores are also a good way to get your child used to thinking about the greater good; when she helps sort socks or load the dishwasher, she learns that it can be satisfying to do things for her family.
Learning to solve problems is a critical part of growing up and becoming more self-sufficient. Frequently, though, when our children are very young, our natural desire is to step in and ease their frustration. But even an older baby can handle some challenges—a toy that's just out of reach, for example—and learn something valuable in the process.
Blocks, simple puzzles, shape sorters—toys like these are the first step in teaching little ones how to find solutions. If your toddler is easily overwhelmed when he can't find the right puzzle piece, wait a few seconds and then suggest that the two of you finish it together.
Involving an older child in such family discussions as where to go on vacation or how best to resolve a conflict enables him to see the various steps involved in reaching a decision. Invite him to come up with several recommendations, and evaluate the pros and cons of each before everyone helps choose the best solution.
The way we view setbacks is important. Optimists attribute failure to something they can change, rather than something beyond their control, and they search for answers instead of dwelling on problems. Since they feel more in control of their lives, they're less prone to depression and are frequently more successful, at school or at work.
There are some studies that suggest optimists are born, not made, but you can influence your child's temperament. Even if you're not the sunniest person, try to make a habit of pointing out the positive side in every situation, and avoid the use of words like always or never ("We'll never get this house cleaned up" or "It always rains on our vacation").
Another way to brighten your youngster's outlook is to encourage her to see the humor in everyday life. Try to defuse tense situations—such as a potential argument with your kids or your partner—with a good-natured remark or joke.
The ability to keep on trying even when faced with difficult challenges is a skill that researchers have linked to increased confidence, responsibility, and healthy risk-taking.
Overly high expectations—whether yours or your child's—can undermine perseverance. Teach him that false starts are okay, and that not everything has to be perfect. Don't be too quick to criticize mistakes, and don't forget to point out what was right about the whole project (maybe he spelled his name wrong, but the drawing of the house was well done). Classic children's stories like The Little Engine That Could are also reminders about the rewards of sticking with something in the face of adversity.
Patience, which plays a big role in perseverance, is also an important skill, and routines are a way to teach it to toddlers and preschoolers. Just knowing that the playground visit follows getting dressed gives little ones the motivation they need (at least on most days) to be able to wait for the activity they like best. Another way is to offer your child a reward for his patience. If he interrupts you when you're on the telephone, set up a timer and say, "If you sit quietly and play by yourself, I'll play with you when this goes off."
Respect for Others
Once again, being a good role model is a direct way to teach kids this skill. Show respect not only for yourself but for everyone else as well. Never use pejorative terms when referring to other people, and don't shout at, belittle, or criticize your child, even with pet names, such as "slowpoke." A child who receives respect will know how to show it to others.
Don't tolerate name-calling or put-downs among siblings (kids often criticize others as a way to make themselves feel more powerful and important). Ask your youngster to do things rather than ordering her around, and get into the habit of saying "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" while she's still a baby.
Finally, show your child that you respect her opinions by allowing her to express them, even in cases where they don't jibe with your own.
Preschoolers generally have a hard time distinguishing between fantasies and lies, and may tell imaginary tales without meaning to be deceptive. Between the ages of 5 and 7, though, most kids understand that lying is wrong. They may lie to avoid punishment or responsibility, or because they want to make themselves look better.
Avoid putting your little one in a situation where he is tempted to lie. When you find him with telltale crumbs on his face, don't ask if he took a cookie from the table. Instead, state the obvious: "I see you ate a cookie after I told you not to touch them." Then tell him that this means he can't have one after dinner. When he's truthful about something he's done wrong, praise him.
But if you catch your child in a lie, try to stay calm. Overreaction can teach him to lie again to avoid your anger. And don't label him a "liar," since that may compel him to fulfill your expectation. Instead, forgive him, and say you trust him to do the right thing the next time.
And try to be as truthful as you can yourself. When our kids hear us tell even the smallest "white lie," like saying we have previous plans in order to avoid accepting an invitation, we unwittingly devalue the importance of honesty. Although partial truths are sometimes necessary—you needn't go into all the details of why you lost your job, say—do your best to minimize the use of deception in everyday conversation. For example, don't tell your child that "we're almost there" when you've still got halfway to go on your road trip. Instead say, "It's going to be a while longer, but we can stop soon and get a snack if you like."
Research now suggests that a person's EQ may be a factor in predicting later success and personal satisfaction. So helping their kids develop people skills and positive character traits is one of the best investments parents can make. But there's more to it than that. Just knowing that you've raised a kind, generous, decent child can be the most gratifying reward of all.