Valuing OthersTeaching real life skills to our children and families
by tj wierenga
It is obvious to us as adults and as parents that all persons are created equal, that we should value not only the similarities but also the differences in other people, that every person has worth and value. Acknowledging this, it is sometimes harder to put into practice this belief, and especially to do so in a way that teaches our children the same value. With our sometimes desperately busy lives can come frustration, short tempers, distracted responses, and an unfortunate focus on our own self. We can tell children all day long that they need to value other people and show kindness; our own words and actions are far more powerful motivators in the development of our children’s belief systems than we realize. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at a few ways we can help “practice what we preach” when it comes to this value.
With very small children, learning to value others comes primarily from their realization that they enjoy feeling valued themselves. As they mature, teach children to see other people, to begin to empathize and put themselves in the other person’s place. John Donne wrote; “No man is an island, entire of itself.” This will come as news to your children, who very normally and naturally have existed as the center of their own universe from birth through, at least, early childhood… with many people growing up to adulthood still sitting under that illusory palm tree!
When parents make a point of valuing other people, including and even especially our own children, we are showing them that it is the right thing to do. Missteps often occur when, in the heat of frustration or anger at children’s behavior, parents make the mistake of using demeaning words (such as “stupid”, “idiot”, “clumsy”, etc) which are not only disrespectful to kids, but teach them that it is acceptable to devalue other people if we are angry or frustrated. Keep these words out of your communication with your children!
Share yourself with your kids. Share your favorite holidays, music, creative outlets, etc. Ask your children to share themselves with you. This sharing of who we really are teaches children to look beneath the surface of people, to turn aside from their own expectations and really look and listen and find things of value in other people. It shows kids that the world does not (entirely) revolve around them, but that everyone is important.
Thank and praise your kids for what they do – it teaches them how good it feels to be appreciated, and sets an example for them to follow. (It also shows and teaches respect for your children as human beings, which is how they learn to respect others.)
Set a good example with others, always being sure to thank sales clerks and other service personnel. Talk to your children about why you appreciate people: for example, you are glad that their babysitter, childcare provider or teacher is kind and interested in your children, or you are pleased that the young man who boxed your groceries at Costco was friendly and helpful, or that you really appreciated the sales clerk being so helpful in finding a particular size shoe for one of your kids. Make finding something to appreciate about people into a family game, and encourage your children to join in.
Let children learn that chores take effort, which helps teach empathy for things done for them. Some suggestions for child-appropriate chores: dusting, feeding the pets, helping set up or clear the kitchen table, picking up toys and books. Older kids can help weed the garden, rake up leaves, clean up after pets, wash the car, wash and/or fold laundry, sweep or vacuum the floors, or mow the yard. One way to keep the realization that chores are an effort in mind for kids is to rotate chores between your children and yourself, so that at any one given week, a particular “set” of chores goes to someone else. The relief of NOT having to do particularly unpleasant chores may help drive home the point! Of course, very small children tend to really enjoy doing chores, so this might not be as effective for that age group. (Don’t worry, they’ll outgrow that soon enough!)
Say “No” often enough to requests that they appreciate it when you do say “Yes”. If they have a permanent ‘sense of entitlement’ about receiving anything and everything they request, they never learn gratitude and they never learn to appreciate things being done for or given to them. Parents become simply “supply personnel” and the child or teen can feel as though they “deserve” anything they want… which leads to selfishness and is quite the opposite of appreciation.
Don’t just tell your kids that you love them – tell them what you love about them. Try going around the table when you have family dinners together (even at restaurants) and ask each person to mention one thing that they appreciate about each family member. The glow of being acknowledged and appreciated for good behavior or manners, aspects of their personality, or other attributes will teach children that it feels good when they are singled out and valued.
Write an entry, or have your older children write for themselves, in your family journal about things that each family member is grateful for about each member of your family, and even extended family if they are well-known by your children.
Thank you cards show gratitude for the thought and energy that went into a gift. If children are too young to write, let them finger-paint a picture, or you outline their hand onto the paper and write an appreciative note while telling the child what you are writing “together”. As children grow, they can dictate their words to you to write out, and of course as they learn to write they can do their own. Children can also use stamps or stickers to decorate a thank-you card, or enclose a photo of themselves with the item. Thank you cards are not merely indicative of good manners, they teach children that effort on their behalf should always be acknowledged and appreciated.
Serve others through volunteering, or do yard work for an elderly or infirm neighbor to teach children to think of others and to see first hand how people react with gratitude to good deeds. While parental modeling of values is of absolute importance, your children will also be affected by seeing others in their lives showing appreciation and valuing people.
Valentine’s Day is a wonderful opportunity for children to make handmade cards to give a gift of “self” to family members and friends, especially those far away. Craft stores have blank card and envelope sets that can be decorated, or parents can purchase boxed cards and let children add further decoration as they sign each one. Decoration ideas include stickers, stamps, finger paints, crayons or markers. Most importantly, help or encourage the child to write an expression of affection, including what they particularly like about the person, or something that they are grateful for about the person.
It is fairly easy to have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ about many things in our lives, but being grateful for and valuing the people in our lives is the most important part of that attitude. Studies prove that grateful people are happier overall in their lives, that they are more resilient to stress and problems, that they are less depressed, they have higher self-esteem and more satisfying relationships. What a wonderful heritage to give our children! SFM
TJ Wierenga is a married mom of 2 under 3 and lives in Billings with her family.