Last week’s blog explored how values influence our parenting. We focused specifically on kindness and the importance of teaching our children how to be kind to themselves and others.
During a follow-up conversation with my daughter—who also happens to be a teacher in addition to being a step-mom—she made an important point: it’s not enough to tell our children we value kindness, we must show them with our actions. Even more importantly, our examples must include a soundtrack—an obvious and pointed voiceover that explains exactly what and why we are doing something.
For example, on Halloween when we went trick-or-treating at her house, beside the bowl of candy, she also had a blue pumpkin that held “alternative” treats for kids who can’t eat candy. As an adult, I recognized this gesture as an act of kindness, an effort to be aware of and accommodate the differences between children. But my three-year-old grandson (and any other children who visited her house that night) might not necessarily notice or recognize the significance of this gesture.
For my grandson (AKA Santa) to benefit from this positive example, he first needed to notice it. He did and was delighted to find some temporary tattoos for him to snag. In that moment, the blue pumpkin merely held another choice of treat. For him to learn from this act of kindness, we had to explain what it represented:
Some children can’t eat candy so Aki included treats they could enjoy. It is one way that she chooses to be kind. Our family values kindness.
My grandson nodded. Point made. No need to belabor it.
We left it at that and continued to enjoy Halloween festivities. The next day when we bicycled past my daughter’s house my grandson mentioned the blue pumpkin and how he’d never seen one before. Clearly, it had made an impression even in the midst of a hyper-exciting night. I had a chance to repeat an explanation of its significance and we continued on our way. Example set, observed and integrated.
It is a truism that kids watch what we do and learn more from our actions than our words. But we can't always count on their noticing. They may also misconstrue what occurred. Too often we assume kids infer the accurate lesson from our examples. But life resembles a three-ring circus more than center stage. They may focus their attention elsewhere. Lost in their own world, they may be oblivious to our good example. Don’t leave it to chance. Clarify the intent behind your actions and choices. Help your children understand your thought processes and your goals. Talk about these moments so you can learn from them what they are “seeing” and what inferences they are drawing from their observations.
You will gain a clearer sense of how their minds think and they will get a more accurate sense of your actions and intentions. It will also train children to notice context and behavior and to ponder what people’s motivations and purposes might be. This helps them develop a habit of awareness, and nurtures a stronger understanding of how your family puts their values into action as well as how others reveal and live theirs.
In the process of teaching our kids the value of kindness, we remind ourselves that kindness is a conscious choice. We have to look for opportunities to be kind, make the decision to be kind and then follow through on our decision.