When it comes to raising children who are compassionate, gracious, and open-minded human beings, many parents seek to teach their children values of empathy, respect, and inclusiveness. Perhaps never before in recent history have these values been thrust more into the limelight than over the past few months, as we have watched a divisive election unfold south of the border. Through this political process, children have been exposed to a range of perspectives and narratives relating to kindness, respect, and how we choose to treat those we perceive as different from us. A public dissection of these values has increased the importance of parents proactively finding everyday opportunities to talk about these notions with children so that they become an intrinsic part of how children are raised in the world, and how they learn to navigate their experiences and interactions.
For parents seeking to nurture empathy and respect within their children, try to do the following things often:
1. Foster empathy through transparency and accountability. Empathy - our capacity to recognize and truly understand others’ experiences of the world - deeply shapes our ability to express connection and caring toward one another. We can most meaningfully nurture empathy within our children by helping them to understand how their choices may impact the well-being of others. Parents, do not be afraid of letting your children know if their actions have caused distress to you or to another human being - be gentle yet transparent when expressing your emotional responses to your children’s behaviors.
Encourage perspective-taking as part of debriefing any positive or negative social encounter through questions such as: “How do you think your actions made that person feel? What do you think was going through the other person’s thought bubble when you said those things? Was there a different choice you could have made when thinking about the other person’s feelings?”
Finally, hold children accountable for their choices. Childhood is a critical window for learning. While we do not expect our children to always make the best choices, this does not give them license to move past their choices without taking responsibility. Ultimately, we can support our children in recognizing and taking responsibility for their impact on the world around them and the ways in which their words and actions may affect the physical and emotional experiences of others. In so doing, we are raising citizens who will approach social interactions with deep consideration and empathy.
2. Teach respectful practices and boundaries, even during times of distress. Particularly during moments of anger or frustration, it is very easy for respect to evaporate from our treatment of others - shouting, swearing, and even physical aggression can transpire during heated altercations. From the time they are young, teach children how to recognize and understand their emotions, and how to self-soothe.
Further, moments of parent-child conflict are valuable opportunities to teach children that, despite disagreement or frustration, it is never appropriate to treat others without respect. In fact, it is far less likely that we will be heard or that the conflict will be resolved if respect leaves the equation. Instead, children can be coached on what respect looks like and how to express their perspectives and grievances calmly, while also giving their parent an opportunity to speak. A key goal is to teach children that, while they are entitled to their own emotions, they are not entitled to be physically or verbally aggressive when trying to express those emotions or resolve conflict.
3. Do not fear what is different. Children are not born fearful of what is different. More often, children express a sense of curiosity when they see people who look, sound, behave, or believe differently than they do. Too often, however, parents shut down their children’s curiosity because it can be uncomfortable or perceived as impolite to directly acknowledge differences. In truth, however, there is nothing strange or shameful about our differences; they help us to function as a diverse, dynamic, creative, and resilient human race. Parents, do not dismiss your children’s questions about people who appear different. Curiosity is, in some ways, a fork in the road: when met with openness, dialogue, and education, curiosity can breed understanding, inclusivity, and open-mindedness.
When left unaddressed, however, unanswered questions can devolve into fear and misconceptions. Ultimately, as human beings, we share tremendous common ground and our differences and diversity strengthen and enrich our communities - children should be engaged in conversation to this effect. When children are curious about those who appear different, understand their curiosity as a desire to learn and a willingness to engage with diversity rather than turn away from it.
As a final note, many parents today are struggling to figure out how to move forward in their discussions of empathy, compassion, and inclusiveness when these values are not necessarily reflected to their children by peers or by public and political figures in positions of power.
To these parents, consider having the following conversations with your children:
You are your own representative. Your peers are not you. Public and political figures are not you, nor do they supersede you, no matter how powerful or popular they may be. Hold your values proudly and remember that the most powerful representative of who you are is you.
Big or small, you can make choices that reflect the world you want to live in. Help others, be kind, be thoughtful, be empathetic, and be inclusive. If you feel discouraged or disappointed by others’ choices, remember how much power and potential for change exists in your choices and in your voice.
You are the most important role model your children have. While popular or public figures may not always model what we hope for our children to see, remember that we can show our children the very best of ourselves. We can model what it means to be kind, respectful, empathetic, inclusive, and uphold these values within our families and our communities. Although there is tremendous power in what children see in the media, parents must never forget the transformative nature of their bond with their children and their influence in their children’s lives. Your choices and actions form a powerful backdrop for your children as they come to understand who they want to be in the world and the difference they choose to make within it.
Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist, and the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology (yellowkite.ca) located in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global, and other major media outlets.
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