I often talk to parents who’ve put a lot of effort into choosing schools and activities for their children, looking at things like academic performance, sporting reputations and buildings and facilities. But in thinking about the type of adult you want your child to become, achievements are not everything.
What most people want for their children is not only happiness and success, but also for them to be considerate, caring: what we might call 'a nice person'.
How do we do that? We have to find a balance between teaching children about personal responsibility and about social responsibility, because without that balance there’s a danger we’ll create self-centred adults and a very ego-centric society.
GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT
At home and at school, kids are encouraged to take personal responsibility, and that’s a good thing. But while we’re teaching kids to be accountable for their own actions – to think about how their lives and futures will be affected – it would be a mistake to focus only on that.
Kids also need to know that we live in neighbourhoods; we live in communities. We live in a world where there is poverty, war, drought, famine, and the environment is at risk. Fortunately, we now understand that it’s possible to promote a set of skills in children to help them be not just knowledgeable and do well in life, but also to be emotionally healthy, caring citizens who can really contribute to their community.
That’s not to say that personal and social responsibility are completely separate. In fact, it seems the two are intertwined. When parents encourage children to look after themselves and be responsible, those skills can be transferred to other relationships with siblings, friends, neighbours, and so on. It’s the foundation of what’s known as 'civil society'.
TEACHING EMPATHY STARTS EARLY
Teaching children to believe they have an important role to play in contributing to our community starts within the home. A child’s capacity to empathise is very strongly influenced by their relationships within the immediate family. When children grow up within a safe, predictable, nurturing and loving environment, these early close relationships give them the foundations on which concern for others can be built.
You don’t necessarily need to make kids visit the sick or elderly or work in a soup kitchen to instil a sense of social responsibility, (although there’s nothing wrong with encouraging this kind of thing). But occasional special events don't tend to instil values over the long term. It's more about the incidental encounters that occur, and what children see their parents doing and saying on a day-to-day basis.
MOMENT-BY-MOMENT IS HOW KIDS LEARN
You can start by getting children to acknowledge the impact of their actions on others. For example, if a youngster is hurtful towards someone else, ask them to think about how that made the other person feel. Over time, this forms the basis of many, many conversations that you have with your kids, encouraging them to think about how someone else might have been affected by something.
Although you can do this even with young children, it’s sometimes best not done right at the point of conflict or crisis while everyone, including the child, is upset and not really processing the information. When things have calmed down, have a conversation and encourage your child to see things from a different perspective.
Adults also need to rise to the challenge of apologising if they’re the one who’s made a mistake or done something hurtful.
FEELING GOOD ON THE INSIDE
Children learn best with frequent practice, so in the early stages when little ones are showing acts of caring – instead of flailing arms at mummy, stroking mummy gently – those pro-social behaviours can be encouraged through attention and praise.
Then, gradually, make this praise less predictable and more intermittent, while you also teach and role-model a set of values and beliefs about doing the right thing and caring for others. As well as praising them, you also acknowledge their effort; a particularly effective way to reinforce these behaviours is to ask your child to tell you why they felt good about their actions. When they articulate the reason behind their behaviour, it helps them to internalise and strengthen that set of values and beliefs.
As a result, when they do something socially responsible as they get older, they’ll experience what we call an intrinsic reward – that warm inner glow, if you like – that comes from having the chance to demonstrate values like kindness, caring and generosity.
ALTERNATIVES TO CONFLICT
When children go to school, they’ll also have the opportunity to study history, current events and the like, and learn how to discuss things rationally by developing logical arguments and counter-arguments. But how you discuss the issues of the day at home is also important. Children are watching and interpreting social interactions all the time, picking up little clues and cues about how to think and behave and react.
If kids grow up in a world of intolerance and criticism of other people, where others are always said to be at fault for whatever goes wrong, or certain kinds of people are routinely put down, when they get older they’ll look for someone to dump on whenever there’s a problem. Their learned response to any sort of difficulty, disagreement or controversy may be to direct anger at whoever they can find to blame, rather than trying to understand why situations arise, finding solutions and building compromises. (A lot of discussion on social media seems to follow this disturbing pattern, which is worth talking about with your older children.)
HERE’S TO A GREAT FUTURE
On the other hand, when kids grow up in a family environment where parents are prepared to listen to children's views on current events, rather than just ignoring their kids or telling them what to think, it will encourage children to become more articulate. As young people learn to express their own viewpoint, they can also learn to incorporate the view of others and see things from multiple perspectives.
As our children become older and more attuned to the distress that others experience, we can build in them, not a sense of despair, but rather a broad awareness that there are big issues out there and by working together solutions can be found.
Even if there may be some genetic component, empathy and social responsibility are learned skills. They can be taught and improved with practice. Ideally, all children can experience first-hand the empathy and love of their parents and carers in predictable, safe environment.
Being socially responsible has intrinsic benefits for children, families and entire communities. We know that societies function best when everyone contributes and looks out for each other. So it’s worth striking the right balance between personal and social responsibility as we teach and guide our future citizens.