Sunday, December 17 , 2017, 7:22 pm | Smoke 48º


Alana Walczak: Teaching Generosity, Gratitude and Empathy in Children

“Give it to me ... that’s my book!” “No, it’s my turquoise gel pen!” “She’s wearing my leggings!” “I want to go first this time!” I wish it weren’t true, but my girls can certainly battle with each other, often over the smallest and seemingly most insignificant things. As twins, they are further along the “sharing curve” than many 7-year-olds, but let’s be honest, sometimes they just seem like greedy little monsters!

Especially at this time of year, I wonder what I can do to foster altruism in my children. It’s supposed to be the season of giving, but sometimes it seems like it’s really the season of receiving. The good news is that kids naturally become more generous as they get older. As a child’s empathy grows, they become aware of social norms, they develop morality and, perhaps most importantly, the adults in their lives begin expecting more of them.

As parents, we can encourage and even teach empathy. As my girls learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes and think about what others might feel or experience, the more generous they become. One way to teach empathy is by asking our kids to talk about what others might be thinking or feeling in different situations.

According to a 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, children as young as 18 months were more likely to share or help others when they had parents who asked them to label and explain emotions in the books they were reading. Asking a young child, “Is he happy in this picture? Is he sad in this picture? How do you think the puppy is feeling?” are good ways to grow the empathy muscle.

How we discipline our children when they do something mean or harmful also may make a difference, according to blogger Melinda Wenner Moyer. Psychologists have long believed that discipline focused on the “victim” of an unhelpful exchange can help children develop empathy and kindness.

Asking, "How do you think hitting Annie on the head with that pine cone made her feel?" may be much more useful than, "Since you hit her, you’re not going to get any dessert tonight!" The first approach gets your child to focus on the other person, while the second causes your kid to once again just think about herself. In addition, it’s important to encourage your child to do her best to make the other child feel better — not just by apologizing, but by having her ask the other child what she can do to make her happy.

Of course, another way to inspire altruism and empathy is by modeling generous behavior. For the past two years, my family has participated in CALM’s Adopt a Family program, and we’ve found this to be gratifying for all of us.

Here’s how it works: CALM’s therapists identify clients in need and work with them to develop a wish list. We then match our families with donors who shop for the family, wrap the gifts and bring them into CALM. Our therapists deliver the gifts to the family during the holiday season.

This program is a lovely way to slow down and give back during this hectic time. It helps children and families in need, and it really helps to strengthen the bond between counselors and their clients. As a parent, I also have found that by adopting a family, it is an opportunity to really emphasize empathy and encourage generosity in my children.

This year, we are shopping for a family of three — a single mom with two young girls close in age to my own girls. It is a real treat for Sydney and Alix to select the art supplies and books we are going to give them, really thinking about what might bring smiles to the faces of these girls we won’t ever meet.

But, more importantly, it’s an eye-opening experience for them to realize that the priority items on the girls’ wish lists are new towels and sheets, warm jackets and socks. They are reminded that although they take most of these things for granted in their day-to-day life, there are many other children in our community who are struggling without.

I invite you to join me in adopting a family at CALM this year. To learn more, click here to visit our website.

I wish you and your loved ones a very happy, healthy and generous holiday season.

— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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