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Teaching Kids to Care
Nurturing Character and Compassion
By Bettie B. Youngs, Joanne Wolf, Joani Wafer, Dawn Lehman
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Bettie B. Youngs, Joanne Wolf, Joani Wafer, Dawn Lehman
All rights reserved.
Are We Raising Caring and Compassionate Kids?
"Doing a good turn may seem a trivial thing for us grown-ups, but a good turn done as a child will grow into service for the community when she grows up."
—Lady Baden-Powell Olave
By all accounts, Eddie was a good kid—considerate, good-natured, responsible, and genuinely concerned about the needs of other people. His mother described him as "a fun-loving boy with a great sense of humor who simply loved being with others." Everyone seemed to agree with her assessment of him as a "people person." On the soccer team, the coach lauded Eddie's natural talent but lamented his lack of competitive edge. It seems Eddie would chat up with everyone—even the visitors on the field, asking, "Where do you live? Is it as humid there as it is here?"
Eddie's problem, the coach said, was his focusing more on people than on winning.
And yet, on November 11, 1994—in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia—an unthinkable event happened to that sixteen-year-old boy who loved people.
A group of kids from a suburb across town sought revenge. Someone had spilled a Coke on the lap of a girl from their crowd. They chased down a bunch of kids and caught Eddie, who, when the chaos hit, had stayed in the danger field to help his girlfriend and his little brother to safety. They beat him with baseball bats, holding up his body to kick and punch him further before a full audience—twenty-four kids in all. Five teenage boys brutally beat Eddie, while the other boys and girls watched without intervening. Although the authorities rushed him to the hospital, Eddie died several hours later.
It's difficult to imagine such a horror, isn't it?
Nothing excuses the lapse of character in these kids, nor their indifference at the sight of others pummeling a young man right before their eyes. Certainly, anyone can become paralyzed by fear and uncertainty but, at such times, internal resources can pull us through. If any of those kids had commanded the murderers to stop, had rallied the others to step forward to save Eddie, or restrained the bat-wielding boys, it might have saved Eddie's life.
The kids in the crowd easily outnumbered the attackers, so why hadn't they helped Eddie? What went wrong?
Is Your Child a Caring Person?
Thankfully, our children will most likely not face such dire circumstances. All the same, seemingly, many of today's youth do not value human life in the way we would hope. Once, on a national radio show, the host asked the listening audience, "If a stranger and your pet were drowning, whom would you save first?" Eighty-two percent of all teens who called in said, "I'd save my pet," adding, "because I don't know the stranger." Jaw-dropping aside, as important as it is to know what moral code failed these young people, it is just as crucial for parents to ask, "How, exactly, would my own child[ren] have reacted in this situation?"
As for what happened to Eddie, it's not enough to know that your child wouldn't have joined the bat-wielding kids who literally beat the life out of him. But, would your child have stood and watched, doing nothing to stop his murder? Or would your child have rallied to get others to help save this boy's life or gone for help? These tough questions require parents not only to speculate about what their children would do, but also to know for sure if their children would have the consciousness to care about others.
Take a moment now to consider how your child would respond in the Eddie situation—or even at the sight of anyone bullying a child.
yell at the attackers to stop?
encourage others to overpower the attackers?
go for help?
want to help but would wait for direction from those around him/her?
wait for the others to do something first?
run away from the scene at the first hint of any altercation?
be too traumatized and afraid to intervene?
try to beat off the attackers by him/herself?
Knowing your child's likely behavior in this situation can help you assess his or her capacity for caring and compassion. The sad reality comes in our awareness that scenes like Eddie's are not isolated events.
Are we teaching our children how to react with kindness?
We parents need not feel baffled about how to raise kids who will look out for the welfare of others. Yes, it requires diligence but, even in today's times, when it seems as though so much is out of control, we can instill the value of caring.
Our kids need role models. And to be a good model, we need to know what moral code we hope for our children. Could it be that the children who witnessed Eddie's beating didn't grasp what they were seeing? When these kids were called as witnesses, police showed concern about the many kids who watched Eddie's beating and lied about what they witnessed, or "couldn't remember" exactly what they saw. What can cause this kind of disconnect?
When kids lack empathy for others, their behavior can range from simply inconsiderate to the unthinkable. Helping your child to develop the skills of compassion and caring for others can lead to better self-leadership and good overall character.
Parenting: The Problem with Doing Too Much—or Too Little—for Our Kids
Parents have a lot of influence in their children's lives. Kids may rebel or complain, but they do listen to what we say and watch what we do. As parents, we are our children's first and most important teachers. How we parent matters. Every conscientious parent strives to incorporate the best and most effective parenting actions that will result in raising competent, compassionate kids with good character.
Understanding your particular parenting style—the things you say and do that form the basis for your children's behavior—is not only important but imperative.
Parenting techniques can range from hands-off parenting to over-involved parenting. Neither extreme is optimal for our kids, and both can lead them to a lack of caring about others. Leaving children to fend for themselves with little parental control and involvement (hands-off parenting) often results in self-absorbed children, or children who, without guidance, become more susceptible to peer pressure or influences outside the family.
At the other end of this spectrum are over-involved parents who have earned the title "helicopter parents" because they constantly hover over their children, not allowing them to mature through their own experiences. Such parents not only push their children to excel, but they frequently do the work for them. In all fairness, and noteworthy, these parents have flourished in the incubator of the competitive world that has absorbed our youth. They want to protect their children from failing, but can damage them by doing their work for them and, in essence, by fighting their battles. If Johnny procrastinated on his project or could use a little "assistance" to get a better grade, his over-involved parents would probably complete the project for him. They have good intentions; after all, Johnny's project means a grade, the grade goes on a transcript, and the transcript must hold merit if Johnny wants to get into college—and a good one, at that. But the overall results are dire for Johnny. In this scenario, he learns that someone else will always do his work, and he has no conception of the inevitable consequences because of his lack of involvement. Instead, he learns that when he makes poor choices, someone will invariably bail him out. Not only do kids like Johnny become less capable, but they also become more selfish and self-absorbed, and less likely to develop the skills of working with others for a common good.
Another kind of dangerous hands-on parenting grows from overindulgence. This smothering type of behavior comes through when parents cater to their children's every desire and deprive them of nothing. These parents often suffer from deprivation themselves, missing out on their own wants and needs in order to provide their children with a "better life." They're afraid their children may have to experience the consequences of their actions and, therefore, want to first soften the blow. They must get over it; otherwise the children grow up believing they are the center of the universe and that "it's all about me." Self-centered, they come to believe, "I'm better than you, and so I don't have to help you"—and they don't.
Although we want to protect our children, in order for kids to go confidently into the world, they must know—from the inside out—they can count on themselves and be counted on by others. They need caring parents to help them grow, and they need the confidence to fend for themselves. Children who proceed through life accumulating internal fortitude have the makings for successful adulthood and a life of meaning.
Moral-Bending Images: How Influential Is the Media on Our Kids?
Without a doubt, we have entered an age of technology with no precedent. Today's children have many advantages. Information and exposure to the world around them lie literally at their fingertips through computer technology; and broad television programming provides more opportunities for learning than ever before. But how much television and computer time do your kids engage in each day, and at what consequence? If you're like most parents, you have to take a moment and think about it. Statistics reveal that one child out of ten comes home to an empty house. These kids, more than likely, will choose passive entertainment. And, not only home-alone kids, but many children have succumbed to an electronic world. According to a recent study, the average child spends nearly 6.5 hours a day with electronic media—television, video games, computers, and music venues.
Does it matter?
We've always blamed television to a certain degree for exerting a negative influence on our young—and for good reason. Although all television programming isn't a vast wasteland, experts tell us that too much television viewing is not good for children. A couch potato often suffers with childhood obesity, which contributes to poor health. And research confirms that the quick sound bites meant to keep viewers' attention negate a productive, developing brain. (The evidence convinced the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue the recommendation that children under two should refrain from watching television altogether.) In spite of the negative findings, parents may still use the TV as a babysitter. The average preschool child spends more than two hours a day in front of a screen. And kids who spend hours in front of a television will, of course, spend less time outdoors or reading.
Numerous studies show that viewing violence can lead to more aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, or antisocial behavior in our children.
Television is not, of course, the only "screen" that delivers moral-bending images to children. The computer has a hand in it, also. A husband and wife were all ears one day when their eightyear-old daughter came to them saying she couldn't get the "naked people" off her computer. Alarmed, her parents instantly went to the child's screen—lo and behold: a pornography site! When they tried to back off the site, they kept getting more and more pornography, until they finally had to exit the Internet completely. As it turned out, their sweet young girl had accidentally misspelled Disney, leading her to the porn site. They shared their tale with friends, who told them about the many pornography sites deliberately set up to use misspelled names that appeal to children's interests in an attempt to lure them to their sites.
In 1961, social psychologist Albert Bandura conducted a now classic experiment called the Bobo Doll study. Dr. Bandura's research measured aggression in children. The youngsters were put into two groups—one group was exposed to nonaggressive behavior and the other, aggressive. The first group observed a model playing peacefully; the second witnessed the beating up of and yelling at a plastic Bobo doll. Then, they purposefully frustrated the children by withholding toys, before taking them to another room to play. Children who witnessed aggression were significantly more likely to imitate hostile behavior. When Bandura and colleagues studied children viewing aggression toward the Bobo doll on television, they reported similar results.
Of course, not all children who watch too much TV or stumble across a porn site on their computer will readily pick up a bat and beat the breath out of other children.
Despite the sometimes less-than-ideal role models the media can have on our children, parents can have the power to influence their children more than they know.
Children learn through observation—of family, the media, and the environment. Parents must question, "what actions do we model?"
* * *
In the opening (true) story about Eddie, most of the teens did not wield bats, but they didn't seek to help Eddie, either. So while we, as parents, strive to do everything in our power to prevent our children from aggressive behavior, we must also do everything in our power to ensure they are not too dispassionate in protecting and caring for others. A child who spends too much time in passive isolation— glued to the TV set or the computer screen—becomes self-absorbed, and self-absorption diminishes a child's ability to recognize the needs of others. A child who doesn't see the need in others won't help others, and a child who won't help others often looks out for his own needs at the expense of others—which is what we saw mirrored in the kids who didn't mobilize and come to the aid of sixteen-year-old Eddie. Certainly, this is not what we wish for our children.
Good Parenting Is the Key to Raising Kids Who Care
Think again about Eddie and the kids who stood by, witnessing a brutal beating. The child-witnesses certainly outnumbered the attackers. Why did none of them think to harness the power of the group—to work as a team—to intervene on Eddie's behalf? Some might say they didn't interfere because they feared for themselves, but why didn't it occur to them that they could act together? We always hope that such caring about others is instinctual but, more likely, it is a product of parents and other positive influences teaching children to look out for, and protect, one another.
Luckily, it's never too late to begin to teach your children how to react and interact humanely. Michael Josephson, founder of the Character Counts Coalition and Josephson Institute of Ethics, laments about the "hole in the moral ozone" of our youth today. According to a survey by the Josephson Institute, 60 percent of teens surveyed (more than 36,000 high school students) said they have cheated on exams; more than one in four admitted to stealing from a store; and 82 percent said they have lied to a parent about something important.
We can teach our kids to have a sound character, but it does not happen overnight. Building good character in our kids may take hard work; however, it's imperative to help them learn to step outside themselves and care about others. When we rear kids who care about each other, who are concerned about the problems in their community and show compassion for others, they develop good character. When they start thinking beyond their own small slice of the world, they become competent adults who can make a difference. Building competence in our kids empowers them to act, and competent kids will more likely take charge of their own lives and be less swayed by others. We can strengthen the moral fiber of our kids to better make good decisions and feel confident in taking charge of caring for others.CHAPTER 2
Why Caring Matters in the Development of Our Children
"The most important thing in any relationship is not what you get but what you give ... In any case, the giving of love is an education in itself."
For a great many of us, one of the most inspiring events of our lives is to give birth to or witness the birth of our children. Even before they're born, we caress the rounded tummy of the mother-to-be with anticipation and love. We have dreams—great dreams—for our children and want them to be happy, healthy, and productive. We envision ourselves being the best parents in the world. After the first wave of excitement subsides, and our young toddlers have learned to say "no" and "mine," we quickly realize the challenges of parenting and can use all the help we can get. That's why Dr. Spock—and those who followed—had great success in providing advice to parents.
Reality surely hits when our "perfect" child first bites, strikes, or grabs the toy of another child. Uh-oh, we realize, we have some work to do! We want to raise "good" kids, who are considerate of others, generous, polite, and well behaved. We want to raise curious kids who want to engage themselves in learning all about the world around them—even in the throes of all their growing pains. They will have awesome winner days along with days when life teaches them that skinned knees and heartaches are just part of learning, growing, and changing; we want them to learn to roll with the punches.
Excerpted from Teaching Kids to Care by Bettie B. Youngs, Joanne Wolf, Joani Wafer, Dawn Lehman. Copyright © 2007 Bettie B. Youngs, Joanne Wolf, Joani Wafer, Dawn Lehman. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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