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  • Márcia Fervienza

Teaching Children to Care: How to Succeed Once and For All

A couple of weeks ago we discussed bullying and the strategies used by schools to try to prevent it. One of the approaches used is “teaching children to care.” In other words, to teach them empathy. As we know, empathy is more of an experiential than an intellectual learning. If you don’t know how it feels to be cared for, you won’t know how to care for others. The challenge is to teach children to care enough that they can stop themselves from acting on their anger because they know it will hurt others.

Managing feelings

In an attempt to try to curb children’s temper parents have been told to allow their kids to act on their anger. They were told that they need to provide children with a safe space where they can be honest, speak their thoughts and their feelings. They must know that they can express their frustration and everything will be okay. They won’t be punished, and their parents won’t be hurt or angry. Thus, children grew up being allowed to tell parents that they hate them, to yell at them, even to curse. In response, parents stay calm and composed, showing their children that it is safe to speak up their minds.

Now, if that is the right strategy to raise calmer and more centered children, why do we have so many bullies? If what we are doing is valid, why aren't our teens less angry?

Children learn social skills better in their interaction with us – their caregivers – than they ever will elsewhere. And I wonder what parents are teaching their kids when they accept verbal abuse to allow them to express their feelings. Is it socially acceptable to express our emotions without consideration for others? Is it kind to express our feelings without care for how it will affect others? If not, why is that allowed at home?

Learning how to care for others

At some point, giving them space to express themselves became synonymous with door slamming, cursing, yelling, and “I hate you!” thrown at parents. This doesn’t foster growth, maturity or make them socially apt. Instead, we're raising our children with an unhealthy sense of sense and a much lower level of caring for others. With less empathy and more entitlement. Why should they care for someone they barely know at school when they don't have to mind those who brought them to life? The only thing we're teaching them is that nothing matters other than their feelings and needs. And that, in service of those, everything is accepted.

There are many consequences to this learning. They range from the lack of interest in helping a new school friend get integrated, to relationships where people selfishly care only for themselves. And to (why not?) bullying. The thought here could be, “if what I need to feel better about my anger or frustration is to bully someone, why not?”

It always goes back to culture

We can track the roots of this self-serving behavior to our very culture. Although we're very involved with charities, our society prioritizes the individual's wellbeing over the group's. Examples abound: our states are independent, with independent laws. Our federal government is non-intrusive. [I know that many Americans think otherwise, but I am from Brazil, and I have lived in Argentina. I know what an intrusive government is]. Companies aren't held accountable legally or financially for the unjustified dismissal of an employee. Symbolically, the fact that we aren't granted paid maternity leave to care for our offspring is meaningful. It's saying that, as a society, our minds aren't set in the care of others. Therefore, children have to fend for themselves from an early age (self-soothing, for example), because parents have to work. We are great at pulling together efforts to help one another in times of crisis, and that is beautiful. But at our core, we believe that each of us is responsible for our own care. And that is fine, but not without consequences.

What is the problem? And is there a solution?

As we commonly say, “feelings are never to be judged as right or wrong because feelings are feelings. Everyone is entitled to them”. And that is true. But we aren't entitled to cruelly act on them. It is time to start taking into account other people's feelings in every aspect of our lives. When my 14-year-old tells me, for example, that she shouldn’t have to spend one day with family every week because she loses the desire to be together when she's forced, I tell her that she hurt my feelings. We actually had this very conversation last week. She wanted to have another sleepover at a friends’ (second in a row), and I wanted her to spend some time with us. She said that she was feeling obligated to be with us and that it was like that all the time. After the argument, a couple of days later, I sat with her and talked. I told her that she hurt my feelings. Her immediate response was that she could never share her feelings with me because I always felt hurt.

And here, right here, is the problem: we aren't teaching our children how to respectfully and kindly share their feelings. Instead, we're telling them that it is okay to blast them out, which isn't the same thing. We have to help them learn to navigate their emotions in a mature and healthy way. It's okay to express your feelings through conversation, but not screaming or acting out. That is not okay! They must learn from an early age that others matter. And it starts at home. We are the best ones to start showing them that words can hurt and that there are other ways to express yourself. By seeing that their words can hurt us, they will start incorporating that notion into their relationships with others. As usual with children, the learning has to come through a meaningful bond. Or we will continue trying to teach them empathy at school with little result.

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