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SALT LAKE CITY — Do you care more if your child is kind or successful and happy?
According to a study done by researchers at Harvard, 80 percent of children said their parents care more about achievement or happiness than if they were kind to others. And psychologist Richard Weissbourd says that's a problem.
"We need to get parents to tone down some of that focus on whether their kids are happy and make the higher priority being responsible for others," Weissbourd told the Washington Post. "I hear parents noting kids' moods all the time."
This teaches children to focus inward instead of outward, he said, which can lead to harmful behaviors like dishonesty, being cruel or disrespectful. Instead of wondering if the new student at school is feeling lonely, they only focus on if they passed that test. Focusing on emotions and feelings aren't bad, Weissbourd said, but parents need to help their kids find a balance.
The study cites the infamous Stephentown 300 as an example. In 2013, 300 teens in Stephentown, New York, broke into ex-NFL player Brian Holloway's home and completely trashed it during a party, causing more than $20,000 in damage.
We need to get parents to tone down some of that focus on whether their kids are happy and make the higher priority being responsible for others.
–Richard Weissbourd, psychologist
Instead of having the 300 kids arrested, Holloway wanted the kids to learn from the experience and started helpmesave300.com. The site reposted Twitter pictures of the parksters posted during the party. He invited the kids to apologize and help restore the home.
Of those 300, only four showed up to help clean up the mess. Parents of the other children became defensive and threatened to sue him, causing an uproar around the country about how parents should react when their child does something disrespectful and wrong — and in this case, illegal.
Enter Making Caring Common, which is run by Weissbourd through Harvard's graduate school of education. The project seeks to help educators and parents raise nice and respectful kids who can contribute to their communities.
"We should work to cultivate children's concern for others because it's fundamentally the right thing to do, and also because when children can empathize with and take responsibility for others, they're likely to be happier and more successful," according to the Making Caring Common website. "They'll have better relationships their entire lives, and strong relationships are a key ingredient of happiness."
At a loss on where to start? The MCC has studied interactions between children and their parents and mapped out five ways you can help your children be kinder.
1. Develop a caring relationship
Why? Making your children feel loved and secure by treating them with love and respect will help you create a loving bond.
- Have meaningful conversation with your children every day: "What was the best part of your day?" "What's something someone did nice for you today?" "What did you learn today?"
- Have regular time together: Play, read or do something fun — but whatever it is, make sure your attention is fully on your child. Examples include nighttime reading before bed and once-a-month Saturday play dates.
2. Practice makes perfect
Why? In nature versus nurture, MCC says nurture wins. No one is born inherently bad — kindness and respect can always be learned, but daily repetition is key. Have your child help clean the house, help a friend with something like homework, help a teacher in their classroom or serving the community. Adults may need to step in to guide them through situations if they don't know what to do or how to act appropriately.
- Give them real responsibilities: Expect your children to pitch in around the house without rewards. The MCC recommends only praising uncommon acts of kindness.
- Make caring a focus: Talk about acts of kindness and uncaring that you see in media. Explain why they are caring or uncaring.
- Giving thanks: Express thankfulness every day and encourage your children to be thankful for family, friends, teachers, bus drivers or anyone they interact with.
3. Zoom in and zoom out
Why? It's easy to feel empathy for a friend or sibling, but the challenge is to help kids expand their circle of concern. Children can "zoom in" by listening to and helping people in their immediate circle and zoom out by trying to understand other people's perspectives.
- Have them practice what they would do if there was a new student in class or if they saw someone being teased at school.
- Read a newspaper story and talk about other people's hardships and challenges.
- Help them learn to really listen to others, especially those who are different from them or harder to immediately understand.
4. Set a good example
Why? The old adage is true: treat others the way you want to be treated. Nothing is as horrifying as seeing your kids mirror your bad behavior. The best way for children to learn caring and respect is to see you be a good role model and treat them and others that way.
- Serve others in your home and community regularly.
- Apologize when you make a mistake.
- Show them taking care of yourself is important — like spending time with a friend, meditating, exercising or another hobby.
5. Learn how to deal with destructive feelings
Why? It can be hard to feel caring towards another person when you're overwhelmed by negative emotions like envy and anger. It's OK that we have these feelings, but children need to learn to deal with them in a healthy and productive way.
- Help children identify feelings when they're upset and encourage them to talk to you about them.
- Three easy steps to self control: Stop, take a deep breath through the nose and count to five. Practice these steps when your children is calm so they know what to do when their negative feelings arise.
- Teach them how to resolve conflicts by talking it out calmly.
- Set limits on appropriate behavior when there are negative emotions.