Five Science-Backed Ways to Raise a Kind Child
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Tips to avoid raising the next Donald Trump
If it feels like you’re surrounded by self-absorbed people, you’re not imagining it. Researchers say that narcissism rates are rising, and there’s no one who embodies narcissism more than our current president.
Narcissism is a personality pattern that’s characterized by grandiosity, lack of empathy, and entitlement. Narcissistic personality disorder is rare, but lower levels of narcissism and entitlement are increasingly common. The problem with narcissism on a societal scale is that it’s difficult to worry about someone else when you’re obsessed with your own needs and wants. That creates a society that’s more self-absorbed than empathetic, and your kids pick up on the self-focus around them.
For parents who recognize the importance of raising kind, compassionate kids, it can feel like an uphill battle in today’s social and political climate. But don’t give up—your child isn’t destined to become self-absorbed. There are simple, science-backed steps you can take to help your child develop empathy and kindness instead of turning into the next Donald Trump.
1. Practice makes perfect. Believe it or not, kindness is a skill, like playing piano or another musical instrument—and it takes practice. Just like any other learned skill, it’s important to practice kindness on a daily basis. Parents can help their kids become kinder and more empathetic by finding small ways for them to practice kindness every day. Daily repetition of kind actions, such as helping a friend with a chore, can make kindness become second nature.
2. Opt out of competitive parenting. When researchers at Harvard studied kids’ priorities, they found the majority of them picked high achievement over personal satisfaction—and their priorities, in many cases, come from their parents. “Our youth’s values appear to be awry, and the messages that adults are sending may be at the heart of the problem,” write the study’s authors.
Researchers say the root of the problem is the gap between what parents say their priorities are and what they actually prioritize on a daily basis. Your kids listen to what you say, but they really learn from what you do. If you tell them to be kind without modeling kindness, your kids will follow in your footsteps.
One of the reasons parents increasingly prioritize achievement over character is that parenting has become a competitive sport. Parents internalize the competitive focus and then pass that on to their kids. But this competitive drive is damaging to parents and their kids. When kids feel pressured by their parents to be perfect or to succeed at all times, they can become perfectionists or develop a self-worth that’s conditional on their accomplishments. Competitive parenting also leaves little room for failure, which is how children (and adults) develop resiliency and learn from their mistakes.
Instead of encouraging yourself or your kids to be perfect, researchers emphasize the importance of allowing kids to watch you “grappling with your flaws,” providing them with a model for listening to others, making mistakes, and recovering from failure.
3. Find your tribe. Children benefit the most from being exposed to various types of people and ideas. Finding a robust community can help parents expose their kids to many different lifestyles and ideas, while also giving them the type of support that helps a child understand his place in the world (rather than considering himself the center of it!).
To be kind, Harvard researchers say children need to learn how to zoom in and zoom out, seeing problems and issues from the perspective of themselves and their larger community. This helps children expand “their circle of concern,” allowing them to “consider the justice of their communities and society.”
4. Model empathy. As important as it is to teach a child to be compassionate, children learn the most from what they see. If you want to raise an empathetic child, model empathy in your daily life. Avoid judging others (or even yourself!), incorporate giving into your daily routine, and find ways to look outside your own life and contribute to your community. For most parents, it’s a challenge to find time to help others, and even more so for Solo Moms, but it’s important for our kids to watch us making a difference in our community as they begin to develop their own worldviews.
Tell yourself, “I need to be consistent, present, mindful, loving, empathic, reciprocal, and compassionate, and let them have their story,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist (Post Hill Press, 2015). “Don’t judge [your kids] and don’t judge yourself,” she says.
5. Teach kids how to process negative feelings. “Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings,” write the Harvard study researchers. Parents can combat that tendency by teaching kids how to process their negative feelings in healthy ways.
Encourage your child to talk about her feelings instead of bottling them up. Sit down with your child and put together a list of coping strategies she can use when she feels overwhelmed by negativity, such as writing or drawing in a diary, snuggling with a pet, or talking to mom or another trusted adult. As kids learn to process their own feelings more productively, they become more capable of responding to others in a caring way as well.
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, and Good Housekeeping, and on Vice, among others. When she isn’t writing, she can be found binge-watching HGTV and embarrassing her teenagers.
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