Character Series, Part 7: Respect

Respect comes in two forms, an external form and an internal form. Our children learn the external form of respect (how they react to people, how they handle authority, how they treat strangers) from our expectations.  This is also known as manners, but I prefer to use respect because it is tied to our beliefs about others whereas manners often don’t have explanations or meaning.  Showing someone respect is pretty straight forward teaching; you tell them what you expect, and they need to meet your expectations. In this case more than any, they will rise to meet your goals for them and over the years their habits will reflect your requirements.

The internal form of respect is much more difficult and much less straightforward.  Here you will teach your children your own personal concept of respect.  What beliefs are at the heart of your respect for others? Do people have to earn it or do they receive it simply because they are human? Does your behavior change when someone loses your respect? What does someone have to do to lose it?  Do you show respect to people you don’t actually respect, and if so, why?  This won’t be one discussion when they’re 5 or 8 years old, this will be 18 years of discussions and role modeling and reactions to positive situations and challenging situations.  The more aware you are of your beliefs and actions, the more intentional you can be as you pass them on.

It works well to have a moral definition of respect, admit to your children that you don’t live it out as well as you would like, and then ask your children to help hold you accountable when they see you falling short.  This is a great way to counter-balance your own weaknesses and team up with your children in search of a higher good (always a great way to teach!).

Character Series, Part 6: Honesty

Honesty is not the black-and-white topic we learned about in after-school specials growing up.  It is actually really complex and abstract once you throw intentions, compassion, passivity, and self-awareness in the mix.  It will take conversations, role-modeling and accountability for kids to navigate, and the conversations will evolve as they get older and situations grow more complex.  When kids are young, it can feel like a lie to say something to make someone feel good, and not feel like a lie to tell a tall, entertaining story. Their emotional perception of a situation may be factually inaccurate, but true to their experience.  As they get older, should they tell the truth even if it sells a friend out?  Should they lie to get someone off their back?  We tend to send pretty mixed signals to our children, most of which are unavoidable.  So how do we teach them?

First, getting caught is always the best thing for the child!  Trust, but verify anything you get a sneaking suspicion about. The more often a child lies without being discovered, the easier it becomes to lie and the harder it is for them to sort the truth from the alternate story.  When they are caught, they are more likely to assume they will get caught the next time and it becomes a deterrent.

Whenever they are caught red-handed in a self-serving lie, they need immediate and proportionate consequences.  They need to feel the significance of it.  The act of lying is usually a bigger transgression than the act they are trying to cover up and the consequences should indicate that.  They should receive consequences for the initial misbehavior, and then additional consequences for the lie.

When the situations are gray, harsh consequences may not be appropriate, but softer, logical and natural consequences might be in order.  If a child doesn’t have the strength to be honest and stand up to a friend, maybe they shouldn’t be hanging out with that friend until they’ve developed more courage. If a child tells lots of tall tales, then folks are likely not to believe a truly amazing story, and when that happens, you can gently connect the dots for them.

Lastly, you will need to be a role model and discuss your choices with them.  Are you willing to call them in sick to school when they’re not?  Have they seen you fib to a policeman when you have been pulled over or to a friend when you want to avoid a situation?  Do the lies that you tell show compassion for others or do they save you from inconvenience?  Do they fit your code of ethics or do they allow you to avoid consequences?  This is worth pondering because your kids will notice, even if you don’t.

There are layers and it’s complex, so talk it through and ask them to hold you accountable too, as they get older.  It’s a great opportunity to share your values and pass on your beliefs.

Character Series, Part 5: Compassion

There are three elements to teaching compassion.

The first is living it. If you are living a compassionate life, your kids will imitate it.  And of course, there are many ways to be compassionate. Whether you’re serving food at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day or simply being kind to someone at the DMV, your kids are observing all of your behavior over the years and processing it as they get older. They will see major activities more clearly when they are younger, but as they get older they will notice details and subtle acts of compassion. They will remember what you do regularly — your habits and traditions.

Secondly, they need to practice it. Give them opportunities to choose some toys to give away, to clean up a mess so the janitor or waiter doesn’t have to, to give way to others. Take them to see different situations and circumstances, to serve others. Expose them to other compassionate people and go out of your way to encourage the ideas they come up with themselves.

Lastly, kids learn best when observations are paired with verbal processing. This means discussing it, reflecting on it, and brainstorming about it. Talk about what compassion means hypothetically and philosophically (as appropriate for their age) but also practically. How does it feel when you are compassionate and why? Yes, it feels good but might also be painful, requiring forgiveness or sacrifice. When they come home from school crying about another student being mean, discuss it. When they are annoyed with their sibling, a teacher, a stranger or a celebrity, talk about why they’re frustrated. When they don’t want to take care of their pets because it’s cold outside or they don’t want to visit grandma because they want to sleep in, come up with some pros and cons.

The bottom line is that the more effort we put in to making it part of their lives, the more likely it is to be a part of their lives. It’s hard, and none of us will do it as well as we hope, but whatever we can do will be so important for their future and the future of the world.

Character Series, Part 4: Responsibility

Responsibility requires meaningful practice (there’s definitely a pattern here) to develop. Dr. Montessori said that children seek independence by means of work. Having real responsibilities in the home and at school brings meaning and purpose to their lives and helps them prepare to shoulder more responsibilities as they grow, developing stamina and resilience.

Responsibility also teaches life skills–from laundry and cleaning (neither of which come naturally!) to time management and forethought. “The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of our kids when it comes to life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them and achieving more, ever more academically.” -Julie Lythcott-Haims (Stanford dean and author of “How to Raise an Adult”)

Meaningful work means that there is a chance to fail; parents cannot follow behind their children fixing or changing their work. If the child forgets to take out the trash, the whole family needs to suffer until he take the trash out.  If she forgets her lunch or homework, don’t bring it to her. Let your children figure out a solution with the help of another adult. It’s not meaningful responsibility if nothing changes when they don’t do it. Their pebble has to produce ripples.

Kids who have true responsibilities may gripe or roll their eyes, telling you that no other parent is so mean, but there is no substitute for their pride at all they can accomplish and the maturity that develops as a result.