How to build your kids into givers

Let­ting chil­dren master their own world

Richmond Hill Post - - Parent To Parent - by Joanne Kates

I cut my foot rather badly yes­ter­day. It was a stupid, clumsy stum­ble whilst car­ry­ing a large and heavy vase. The re­sult was a lot of blood and the par­tial sev­er­ing of my big toe­nail. It hap­pened, by co­in­ci­dence, while both my kids (ages 24 and 28) were nearby.

The male off­spring, a highly trained first aider, sprung into ac­tion with dis­in­fec­tant, gauze and ad­he­sive tape, while his el­der sis­ter held me, cooed and kissed. Af­ter all that drama, when I thanked them, she re­sponded that I had cer­tainly taken such care of them over the years.

But I think that she, not be­ing a par­ent, doesn’t (yet) get the point. We can nur­ture our kids till the cows come home and not pro­duce nur­tur­ing off­spring. Rea­son be­ing that chil­dren do not mag­i­cally be­come pro-so­cial giv­ing be­ings. They have to be taught to give. Of course there are ex­cep­tions — nat­u­rally giv­ing peo­ple who will be that way no mat­ter what. But most of us need to be taught that habit.

Our gen­er­a­tion of par­ents errs too much to the side of pro­vid­ing for our chil­dren. We ex­cel at giv­ing them ev­ery lit­tle thing they need — and much of what they want as well. Not just iPhones and beach va­ca­tions but also bushels of in­tan­gi­bles, the non-stop val­i­da­tion and re­in­force­ment that we imag­ine — in­cor­rectly — will grow their self-es­teem.

But self-es­teem doesn’t grow from be­ing told how great you are. Self-es­teem grows from in­stru­men­tal­ity, mas­tery and use­ful­ness. Three ex­pe­ri­ences that we are woe­fully bad at of­fer­ing our chil­dren.

When we give them so much, when their life path is laid out be­fore them, strewn with roses, we de­prive them of the op­por­tu­nity to be use­ful, ex­pe­ri­ence mas­tery, and feel in­stru­men­tal in the world. That’s why flunk­ing the exam and fig­ur­ing out how — and why — to do it dif­fer­ently is more de­vel­op­men­tal than mom forc­ing you to study or do­ing your home­work with you ev­ery night. We help so much that we hin­der. The Grade Four math gets done, but the per­sonal growth and self­con­fi­dence that arise from fig­ur­ing out how to do it your­self — that gets short-cir­cuited.

As par­ents we suck at let­ting our kids ex­pe­ri­ence that growth be­cause we can’t tol­er­ate watch­ing it. It cuts us too deep to see them fail, so we pro­tect them from fail­ure by try­ing to pre­vent it, but in so do­ing we make them less re­source­ful.

And so I end where I be­gan, with my messed-up big toe. My kids did not rush to take care of me be­cause I took care of them. They took care of me be­cause they were taught to do so. They are givers and they are in­stru­men­tal be­cause, as I look back on their child­hood, it was filled with re­quire­ments.

We re­quired them to cook and clean. It would have been so much eas­ier to let the hired help do it but the les­son would have been lost. When they re­fused to cook (and refuse they some­times did) we said: “That’s fine, we don't need din­ner.”

If they failed to clean the kitchen af­ter din­ner, they lost a pre-set amount off next month’s al­lowance. Yes, al­lowance was given monthly and it in­cluded clothes and en­ter­tain­ment. Once spent, that was it.

When the kids got cut from sports teams, we em­pathized but did not con­firm ei­ther their ex­cuses or the coach’s in­com­pe­tence. This too was an op­por­tu­nity for learn­ing about what it takes to make the cut.

The clean­ing lady didn’t en­ter their rooms un­less they had ti­died them be­fore­hand. Home­work was 100% theirs — as were any con­se­quences as­so­ci­ated with not do­ing it. De­ci­sions were also theirs — as my daugh­ter just re­minded me when she came to check on my in­jured toe. When she couldn't de­cide what skirt to wear to the first day of kin­dergarten, I stayed out of her way and let her wear all seven of them on top of each other rather than pro­tect­ing her from the so­cial con­se­quences of that silly choice.

From this grows in­stru­men­tal­ity. From each of these daily de­ci­sions — and oft­times strug­gles — de­vel­ops a child’s sense of mas­tery over her world and the re­source­ful­ness to man­age it. And from this comes the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity that builds a giver. Hence the story of the toe­nail.

Don’t cod­dle: al­low your chil­dren to learn from their own choices

JOANNE KATES Par­ent­ing colum­nist Joanne Kates is an ex­pert ed­u­ca­tor in the ar­eas of con­flict me­di­a­tion, self-es­teem and anti-bul­ly­ing, and she is the di­rec­tor of Camp Arowhon in Al­go­nquin Park.

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