In a ‘me’ world where the media is constantly telling young people that they can be anything they want to be, or have anything they want to have, it is difficult for parents to teach a sense of ‘other’ to their children.

In an effort to teach self esteem we have inadvertently installed a need to be outstanding just to be acceptable. The pressure to succeed and attain is huge on young people.

Psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, author of The Self-Esteem Trap (Hachette), believes that “These approaches have produced a few generations of young adults who are obsessed with themselves, feel they need to do something exceptional in order to be OK, are restless and unable to enter adult life, feel easily humiliated and hold themselves back from committing to a career or relationship in case there’s something better out there.”

The skills children really need in order to succeed in life, according to the experts, are compassion, empathy and understanding; to be aware of others and how your actions have consequences and affect other people around you.

Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist and Generation Next speaker says that a good place to start building an awareness of others in a child is by showing them trust. “Trust your child- Nothing builds confidence more than trust. One of the best ways of communicating your trust is to ask your child for help. Requesting assistance communicates to a child that you regard them as capable and competent. Letting your children cook with you can be a good place to start”.

Dr Joe Tucci, chief executive officer of the Australian Childhood Foundation, and Right 2 Childhood speaker feels that “Empathy isn’t inherent. It must be taught and modelled and then the child needs to practise and rehearse. Helping your child to recognise and know how other person feel, and to also help them name how they feel, goes a long way to teaching empathy.”

One way to teach children compassion is to get them to interact with animals. A pet is a fantastic way for a child to bond with another living creature while learning to understand the feelings, wants and needs of others.

For Danielle Nelson, of the Animal Welfare League NSW says “Animals teach children to understand and be respectful to not only animals, but to their friends and family. The more you care for a pet, the more they love you. Children learn they get out what they put in.”

Young-Eisendrath also says “Parents need to help their kids learn to acknowledge others, share, work with others, have civilised manners and not expect to be the centre of attention, especially in settings where there is another agenda.”

“Only by seeing this world as limited and imperfect do we see that everyone suffers and needs help and help is always available when we know how give-and-take works.”

It seems that the best way to help a child understand the needs of others is to make sure that they themselves feel safe and secure in a loving environment where they are trusted and can rely on their parents to meet their needs. This does not mean that parents indulge their every request or praise them for everything they do.

Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential – and Endangered, says “Babies whose needs for touch, comfort and soothing are not met regularly by one or two primary caregivers will have difficulty developing empathy – just as babies who aren’t exposed to speech will not be able to learn to speak.”

Dr Joe Tucci, suggests 5 ways to encourage a child’s compassion for others:

  1. Come up with some ideas as a family that makes someone else or others who needs it feel happy – and it doesn’t have to be a charity. It could be as simple as taking an elderly relative out for a cup of tea and some conversation.
  2. Talk about feelings together. Come up with scenarios and ask your kids how that might make them feel. Help them boost their feelings vocabulary. You can even do this while reading books or looking at pictures of faces in magazines.
  3. Make a plan as a family to do something that has a broader community or even global impact. This could be sponsoring a child in need, lessening your family’s carbon footprint or volunteering for a cause.
  4. See then discuss a movie in which people help others. This is a fun and entertaining way to teach compassion because kids love movies.
  5. Recognise acts of kindness undertaken by your child. For example if you see your child sharing their toys or food, call attention to the act and talk about how that act made everyone feel as well as what the feelings could have been if the act of kindness hadn’t happened.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source:  Australian Childhood Foundation