Today’s parents are perpetually urged to monitor their children’s feelings, focus on the child and essentially make their children their entire focus.
There’s a downside to this, argues Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd. Focusing exclusively on our children’s feelings causes them to do the same — often at the expense of others. (Notice any bullying in the news as of late?) Weissbourd is working to change that.
“The big hope,” he says, “is that we get people to rethink some of the parenting trends out there, particularly in affluent communities.” Weissbourd runs the Making Caring Common Project, which aims to make “caring and responsibility for others … priorities in child-raising.”
“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,” he says. “I hear parents noting kids’ moods all the time.” (Are you happy? How did that make you feel? Is this okay with you?) As an unintended result, he argues, children think about their own feelings constantly, and don’t wonder if the new kid in their class is lonely, ask why their mom looks so frazzled or notice when they hurt their little sister’s feelings.
Weissbourd, who was recently awarded a $2 million grant to help parents teach kids to be more empathetic, said he doesn’t mean that parents should neglect their children or their children’s feelings. But they need to shift the parenting balance so it’s not so focused on the child.
So how does he think we can help our kids become kind, empathetic beings? A few tips:
1. Remember that kids are modeling you. They learn by watching what you do. And so … make sure to be nice to the “invisible” people. The waitress, the bus driver, the store clerk. If you say ‘Thank you” and “Please” to them, so will your children.
2. Stop focusing on their feelings. Yes, it’s important to help your kids understand their feelings. But too much focus on how they feel can cause them to overfocus on themselves. There is a danger that focusing on their feelings will “cause children to dramatize their feelings, and to make their own feelings too precious.”
3. Hold the praise. Sure, tell them they did a good job when they do. But avoid the constant praise we are so used to hearing these days. “When children are praised all the time, they feel judged all the time,” Weissbourd says. They may also feel patronized or they may get an inflated sense of importance.
4. Do Unto Others. Don’t prioritize their happiness over the happiness of others. Don’t let them ignore a friend they find annoying. Encourage them to give credit to other children for their achievements. And pay attention to how you interact with your own friends — your children are watching.
5. Practice what you preach. Parents are so often focused on their own children that they don’t exhibit concern for anyone else’s. These parents should heed the Russian adage, “There’s no such thing as other people’s children.” “Our children are not likely to develop respect and concern for others who are struggling if we don’t model this concern,” says Weissbourd.
Want to know what kind of parent you are? You may be surprised. Take part of Weissbourd’s quiz to find out.