I want my children to be kind, empathetic, trustworthy, respectful, well-mannered, and savvy. Don’t we all? I want them to make good choices and navigate tough moral dilemmas with ease.
Parents are always looking for opportunities to inspire, educate, and enlighten our children. Oftentimes, we force those moments by teaching our children when we feel the need to teach them something. When that happens in my house, I notice my children tuning me out, totally missing the lesson I am trying to teach, and I get frustrated. I have found that instead of teaching my kids what I want them to know when I want them to know it, I should follow their lead.
When kids come home from school, they offer up tiny morsels of their days. They talk about a challenging test, a fun game they played in gym, what they ate for lunch and, sometimes, situations they found themselves in with a friend. There it is. The little gem of information that we can use to teach our kids the lessons we want them to learn.
When a child offers up one of these scenarios that they either witnessed or were a part of at school, they are testing us. We have a magical opportunity to either make a huge positive impact in the way our children navigate the world or we mold them in a different way, moving them away from their natural feelings of right and wrong and towards indifference. Here’s what I mean:
My daughter came home from school the other day and told me she overheard two boys talking in line on their way in from recess. These boys are known to our family as they have been in my daughter’s class a previous year. They are close friends and neighbors. She explained to me that she heard one of the boys say to the other, “I don’t want you to be my friend anymore. I want to play with (a different boy) instead.” When I asked my daughter why he said this mean thing to his friend, she explained that it was related to not having the right Pokemon cards.
It just goes to show you how tenuous elementary school friendships are. After she told me this story, she looked at me, waiting to hear my reaction. This is the moment I am talking about. She knows that what that boy said was wrong and mean and uncalled for. She knows in her heart that friends shouldn’t say those types of things to each other. She knows that the one boy’s feelings were very hurt. By telling me, she wants me to validate those feelings. She is telling me this story so that I can validate how she is feeling about this event and give her the tools to deal with this type of situation.
We have two moves in this case:
Parent inaction or just nodding could cause apathy
If your child tells you something like this and you don’t really hear them or pay attention – or just nod and then move on to the next thing – you have shown your child that what they witnessed is not such a big deal. That it is not that bad to talk to friends that way and that your child’s feelings are unwarranted. Basically, they will see that their parents don’t think it’s a big deal, so why should they? They will begin to feel apathetic towards those situations in the future and you, the parent, will have missed your chance to shape your child in a positive way.
Validation and discussion could create empathy
The second move is to validate those feelings. “Wow. I can’t believe a friend would speak to another friend like that. How do you think he felt?” Having this discussion with your child gives them the chance to empathize, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In doing that, they can learn that words and actions have power, both negative and positive.
After talking with your child, ask them what they would have done in that situation? What could they say if someone says something like that to them?
We have told our daughter that if someone says to her, “Do this or I’m not your friend anymore,” she should respond, “Real friends don’t say that to people” and to move on with what she was doing. We have encouraged her to not give more weight to those words than they deserve and to just let the friend know that saying that is not cool or acceptable in the friendship.
The last thing about this moment that can be teachable is to ask, “Is there anything you can do to make the situation better?” When we said this to our daughter, she suggested checking on the boy the following day at recess to make sure he had someone to play with. If not, she was going to go play with him or invite him to play with her.
These types of moments happen every day, when our children mention something that they are unsure of and wait to see our reactions. If we miss it, then we have missed an opportunity to teach our children on their terms and in the context of their own lives. If we seize it, we can help our children be the kind, empathetic, trustworthy, respectful, well-mannered, and savvy children we hope they will be.