Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Children Learn To Care For Others

January 18, 2010

How do you raise children to be kind, courteous, responsible, trustworthy, caring young adults? To be a kind, caring individual in the lives of others, children need the basics of self-esteem - a belief in one’s own competence, a sense of being worthwhile and significant, feelings of being loved and cherished, and a sense of being socially connected and a valued part of a social group.

Parents, churches, schools, positive childhood friendships and opportunities for service all contribute to the development of a moral perspective. If the basics are in place, what additional ideas can parents use to promote the social awareness and moral development of their children?

The importance of reasoning. Children need to get to the point where their beliefs and values control their own behavior. They need explanations and reasons on why they have to obey certain rules, regulations and guidelines in the family.

By nature, children are egocentric. They understand their perspective and feelings while not appreciating other’s feelings and perspectives. Often they lack understanding of how others are impacted by what they do. Parents can explain to their children the frustration, hurt and other emotions that they and others feel when a child’s behavior is inappropriate.

Much of the understanding of morality comes in the give-and-take of childhood friendships and interactions with siblings. Children should be encouraged to associate with friends of high caliber. Open communication with children helps parents give timely guidance on conflict situations.

For example, when we had more than one child at home, insults, put-downs and personality attacks on siblings and parents were not tolerated. When children reach late adolescence and young adulthood, they still need reminders to communicate with us as parents with respect.

Explanations about the moral world they live in help a child to think through and evaluate their own behavior. Then they can come to feel deeply about what they think and value. It is important to draw out, listen and challenge children's reasoning at their level of understanding. If children know a "why," they are on the way to governing their own behavior. Punishment given in the heat of the moment and often without explanation makes a child feel sorry for him or herself.

The amount of discipline should be just enough to get the result. This allows the child to realize his or her behavior and the resulting consequences are their own choice. Too strong a discipline takes the focus off the behavior and puts it on the fairness of the consequence.

Being responsible in the family. Belonging to a family involves certain duties and responsibilities to the group. Children need to respect and care for each other and to be held accountable for how their actions affect others. Chores and other regular family expectations contribute to family well-being and a predictable and



enjoyable home life.

Children do well when a lot is expected from them. These demands for maturity, given with warmth and support, help children learn to feel needed. They respond with commitment, effort and satisfying results. They grow in self-esteem and as an appreciated member of the family.

Working together for common goals is another way that children learn mutual support and helpfulness. The problem belongs to everybody and everybody’s help is needed. Working for common goals requires mutual trust and respect, communications, specific responsibilities and coordination of effort. The good of the whole family is taken into account.

Participatory decision-making. When children have a hand in setting the rules and standards they live by, they feel more obligated to live up to those rules. The spirit of shared responsibility makes a difference in how committed and accountable they feel.

The child’s viewpoint is valued and taken into account. They also learn that others have opinions and that sometimes it is not easy arriving at a consensus. Dialogue can lead to mutual problem-solving, compromise, negotiations or a willingness to agree to disagree. This ability to take the perspective of another is crucial to treating others in a morally responsible manner.

Parental example. When parents do good things for their children and others, modesty is not the best policy. When our children were at home, my wife and I went out of our way to provide nice things for our children. We also didn’t mind reminding them of the favors we had done for them.

Relationships are two-way affairs. Though the scales were not evenly balanced, we expected that something was to be given back. Expecting something back isn’t always easy. Our affluence made it easy to give and left fewer ways for our children to contribute.

Parents who are generous and responsive to another’s needs will affect their children’s lives. Children should know about their parent’s charitable donations and gift-giving. Of course, taking credit for good deeds isn’t necessary outside of these teaching moments with our own children.

Service projects that include the whole family teach concern for others. Having children spend their own money for birthday gifts and Christmas presents teaches them what it is really like to give.

Within the family, deeds of generosity and service to others should be common knowledge. Children absorb their values, not so much by what parents say, but by how they live.