Ellen Brout Lindsey of Amherst, Mass., hopes she is raising a daughter with a generous nature. Three-year-old Claire Lindsey likes to loan out her Madeleine doll to other little girls she knows. "I think it makes Claire feel good to share and she knows her friends enjoy the company of Madeleine," says her mother.
But, Lindsey adds, "I don't think Claire quite understands the concept of other kids needing things. That's just a little too hard for her to grasp."
True enough. Developmentally, two and three year olds aren't ready to understand the needs of others, even though they are "hardwired with the ability to empathize," says parenting expert Michele Borba, Ed.D. "Empathy doesn't happen by chance," she explains. "It lies dormant unless parents nurture that capacity for caring."
Borba, the author of Parents Do Make a Difference: How to Raise Kids With Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts (Jossey-Bass), believes the place to start is at home, by making it a priority to raise a generous child. She suggests some simple, age-specific ways to reinforce giving on a day-to-day basis.
Age 2-3 Young children are egocentric, so to practice being generous with friends, they need to know your expectations in concrete ways. During play dates, Borba recommends setting an egg timer to limit the amount of time that each child gets to play with a toy before handing it over to their friend. Offer loads of encouragement and heap on the praise when they do.
Age 3-4 By this age, children need less hands-on guidance. Now is a good time to begin "rehearsing play dates" before they happen, suggests Borba. Ask your child what she thinks her friend would like to do when she arrives. Stand back and observe whether she is hearing her friend's wishes and meeting them, and step in only when you feel the need to guide play in the right direction. If family is coming to visit, ask "what do you think would make Grandma happy when she sees you?" It doesn't take much; big smiles from grandchildren are always a hit and when you point out Grandma's reaction, your toddler will smile, too.
Age 4-5 Pre-school children begin to connect facial expressions with emotions, also called emotional identification. Borba suggests increasing the "feeling talk" to help children tune in to the needs of others. Point out for instance how an elderly neighbor looks tired and could use help raking her leaves. Or ask your child whether he thinks a sick friend might enjoy some home-baked cookies.
By far, the best way children learn caring and respect is seeing it in action, says Borba. Each day ask yourself, what has my child seen in my behavior that shows them how caring matters. "Pretty soon, your children start noticing how your actions make a positive difference in someone else's life," she says.
In terms of teaching children to be caring, holidays can be tricky territory, especially when it comes to presents. Try to take the emphasis off of the receiving of gifts and apply it to gift giving -- and not the ones you have to buy.
"Homemade coupon books are great gifts," says Borba, who particularly likes for their simplicity coupons that offer free hugs or big smiles. She also recommends taking your child along to help out the needy during the holiday season so he can witness for himself the joy of receiving.
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