Walking in the neighborhood after dinner recently, I passed a house where four children were running around in the yard. They ranged in age, it seemed, from six years to two years.
At first the shrieks and laughter sounded heartening to me until I realized the nature of the game. It was for the three oldest to escape the youngest, leaving him “in the dust”.
A car was parked in the driveway and the three would run around the house with the little one trying valiantly to catch up. They would reach the car, then open the back door and all jump in, slamming it shut. As the little one toddled up to be let in, they would escape through the other door, slamming it (a miracle no hands were shattered) and run off again to the growing sadness and frustration of the youngest.
My first thought was where are the adults? Safety wise, this racing in and out of the car, slamming the doors was an accident waiting to happen. But as I continued on my walk, slowly down the street, repeatedly stopping to turn, observe and listen, I was struck by the thought this is how bullying begins.
The power and thrill that these children were experiencing over the little one was huge. Empathy or awareness of his feelings was nil.
Of course, these were young children, reveling in a heady sense of playfulness without intentionally meaning harm or recognizing how their actions affected another. But it’s these kinds of situations that present opportunities that we can use, as parents, to expand our children’s consciousness.
In this particular situation, the most important thing for a parent to do would have been to stop the children going in and out of the car, slamming the doors, as a safety measure. Then perhaps ignore the lecture that might be on the tip of any parent’s tongue and hang out with them instead, coming up with another choice of fun game that included all the children.
This is modeling by participation.
Taking the opportunity to talk with our children, however, from an early age about how our actions affect others is significant. Actually, thinking out loud together about why they think a situation or game might be wrong or unkind or unsafe, and listening to them, actively listening, the more children will feel part of the process and grow in their moral confidence and conviction.
How can we promote these conversations at home?
Noticing and naming emotions is important so children recognize how they and others are feeling.
Reading aloud to children, not just when they’re four but when they’re eight and ten and twelve offers such a rich opportunity when the focus is not personal, to understand the ways characters are interacting, feeling, treating each other. Asking questions – how do you think – what would you do if – what would happen if …
Presenting social scenarios for children to engage in with you and contemplate can be a way to share time while waiting or driving. Play acting with puppets or stuffed animals poses situations that the children will come up with that will both delight and show them how actions affect others.
Children learn to care and be caring by example.
I heard the story once, which may be ficticious, that the coats worn by Chinese children years ago buttoned up the back so as to require each child to turn to another for help in getting dressed.
Interesting concept even if not true. Working together – helping each other.
As parents our children are watching us and the way we respond to them and to other life situations. The more we can refrain from lecturing and asking questions where we expect them to parrot back the answer we are looking for, and instead encourage them to exercise their own thinking powers, the stronger our children’s development will be.
By creating this culture of awareness,caring and questioning, our children will learn understanding , compassion and acceptance from the inside out.
Take the opportunity.