Giving children the tools and permission to discuss their feelings can be liberating. While this is true of elementary school children, it’s especially true for teenagers.
By Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger
Dan Kindlon, a renowned child psychologist, tells us the story of a mother and daughter who encounter a crying boy in the park. When the daughter asks why the boy is sad, the mom helps her speculate. “Maybe he’s lost. Maybe he hurt himself.” A mother with a son, however, is more likely to tell him not to dwell on the crying child.
Kindlon says parents—and society—often protect boys from having to do the emotional work that helps them become whole people who care. The Harvard professor, who has spent much of his working life helping boys develop the skills to discuss their feelings, wrote Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys with Michael Thompson. The 1999 book remains a must-read title. Boys don’t need special training, Kindlon assured us; they need opportunities to show off their natural capacity by caring for pets, siblings, grandparents, elderly neighbors or others in the neighborhood.
Studies show that parents emphasize achievement, competition, conformity and control of feelings with their sons, while they encourage their daughters to excel at interpersonal relationships. Parents express these expectations verbally and physically. Girls get more embraces and kisses, plus a lion’s share of loving language.
When we were little, we enjoyed an infinite supply of hugs. Now it’s our default greeting. WE is an organization where everyone embraces—even the guys. As kids, we watched our parents care for their ailing parents. Doing so taught us to help out. We also cared for fish, gerbils, hamsters, turtles and dogs. Caring for animals teaches kids a lot about caring and compassion while it teaches parents just as much about patience.
In our house, no matter what we were trying to express, Mom and Dad listened and supported us without judgment. Our parents did their best to expose our softer side. We were never told, “Boys don’t cry”—and thank goodness for that. Dad never ordered us to “Suck it up!” if we took a hit on the playing field. Bad enough to be knocked senseless, worse to be rebuked for shedding a tear. Dad did not measure his worth in our pursuits, fortunately. Nor was he wedded to macho traditions. He did the laundry, cleaning and most of the cooking. Watching Dad, we learned to contribute. We were nourished in every way.
Mom and Dad were launch pads from which we took off on our own time. We’ve always known their support was crucial. Recently, we discovered that our appreciation is backed by research. Mothers who are responsive, non-punitive and non-authoritarian with their preschoolers raise kids who are more empathetic and caring. It only makes sense. Numerous studies have shown that you can’t rear empathetic kids if you employ threats or physical punishment. The same goes for rejecting a child or withdrawing your support if you don’t like a certain behavior.
Just giving children the tools and permission to discuss their feelings can be liberating. While this is true of elementary school children, it’s especially true for teenagers.
At our ME to WE Take Action Camp, children between the ages of nine and 18 experience all of the wonders of summer camp with a socially conscious focus. Campers enjoy bonfires, explore the woods, sing songs, bond, joke around, and forge lasting friendships while learning about their place in the world and how together, they can make it better. Day one, though, is devoted to building trust, creating safe spaces and establishing ground rules. In the more than 10 years that we’ve run this camp, we’ve noticed that girls are better than boys at expressing sentiments and negotiating the rules of communication. We’ve discovered that most kids, even the older ones, have never been in a place where discussing emotions was on the list of activities. Many confess they’ve never truly opened up to parents, pastors and priests or siblings. Kids realize early on that it’s easier to say what they think parents want to hear—especially when parents don’t take the time to delve deeper.
Parents do a great service every time they are concrete about their own values. Kindlon advises using everyday situations to demonstrate empathy. “That’s what kids watch most of all.” We vividly remember Mom’s displays of generosity. In stopping to help another, she taught us to think about others less fortunate. If we balked on our way to dropping coins into a homeless man’s cup, she would shove us forward. Not only did she discuss our fear, sadness and confusion, she helped us put ourselves in their well-worn shoes. The coins always made it into the cup.
Find more resources to help you raise caring children here:
Raising Caring Children, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Children learn caring and respect when they are treated that way. When our children feel loved, they also become attached to us. That attachment makes them more receptive to our values and teaching. For a set of guideposts for raising caring, respectful, and ethical children, along with tips for putting them into action click here.