When it comes to raising a child who is kind, compassionate, and morally upright, the greatest thing you can do for them is to give them your time and attention. I am starting straight out of the gate with that, because I believe that those are the two biggest things many children in today’s society are lacking.
Thereness. Be at home; drive a Pinto if you have to. I chose to quit my job, and be mildly poor in order to stay home to raise my children. I’ve seen a growing trend with families opting for this path. Finances are something you should discuss before having children. If you have two incomes and are expecting a child, your goal should be for one of you to put your career on hold for a while, in order to be a stay at home parent, draw straws if you have to! Consider the costs of day care, and consider how it will feel to miss many of your child’s milestones in the first year of their life. Consider how your child will feel about himself/herself after spending their days in a daycare, or in the care of someone other than mom or dad. Is it really worth it to have a giant house with a giant mortgage, expensive vacations, a $50K car and a $30K boat in your driveway in exchange for missing out on your child’s day to day life? If you are fine with someone else raising your child, and you cannot go without your expensive toys and vacations, then maybe parenting is for you. You may be more suited towards having nieces or nephews visit on weekends, because that’s pretty much the only time you’d be spending with your own children, and it simply is not enough. I realize this may come off as harsh, but let us take a step back so we can see examples of “thereness” in other countries; off we go to Europe! In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, mothers can decide to take 2, 3, or 4 years off, per child, for maternity leave. According to Wikipedia, the state pays the mother 256 euros per month during the child’s first 2 years, and 164.22 every month thereafter. Austria is similar, giving the mother 1-3 years paid leave. A majority of the European countries give the mother, and/or father, a year or more of maternity/paternity leave. Compare this to the United States’ measly FMLA standard of 6-12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. You can read the entire article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_leave.
Ask yourself what you can do without; you don’t really have to drive a Pinto to be able to be a stay at home parent. Consider the valuable bonding time you will enjoy. Who will teach your child to be caring and kind? Who will they make funny faces in a mirror and laugh with? Who will hold them and kiss their boo-boos. Who will they make their day to day memories with? The answer should be, of course, you! Time, time, time, you must give your child your time, and be his or her parent and role model, there is absolutely no substitute. Children learn my example, what value are you putting on your child’s life? They will know that if you are willing to give up material wealth and spend your time on them, then their little life has great value. As they grow, and you can explain to them that you gave up that Mercedes in order to stay home with them, which will help increase their personal and moral value. Give your child the gift of “thereness”.
Hold your child. I cannot say how many times I’ve heard that holding a baby too much spoils them. That’s a lie sold by the makers of baby bouncers. I held my infants, all the time, with skin to skin contact, before it was popular. I held them in my arms, against my chest, or in the crease of my legs while I was seated. Take a nap with your baby, there is nothing like a little cat nap with an infant to warm your heart and rejuvenate your soul. I carried my babies, all the time; around the house, through the grocery store, for a walk outdoors. No, it’s not because I couldn’t afford to buy a stroller, thank you, but because of the sheer joy it gave me. It also seemed to make baby happy. I call that a win! When I had more children, they held the baby. I held my children up until they were too big to hold or carry. This was, typically, age 4-5. Heck, if mothers in China can nurse their children until age 5, I figure carrying them and holding them is a cake walk.
Sit with your child and watch cartoons. I tell other parents this, and they look at me with shock…”you mean you actually watch that mindless dribble?” Yes. Yes, I do, indeed. This needs some explanation and a few minutes of your time. Go to your TV, preferably during the morning hours, and turn on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. Watch for 30 minutes, and count how many moral lessons you can find in that time. I’m guessing you’ll see subtle hints, or even strong points about sharing, kindness, dealing with emotions or difficult situations, being a friend, etc. Sit and watch this stuff with your child, laugh at the funny parts, discuss those emotions. Be present. Growing up, I provided summer daycare for various families. I will ever forget the two little girls whose mother watched soap operas all day…those two girls, at ages 5 and 7, had more drama than the annual wedding dress sale at Kleinfield’s. They spoke to one another with cruelty, and threw dirty looks. I’m not sure how those girls turned out, but I am guessing compassion isn’t one of their top traits. Similarly, I watched children who were exposed to little or no TV, who also missed out on the little lessons those silly cartoons shared. I happen to know how those children turned out; socially awkward, withdrawn, I honestly don’t know if they even understand compassion. Last but not least, my cartoon watchers! Those were some happy, happy children. That includes, my own three kids. To this day, they are all caring, compassionate, outgoing and vivacious. A joy to be around! For anyone who claims that TV is bad for you, I disagree, soap operas and realty TV may be bad for you, cartoons are great for you! My little test subjects cannot be wrong.
Read books, every day. Experts say that reading 20 minutes per day is important for every child’s development. I read to my infants daily, and continued on until they could read for themselves. Go to your local library and borrow books, choose those with strong empathy and compassion themes, and also pick ones that are funny, or a little scary. Choose books about dragons, dogs, stars or rocks. Whatever it is, reading to your child broadens their little world. Don’t make excuses, just make the time to do it.
Play outdoors. Thankfully, I live in a rural area with the changing seasons. It’s beautiful here. I loved taking my children outdoors, plopping down with them in the grass, leaves or dirt and letting their little fingers go to work. Point out birds singing, or a passing butterfly, help your child experience the wonders of their world. I can’t tell you how many blades of grass my son tried to eat. Grass has fiber, right? According to the National Wildlife Federation web page, spending time outdoors boosts Vitamin D which helps protect against heart disease, diabetes and other health issues, it can improve long distance vision, helps lessen stress, and can actually boost a child’s intelligence. You can read more at their site: http://www.nwf.org/be-out-there/why-be-out-there/health-benefits.aspx While being outdoors may not build compassion, exactly, it will make them happier, and happier is always a building block for kindness and compassion.
Don’t spoil your child with too many toys. I believe that children should have no more than “enough” toys. Don’t buy so many that you can’t walk through their room without tripping and injuring yourself, just enough varying toys to fill their toy box indoors, and a sand box outdoors. A spoiled child is an unhappy, less kind child. Go sit in a daycare and watch children interact. If you’re hearing the word, “mine!” yelled, you can guess that child probably has too many toys at home, and has never had to share. Speaking of sharing, let’s just hop into that subject really quickly. If you have more than one child, sharing will be a learned trait. Let them learn how to share and compromise, this builds compassion. If you have an only child, arrange a play date with other children, it’s good for everyone, even the parents, who can sit around and share their parenting stories over a cup of coffee.
Be human. I know, that comes off sounding funny. But, most parents try to hide certain human characteristics or emotions from their children. If someone has hurt your feelings, hide it from your child, at least not all the time. As your children grow, they need to see how you deal with various emotional issues as they come up. I remember, when my son was a little squirt, about 3, I hit my thumb with a hammer. I cursed aloud, hucked the hammer across the yard and sat down to nurse my wound. My son came running over, from the opposite direction which the hammer was thrown, of course, and consoled me, asking if he needed to kiss my boo-boo. I truly believe that we need to allow our children to occasionally take on the role of caregiver. If you’ve recently lost a good friend, and you’re crying, talk to your little one about who you’re feeling. This act, in itself, is a huge compassion builder, caregiving is a great life skill to teach your child.
Well, that’s my list. If every parent just gave an extra 10% of their time to help build compassion in their child, then our society would eventually be 100% compassionate. A perfect world? Okay, maybe not, but let’s get our society at least headed in the right direction.