It’s the Tuesday after Martin Luther King day, and I have been doing some thinking. What were MLK’s parents like? Did he develop his sense of compassion and duty through his observations of them? Do parents today know that they are raising tomorrow’s justice-seekers? As if the burdens placed on parents today didn’t already outweigh reasonable expectations, is there more we can be doing?
Traits like compassion and empathy are central to our connectedness in our families, schools and communities. What we are willing to do, or willing to forgo doing, in the name of our sense of duty to others, is how we demonstrate our commitment to a greater social good. And how we, as parents, participate in this social cohesion is one of the strongest indicators of wether or not our children will harness their power for good.
Stories of heroic, MLK-level social activists line the shelves of children’s bookstores and offer exciting depictions of people who see a need and act. Most parents will not be able to live a life comparable to one of these, but research says we don’t have to. With our close relationships to our children, we can use our words and actions in simple, everyday opportunities, to show what it means to be a compassionate, empathetic helper.
Use language that is kind and supportive – We all understand that we are our children’s first teachers. We elicited their first words with our eager repetition, “Say mama! Mama!” We are also their first kindness teachers, and we do that through our word choices and the tones we use to speak them. By speaking to our children with kind words and in respectful tones, and asking others to as well, we are setting a stage for how our children will speak to others and how they will allow themselves to be spoken to.
Be a helper and point helpers out – Helpers are everywhere, and their actions are rarely newsworthy. When you see a woman in the produce isle carefully loading apples into her bag, only to have the delicately balanced apples begin crashing to the floor, point out the helper who stops what they are doing and works with her to return the apples to the fruit stand. When a driver finds his car won’t start, point out the helper who gives him a jumpstart. By demonstrating the small acts of kindness ourselves, or pointing out our observations of other helpers, we can show our children the importance of these small, but courageous, acts of kindness.
Help your children see their impact – Our children learn a lot from our responses to their actions. If you notice a your child pick up a piece of trash that doesn’t belong to them to throw it away, but your first comment is “ewwww, gross, don’t touch that,” you will have unintentionally deterred them from correcting that kind of problem in the future. If, instead, you comment on the kindness of the action and use adult words to help them understand the impact of their kindness, you will be allowing them to experience the fulfillment that comes with being a helper. And then you can ask them to wash their hands!
As parents, teachers and school leaders, we have to duty to model the compassion and empathy our world needs for our world’s future parents, teachers and school leaders. And elementary school is the perfect time to begin.