Education of the Heart – on Raising “Good” Kids

“When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.” – Dalai Lama

After devoting much time and attention to the growth and development of my boys, I confess that it still feels like a punch in the gut whenever I see them behaving poorly. Probably worst still is when I fail to live up to my expectations of myself as a parent. I start to wonder if I have failed my children somehow, until I remember that my eldest is 6 and my youngest is still only 3.

To paraphrase the wise Makoto Shichida – do not view your children as finished products; instead, see them as continuous works in progress. The real results of successful parenting will only reveal themselves when your children are grown and taking care of business on their own. How they live and behave then will the be the true testament of your parenting efforts. Until that time, we can only continue to redirect them by nudging them in the right direction whenever they begin to stray too far off course. It is probably best that we see all the ugly behaviours early so that we can set them straight before it reaches a time when such behaviours can have more severe repercussions.

The Trouble with Aristotle

After a nice holiday, jam packed with fun and too much of a good thing, I really oughtn’t be surprised to find that it has all gone to Aristotle’s head. Coming back to reality can be like the slump experienced by an alcoholic in recovery. Let’s face it, even as adults we face post-holiday blues. When you’re young, inexperienced, and not quite the master of your emotions, as Aristotle is, the sharp change can be quite difficult to handle. A little understanding about how tough it can be certainly won’t go astray. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect him to fall back into the regular routine of life.

Of course there’s more to it than post-holiday blues. With Aristotle growing up and increasing his interactions with the world at large, he’s got to learn about the subtleties of social etiquette. For instance, when you are bored out of your brains visiting friends and relatives, you don’t voice your thought bubble out in front of the host. There are a lot of rules and expectations that our children need to learn about behaving in public that are considered rude. To a child, he’s just being honest. He says it like he feels it. What he has to learn now is when to keep quiet and how to phrase things politely. We are now moving beyond the simple rules of “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me” into the world of gray areas – “always tell the truth, but don’t tell Aunty Jane you hate her present”.

A really handy article I found was “Unspoiling Spoiled Kids” which captured the essence of some of the issues I have been facing with Aristotle.

…when parents decide to reverse the tide, they hyperfocus on “no,” and on punishment, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University. But it’s not about cracking down. It’s about creating a value system that lets kids learn life skills.

“There’s so much research saying that the last thing you should do is punish,” Kazdin says. “Say you want your kid to help clean up. How do you get him to do it? You say ‘We need to get four things done. Which do you choose?’ Start by doing it together, gradually fade out of the picture, then praise the child as he does more.”

The reason this works, Kazdin says, is because you’re approaching it in terms of values—helping people you love, and pride in a job well done. You’re not iron-fisting it. Though it may seem that giving kids control over which chores they do would contribute to an entitled feeling, it’s the opposite. “Choice is important in guiding behavior,” Kazdin notes. “And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real choice or a choice to give them the illusion of control.”

You may be surprised to hear that “play” has an important role in “unspoiling kids”. According to Peter Gray:

…play is exactly how we all learned life skills. “Little kids swing high to the point where they feel fear when parents aren’t looking, but they actually have a good assessment of reality. And if there’s a scuffle, they learn self-control—because their pals might leave if they lash out. Play, by its very nature, is an exercise in give and take.”

The take-home is that we have to throttle back and give our kids room to take risks, to play games without the pressure of us yelling…er, cheering…on the sidelines. Do that, and you’ve made your kid’s playmates your assistants in teaching self-discipline.

Most importantly:

“Belly-laugh and rough-and-tumble play with your children. This changes the function of the right brain, facilitating bonding,” says Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “All kids need help with self-discipline, and playing with other children—and you—is probably the best way to learn it.”

Some more tips:

  • take it slow – if you try to change everything overnight, you’ll end up changing nothing
  • focus on the specific changes you want to see – what exactly is it that you want your child to start doing?
  • remember his age – don’t expect your toddler to understand that what you’re trying to teach him is good for him
  • if you want you child to do it, you have to model it – remember, “do as I do” works a hell of a lot better than “do as I say”
  • read together books on character development that teach values, morals and social graces


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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