Learning Through Experience: How do you Teach Your Child to Put Others Before Himself?

Some time back, I wrote about wanting to raise children who are happy, confident and successful. On the Figur8 home page, this brief statement was extrapolated to express what we hope to achieve in raising our children. Since reading “The Parents We Mean to Be” by Richard Weissbourd, I have realised that there needs to be a slightly modified focus to how we raise our children…

As parents, we want our children to be “happy” – it’s a natural desire and rightly so. However, in our quest to raise “happy” children, it can sometimes conflict with the values system we want to impart our children. For instance, I also want my children to be moral. I want them to do the “right thing” when the situation arises. But, as Richard Weissbourd points out in his book, sometimes choosing to do the “right thing” may mean that our children will have to sacrifice their happiness. It is important, therefore, to balance our desires for our children to always be happy and ensure that they understand that sometimes they have do something they don’t like just because it’s the right thing to do.

I realise that this probably seems obvious. It should go without saying that we want moral kids. So why am I even writing about it? Because, as Weissbourd points out, we have focussed so much on the happiness of our children that some of these children have grown up believing that their happiness is more important than doing the right thing. How ironic it is that our good intentions have gone awry.

In order to avoid falling into this trap, I have been refocusing on the boys’ character development – in particular, their values system. Although I used to read character development books with Aristotle (and in recent times with Hercules), I find that the best way to teach character and values is through practical experience. It is all in the doing because a concept is just an intangible idea. It is the practical experience that makes it real. Let me explain with an example…

Aristotle and Hercules are very fortunate that they still have three surviving great grandparents. We visit them on occasion and I usually prepare the boys with my expectations on their behaviour when we visit. I also bring activities to keep them busy so they don’t get up to mischief in a child-unfriendly house and to discourage bad manners because of boredom. It usually works. One day it didn’t. For some reason, Aristotle was restless – which was rather unusual because it is usually Hercules who gets an itchy behind first. He started chasing his brother around the house where there were a lot of breakables. Then he found two wooden sticks and wanted to “spar” with his brother. I tried to redirect him to his activities but he wasn’t having any of it. He kept telling me he was bored and that he wanted to go home. I told him we weren’t ready to leave and he finally blurted out at the top of his voice, “I’m so bored! I want to go home!”

I cannot even begin to describe how I felt – angry, embarassed, pained? It was a myriad of emotions that left my head spinning as I struggled to find the words to handle the situation. My poor grandfather had heard my son exclaim how bored he was coming to visit his great grandfather. Needless to say, I had long words with Aristotle about his behaviour. Although I could easily avoid such situations in future by visiting my grandfather when Aristotle is occupied elsewhere – at school or my MIL’s, for example – I felt that this was important for him in many ways, in particular, learning to be kind to the elderly and just learning to be patient. Besides, my grandfather clearly lives for these moments when the boys visit him – how could I deprive him of their company even if it is unwilling?

Well, okay, to be fair to Hercules, he is usually very pleasant. There have been really heartwarming moments of watching him interact with my grandfather that make the pain of Aristotle’s poor behaviour all worthwhile.

I digress… even though we can tell our children how they are expected to behave, unless they actually have to endure the experience of behaving as expected, all it will be is only an idea. It is exactly the same when your child promises you the sun, the moon, and all the stars in order to have a much desired toy only to fail to deliver on his promise because the reality of having to fulfill it is suddenly so much more daunting than it was when he was making the promise. I guess what I’m saying is that some lessons in life need to be experienced in order to be learned.

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 Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (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.

One thought on “Learning Through Experience: How do you Teach Your Child to Put Others Before Himself?

  1. It’s a very interesting question you discuss and I think the answer is not obvious at all. There are really two opposing ways – do you constantly try to make them learn their needs are not the most important needs in the world by overriding them? Or do you actually act as a self-less role model and let them become mellow and caring and considerate by being so yourself? And this could mean you as a parent putting your own needs second and take your child’s needs seriously (as if we mothers needed even more of that 😉 ).
    I’ve opted for the latter approach, I do believe that by being very considerate and caring and really trying to understand what my child’s needs are, they don’t become spoiled but instead they learn what it means to be considerate and can use their parents as a role model. It is often children who are handled roughly and who are told to toughen up who later don’t show sensitivity towards others. I can’t back this up with Greek philosophy unfortunately ;-), but it’s my experience as a psychologist.


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