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By "Today" contributor
updated 12/17/2004 1:37:27 PM ET 2004-12-17T18:37:27

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

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Law # 14:
Teach Empathy and Volunteerism
If kids seem more selfish today, maybe it’s because they spend so much time traveling in packs of other kids, pretty much doing things for enjoyment or their own personal entertainment. Empathy is one of the most teachable of emotions — but your child must be given the opportunity to learn it. No excuses, please — teach your kids compassion by volunteering with them, donating family time and perhaps a bit of your own resources. Discuss, teach, and live gratitude, and so will your children.

***

Some friends of ours have made such a strong impression on my family that they’ve convinced me to make an addition to my list of parenting priorities. Providing discipline, structure, involvement, and limit-setting were always my primary focus, but these folks added a new dimension to what I now believe to be mandatory for raising good kids. And that element focuses upon compassion, empathy, and volunteerism. Let me tell you about this family.

Roger is an insurance broker and his wife, Gina, a fifth-grade teacher. They have eight children — Daniel, Scott, Christopher, Maggie, Rena, Max, and Barbara. Oh yeah, and Jimmy — the baby, who tends to get lost in the commotion of everyday life. Really nice kids, all with their quirks and challenging personality features, including a few who can be downright ornery at times. But there is one thing about Roger and Gina’s brood that I admire above all — most have an exquisite compassion for others. In talking with the parents, I recognize their own empathy for people who have less, their willingness to take time out of busy schedules to volunteer in the community, and the moral conviction to teach these values to their children.

Notice that I said that "most" of the children behave compassionately — let me explain. Of the eight kids, six are right in there with their folks when it’s time to help others or to give of themselves. Even 2-year-old Jimmy has been known to offer his teddy when a sibling is crying or hurt. But Maggie and Scott seem to be cut from a slightly different cloth. Sure, they’ve observed their family helping others for years, just as their siblings have, but somehow it didn’t stick quite as firmly as it has with the others. These two are obviously just going through the motions — serving food once a month at a local soup kitchen and gathering labels and newspapers to donate to their school. But they just don’t appear to take joy in their giving; it’s more an act of following their parents’ behavior because the folks are watching. I’ve concluded that there’s only so much one can do to nurture nature, and Maggie and Scott appear to be more self-absorbed than their siblings. But they are still benefiting from the training they are receiving by engaging in acts of volunteerism and giving to the community. Hopefully, as they mature, the empathy will internalize and become second nature.

How, you might ask, can two working parents of eight find the time to volunteer and give to others? Well, they just make the time. The family calendar includes serving at the soup kitchen one Sunday morning a month, an hour or two to donate labels, newspapers, and cans to the kids’ schools, and individual projects that each is engaged in. Christopher assists the umpire at Little League games once or twice a week, Rena reads to preschoolers every other Saturday afternoon at the neighborhood library, Daniel and Maggie spend an hour visiting elderly at the nursing home, and Max, Barbara, and Jimmy help Gina gather and put together welcome baskets for new members of the community.

Every school year the schedule changes as the kids’ interests evolve or new community needs emerge. Following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the family went into high gear in terms of fund-raising and volunteering. All of the kids, including Jimmy, donated some money to the Salvation Army to help feed the emergency workers, and Gina gave blood at the local hospital. Even Maggie seemed sincerely involved in the effort — I ran into her outside of the grocery store where she was handing out miniature American flags as part of her Youth Group project. At least on that day, patriotism and empathy nudged out self-absorption and Maggie was clearly moved by the need to help others.

I truly believe that this type of parenting — living, modeling, and prioritizing compassion for others — is necessary in our society. We, as parents, need to combat the materialistic, self-centered messages our kids receive on a daily basis from friends at school, on the television, and at the malls and movie theaters. I believe that all children are born with the ability to develop empathy and compassion for others, but that ability can be lost if not nurtured by their parents. Most pediatricians will agree with the concept of “contagious crying,” even in the hospital nursery. One baby starts in and then a bunch of them begin to wail. Preschool teachers are loaded with stories of how a little one will bump her head and another will offer a hug or a kiss. The ability to feel empathy is akin to the ability to love — it’s quite subjective and perhaps intangible, but it’s there. Some folks are born with an innate desire to help others, whereas some, like Maggie and Scott, are not so motivated but can learn the joys of giving by participating in the process. I’ve come to the conclusion that empathy is not just a feeling — it is a motive to feel good ourselves. When we help others, we feel better, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a neurobiological correlation between these feelings of self-enhancement and peace of mind that go hand-in-hand with altruistic behavior.

So try following Gina’s and Roger’s lead, and begin to promote volunteerism in your own family. There are lots of ways to do it, plenty of needy people and organizations, and there is time if you make it a priority!

Volunteer Yourself
Here are some activities that foster empathy and compassion:

Give up some time for a worthy cause. Work at a homeless shelter or a nursing home. Read to little kids at the library or the pediatric ward at the hospital. Join the Adopt-A-Grandparent program and participate consistently.

Employ your skills. If you like sports, become a referee or an umpire, or perhaps a timekeeper for a kid’s sports league. If you’re a computer whiz, teach word processing or Web design at an after-school or night class at the recreation center.

Donate money. This is especially good for the kids, as each can contribute some cash on a regular basis to their place of worship or to national organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or to a local fund for a needy family or ill child.

Have a garage sale. Not only will your family get rid of stuff that’s been cluttering up the closets and attic, but the money can be donated to a worthy cause. Get the kids involved, from rounding up old books, toys, and clothes to pricing, stacking, and selling the items.

Sponsor a family. Have each child help to buy or to make a present for the children in the sponsored family at Christmas or for birthdays. Offer food from your family get-togethers and include a nice note expressing your joy that the food will be appreciated by another family.

Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. If time permits, sponsor a kid who doesn’t have a mom or a dad consistently in his life.

Join community groups that focus on values development. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are great training grounds for children, and parents can become involved as leaders or assistants. Youth groups based at places of worship also encourage volunteerism and compassion, as well as providing companionship and fun for the kids.

Living the Law

Although it may be easier said than done, you can in your own family encourage feelings of empathy, volunteerism, and compassion toward others. It may take some priority-changing and creativity, but I’ve found that it is one of the best, most long-lasting gifts that you can give to your kids as well as to yourself. Have a look at these ideas:

Knock off the excuses. Sure, we’re all busy, financially challenged, or stressed out. Try helping others and you may be surprised at how valuable the time spent volunteering is when compared to watching TV or doing a mundane chore. You may even feel better about your own financial situation when you come nose-to-nose with others who have much less than you.

Discuss and define empathy, compassion, and volunteerism. Don’t assume that your children will be learning the meaning of these values and behaviors at school or while playing in the neighborhood. It’s your job to bring them into your home and to emphasize the importance of giving.

Praise your kids’ concern and kindness. Catch them being empathetic and let them know that you see it, appreciate the behavior, and are proud of their efforts. On the other hand, highlight their self-absorbed or egocentric behaviors when they get out of hand, and discuss how that makes you feel.

Take advantage of teachable moments. Whether it’s dropping the recyclables at the bins, making sloppy joes at the homeless shelter, or working the concession stand at the ballfields, drag your kids along. Let them participate, if appropriate, and let them see their mom or dad giving back to the community.

Teach emotional consequences. If one of your kids embarrasses another or hurts someone’s feelings, discuss how it might affect the other person. Ask your child how they would feel if they were ignored, made fun of, or humiliated. Of course, do this privately so that you are teaching your child and not embarrassing him in the process.

Observe what your child watches. Supervise television and movies as much as possible. Often TV shows and cartoons focus on getting away with bad behavior or humiliating and embarrassing others, or use violence in their presentation. Kids don’t need to view this stuff, and it’s up to you to stop it or at least to tone it down.

Discuss gratitude. Whenever you can sneak it in, bring up what you and other family members should be grateful for. For example, not every kid has a grandma or a grandpa to hang with. How about living in a neighborhood full of friends to play with? What about the pet that shows unconditional love every day of the year? Talk about a nice teacher that they will never forget or a classmate that made the transition to the new school easier. These are people and things that we tend to take for granted in our busy lives, and a few minutes spent pointing them out can go a long way in raising your child’s perception of what’s really important.

Stress the don’ts. Try to stay away from stressing competition at the cost of hurting others. Don’t overindulge your child — have him earn possessions and privileges in order to appreciate them.

Don’t forget the do’s. Encourage emotions and sensitivity, and make feelings a natural topic of discussion in your home. Employ role-playing when necessary to show your kids how to deal with hurt feelings most appropriately. Encourage apologizing — it lightens the soul.

NEXT WEEK: How a simple kitchen timer can help your child

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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