ASK EMORY: Getting a Child to “Care”

ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN

Dear Emory,

I’m at my wit’s end…my youngest, who is in the 1st grade, plays too roughly and nothing we do seems to make a difference. He just doesn’t care! When he plays hard, he gets wound up and often pushes or bumps into other kids. If we try to talk to him about being more careful, but he doesn’t listen to us. When we ask, “Don’t you care about being a nice boy?” he says “No!” I can’t believe we have a child who is so unfeeling and unkind. How can we teach him to care about being a good person, if he doesn’t seem to care when he does something bad to other children?

Embarrassed on Eastern Ave.

Dear Embarrassed,

Teaching little kids about kindness and caring is one of the toughest jobs parents face. It seems reasonable to expect that children raised with love and gentleness will result in children who are similarly loving and gentle towards others. But no…That’s not how it usually works.

It’s true that some children are sensitive souls from the beginning, and feel everything intensely. Yet other children, like your son, barrel along like miniature bulldozers, pushing their way with little concern for others who might be in their path.

All children start life as generally self-centered beings, and must learn to become aware that other’s needs are equally important to their own. This concept may be an easy sell or a long, drawn out lesson depending upon your particular child. But, rest assured, your child—like every other child—can learn to become a more careful and caring person.

To make this happen, kids need parents who are good coaches, who will teach what they need to learn about being a “nice kid,” and encourage them to keep working at it regardless of whether things are going right or going wrong.

You have probably already begun by teaching your kids the basics of ‘How to Be a Nice Person’ by helping them learn about things such as sharing, taking turns, and how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ You further help your children understand the basics of ‘What Is Not Nice’ by teaching them that it’s wrong to grab, push, or hit, and that there are better ways to ask for what you want, to wait your turn, and to complain with words instead of fists. As a first grader, Embarrassed, I’m guessing that your son has already gained a pretty good understanding of these basics.

It now seems that your son is ready for you to start teaching him lessons about What Nice People Do When They Make a Mistake with another person. Because nobody’s perfect and everyone makes mistakes, every child benefits from learning the very useful skill about what they can do to make things Right again, after they have done something Wrong to another person.

Helping your son learn how to repair the harm caused by his mistakes, will help him learn that when he does something wrong to another child, there are things he can do to make amends. Most kids call this “making it up” to the other person, and its often done by not just saying ‘Sorry.’ Instead, “making it up” often requires small acts of kindness to demonstrate to the other child that even though ‘I just acted as if you don’t matter to me,’ ‘I want to do something nice to show you that I do care about you.’

You can help your son learn this skill by coaching him:

• “It’s not okay to bump Jillian, it hurt her. What can you do to make it up to her? Do you want to bring her a cold drink? Or do you want to share your toy with her?”

• “Matthew looks upset, he didn’t like you pushing him. You can make it up to him. What is something nice you could do to make it up to him? Maybe you could ask if he wants to borrow your Star Wars book? Or maybe you could give him your seat?”

Sometimes children feel so upset or so pressured in the moment, they are not able to make amends right away. This is only a temporary setback. They can still learn how to make amends, and may learn a better lesson, after they have calmed down and feel calmer again.

• “Dakota got hurt yesterday when you pushed him. You can show him that you know that you made a mistake, and you still want him to be your friend. What do you suppose he would like? Could you draw him a picture or think of something nice to give him to make it up to him?

As children begin to learn how to make things “Right” with another person after they have done something “Wrong” to them, they start to understand that they are personally accountable and responsible for their actions. And it follows that, as children learn they are responsible for repairing their mistakes after the fact, they are well on their way towards learning they are responsible for not acting hurtfully in the first place.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com

1 Comment on "ASK EMORY: Getting a Child to “Care”"

  1. I think your advise is great for this parent and other parents in general. But I’m wondering if it’s possible in this case that it might not be that the child doesn’t care. It would be important to know if he also bumps into things, knocks things over, grabs things from others, walks into the street and does other impulsive things. Can he sit through a 15 minute dinner, or stay still at his desk at school? Does he let others talk, can he follow multi-step directions or does he need to be asked or reminded numerous times? He may not be purposefully “not a nice child.” Your points about not immediately “cornering” the child one could give the child a little time before discussing it with him or her. The make it up point is a very useful experience, and does serve the need for a consequence, but in a useful, educational way. Perhaps instead of using the word mistake as with Dakota, one could say that he got hurt and you can show him that you didn’t mean to hurt him.
    Just some thoughts I had on this topic.

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