Cultivating Character: Advice for Parents
I ask parents, who do you want your child to be? How do you want them to show up in the world? There are three main character traits that I hear consistently across all families: fair, caring, and self-disciplined. Even though character traits can be somewhat innate, they can also be cultivated through social-emotional learning (SEL). Here are some specific SEL tools that can help you nurture the character traits you may want to see in your children.
Cultivating Caring and Kindness
One of the foundational skills a caring person has and demonstrates is the ability to empathize with others. Being empathic is simply feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling. Empathy is something that all humans are all born with—some of us more than others. But it’s also a skill that can be nurtured and developed. Having the ability to feel and use empathy in tough situations allows children not only to treat others with caring, kindness, and respect, but it can also lead them to intervene and stand up for others. Empathy is at the core of our ability to communicate and work together.
The best way to teach empathy is to model it and use it when interacting with your child. When children have big emotions or there is misbehavior, empathy should be the first response in any parenting situation. Responding with empathy communicates to your children that you see, hear, and understand them. Once children feel heard, they’ll not only be more willing to listen, but also more open to understanding and identifying with another person’s perspective.
Teaching moment: When your child is struggling, having a hard day, or misbehaving, the first response must be empathy, before anything else. Show your child you understand his or her feelings by saying things like, “It’s so hard when ____,” or “You look/sound ____.” Be mindful of the tone and delivery, because if you are responding with frustration or anger it can sound condescending or sarcastic, and more like “Too bad, so sad…”
In order to be fair, children need the skills not only to take another person’s perspective, but also to solve problems and make responsible decisions. The ability to face roadblocks calmly by thinking through the problem, brainstorming solutions, and trying them out ensures success in all areas of a child’s social-emotional life—from home to the classroom, and even in the lunchroom.
Teaching moment: We can teach these skills by using problem solving in our parenting when there is a problematic behavior or expression of emotion (a.k.a. meltdowns). To help children manage big emotions and make better choices, it can be useful to problem-solve or use an “emotion coaching” approach.
Begin by listening empathically and validating your child’s feelings. You can encourage your child to share what he or she is feeling. (“Tell me what happened; tell me what you’re feeling…”) Then reflect your child’s feeling back to her or him by saying, “It sounds like you’re feeling __.” It’s important that you don’t dismiss emotions as silly or unimportant.
Help your child label emotions. It’s important that you help your child label their own feelings instead of telling them how they ought to feel. Listen in a way that helps your child know that you’re paying attention and taking them seriously.
Set limits while problem solving. Set the limit on the behavior or choice while acknowledging the emotions. (This sounds like, “It’s okay to feel/want __, but it’s not okay to do ___.”) Once the limit is set, ask your child what they wanted or needed. Then ask them to brainstorm a few different ideas on how to get what they want. Help them evaluate those ideas based on your family’s values, and then let them choose what they will do to make a repair, try again, or try next time.
Cultivating Self-Discipline and Self-Control
Research has shown that the SEL skills to control impulses and manage strong emotions through mindfulness practice lead to self-discipline and self-control. The ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors helps children focus their attention when they might otherwise be distracted by others, upset by a problem, or nervous about an upcoming event. The ability to self-regulate helps children get along better with others and fosters both academic and social competence. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve executive control, which involves the inhibition of automatic or impulsive behaviors.
Teaching moment: You can easily incorporate mindfulness into your daily or weekly routine with your child. I suggest using Mind Yeti to help your child create greater awareness around their feelings and thoughts, which will ultimately lead to greater self-discipline and self-control. You do not need any previous experience using mindfulness. Mind Yeti was created for both individuals new to mindfulness and those who have previous mindfulness experience. The Mind Yeti tool encourages parents to sit together with their child to listen to a short age-appropriate meditation (about five minutes long). Not only will mindfulness develop the characteristics that you want to nurture in your child, but it also helps to reduce stress, improves focus, and develops empathy.
Melissa is a parent coach, speaker, and author in the Seattle area. She is the co-founder of ChildProof Parenting and Mommy Matters. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting.