Today is the final installment of the Around the World Parenting Blog Carnival, in which we have been exploring Christine Gross-Loh’s illuminating book Parenting Without Borders. In case you are joining us for the first time, you can learn more about the Around the World Carnival here. Though we are finishing our discussion on Parenting Without Borders, we made an exciting announcement last week with our introduction of The Brilliant Book Club!
The Brilliant Book Club is a collaborative project among five bloggers: Lauren Apfel of Omnimom, Deb CG of Urban Moo Cow, Sarah Rudell Beach of Left Brain Buddha, Jessica Smock of School of Smock and Stephanie Sprenger (Me!) of Mommy, For Real. For more information on this new venture, read our introductory post here, but please note, the giveaway has ended. (Congratulations, Allison, on winning a copy of Playing to Win!)
Back to our final discussion on Parenting Without Borders: This week we examine the section of the book that focuses on the character of children. Gross-Loh discusses two aspects of character- raising kindness and raising responsibility. For me, the thread that ties these two discussions together is the American cultural push for respecting our children and preserving their authentic choices, two things that are extremely noble and look good on paper, but often get taken too far. One disturbing trend mentioned in this chapter is that “empathy has declined over the past thirty years among U.S. college students, while narcissism has risen.” Ouch.
Are Manners Overrated?
Gross-Loh highlights the importance of “old-fashioned manners,” a practice that may seem obsolete or no longer relevant to some American parents. The current parenting trends are sometimes hard to follow; one day it is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children manners, and then all of a sudden please and thank you are overrated and we actually shouldn’t care if our children don’t use them. I struggle with the concept that, according to some styles of parenting, we shouldn’t focus on teaching our children to be polite, because it doesn’t honor their authentic tendencies.
Don’t get me wrong- there is much to appreciate in the school of thought that values respecting children’s boundaries, natural inclinations, and allowing them to make their own choices. I am a big fan of “body safety,” taught by Parenting Safe Children; one of the principles suggests that you shouldn’t force your children to greet others with a kiss or hug. I wholeheartedly agree with this value, but it’s important to keep in mind that the underlying philosophy is not based on allowing our children to snub grandma or flip the metaphorical bird to stinky Aunt Connie. We provide them with several choices that are comfortable to them as to how they prefer to politely greet others; we respect their right to be in charge of their physical bodies, but we are not allowing them to be rude.
So why are manners and greetings important? Gross-Loh asserts that, “we teach kids manners because we believe that social niceties pave the way toward kindness.” Certainly we want our children to have kindness and compassion that is authentic and natural, but what is our role in teaching them? When parents treat their kids as peers, tolerate disrespectful language, and allow them to choose whether or not they “feel” like apologizing, what are we really teaching them? According to Gross-Loh,
We are not teaching them positive lessons about being authentic and true to themselves. We are teaching them to feel self-important and entitled instead of compassionate and kind, showing them that it’s totally okay to put their happiness and their needs above others’.
I was raised with the old-school Midwest values of being a “nice girl.” Sometimes this makes me cringe, as I cannot fight my innate urge to make people feel comfortable, sometimes at my own expense. However, most of the time, I am proud of my empathetic, considerate qualities; I make a conscious effort to be welcoming and avoid making others uncomfortable. I think it is important that these values are instilled in my children as well.
Children need practice considering other people’s needs and desires; while their natural inclination might be to pair off with a close friend and pursue their own pleasure, shouldn’t we teach them to include the quiet child who is standing alone? When they receive a boring gift from a relative, though their honest response is that they would have rather gotten something else, shouldn’t we teach them that this reaction is hurtful to the gift-giver? Or is that being “disrespectful” of their “true selves?”
Because I have been mindful of this new parenting trend to stop insisting that our children use manners, I sometimes feel embarrassed when I automatically chime in with, “What do you say?” or “Say thank you,” but I find I simply can’t help it. It feels unnatural for me to turn my head the other way and whistle a tune when one of my children “forgets” to use their manners. To return to the discussion on Hoverparenting, it is challenging to know when to step in, and when to back off and allow them to navigate their own course. Do we remind them to be polite, but sit quietly by when they are in a tug-of-war over a toy with their friend? I supposed you are sick of this point I continue to drive home, but once again it seems to be all about finding balance.
Returning to the Basics of Kindness
While many disagree about whether it is appropriate to force a toddler to apologize, when our 23-month-old hits her 7-year-old sister or pulls her hair, we put her in time out, and then we take her to apologize. While she generally apologizes willingly, if she refuses, we speak her apology for her, and then together we ask her sister what she needs to feel better. If she would like an ice pack or a drink of water, our toddler will then bring her one. Making things right seems to be a step above spewing out a rote apology; it has been rewarding to watch our toddler’s sense of empathy evolve.
One day, my oldest daughter was crying because she had injured herself. My toddler, completely removed from the incident, ran to her quickly, hugged her, and then went in search of her own favorite stuffed animal with which to comfort her big sister. It was one of those moments when I thought, “It’s working.” Her sense of compassion and empathy was developing, partly on its own, and partly because of practices she had learned and observed at home and at childcare.
One of my favorite pieces of advice in this chapter comes from a Japanese mom, “Always stand in the other person’s position and imagine things from his or her point of view.” (Author’s note: Ahem, this skill can be quite useful in marriage as well.) We have spent a lot of time discussing the Golden Rule with our second grader; these fundamental concepts of kindness are crucial to becoming genuinely compassionate. Another tip I found helpful came from Colorado psychologist Shawn Smith: “Actions can come before feelings.” Or as we say in our family, “Fake it ’til you make it.”
A few weeks ago, we had some close family friends over for dinner. Our second grader was sullen and sulky; she had been moody ever since learning her best friend was moving away, and she didn’t want to play with the daughter of our guests. I was acutely uncomfortable watching my daughter’s pal stand by awkwardly, waiting for her grumpy friend to “get in the mood” and play. I quietly pulled my daughter aside and reminded her that she didn’t need to feel excited about playing with her friend right that second, but she was being rude and hurting her feelings. I tried to explain, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and told her that if she just tried playing, even though she didn’t feel like it, she would make her friend feel better and she would probably end up having fun. She did, and it worked.
Responsibility and Kindness Go Hand in Hand
When I read the Raising Responsibility chapter, I wasn’t surprised to hear that children in other cultures are far more helpful around the house; in Guatemala, Peru, Japan, and even Sweden, older children take care of their young siblings, run errands, and have regular chores. They are important, contributing members of the family. We recently developed an after-school and before-bedtime job checklist that our 7 year old completes, and even that is sometimes a struggle. Gross-Loh reminds us that children naturally love to help, and they benefit from feeling like competent, appreciated members of the family.
The first thing that sprang to my mind upon reading this chapter was how much more my toddler does to help out when she is in her Montessori learning center environment. Along with the five other children, ages 1-3, my daughter sets the table, serves her own food, scrapes her plate into the trash, loads the dishwasher, wipes her face, and puts her washcloth in the receptacle. And that’s just at snack and lunchtime! I am reminded of how much more my children could do at home, if only I would give them the opportunity. It is so easy to forget how much our children are capable of.
This lack of interest in giving our children responsibilities seems directly connected to our ambivalence about directing their manners, greetings, and caring interactions with others. The tendency to coddle them, allow them to treat others (and us) poorly, and wait on them seems to spring from the mentality that we don’t want to infringe on their authentic inner experiences. Well, I call bullsh*t. As much as I want my children to freely pursue their own delights, act in a way that is internally motivated, and be true to themselves, I refuse to sit idly by and allow them to become self-indulgent pigs.
Does that sound too harsh? While I am not interested in engaging in power struggles with a stubborn toddler who has neglected to say “please” in order to exert her own will, there are some lines I am unwilling to cross. I will continue to prompt my children to use manners, apologize when they have wronged someone, take care of their own belongings, demonstrate pride and ownership in our home, and treat others kindly. There are some values that never go out of style.
We sincerely hope you have enjoyed our discussion of a fascinating and helpful book. I took away so much from each chapter of the book; from eating habits to academics, from cultivating independence to creating responsibility, I learned so many healthy, practical tips from parents around the world. If you haven’t yet read the book, I hope this series will inspire you to do so. Parenting Without Borders is an excellent reminder that all parents would benefit from opening their minds to exploring a different path, questioning their reasoning and motivation for their parenting choices, and finding the balance that comes from integrating different cultural practices into their own unique child-rearing decisions.
Read all the posts in our final series below, and many thanks for joining us in this enlightening journey!
Deb of Urban Moo Cow:Please Don’t Make Me Explain the Importance of Thank You
Jessica of School of Smock: Carry Your Own Bag: Raising Kids Who Aren’t Helpless
Lauren of omnimom: My Biggest Parenting Critic Right Now? My Eight Year Old
Sarah of Left Brain Buddha: Character, Compassion, and Confucius: On the Ying and Yang of Parenting
Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Hilary Levey Friedman’s Playing to Win, and join the conversation as The Brilliant Book Club begins our first series of posts on the book, Monday, September 30th! Can’t wait to read along with you!
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