5 Tips For Teaching Our Children Empathy & Thoughtfulness
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July 16, 2015

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Most children are narcissists by nature. Their primary needs are most important. That doesn't mean that most children aren't also innately good, kind and capable of being great. But it is our role as parents and caretakers to teach them empathy, putting others' needs above their own (sometimes), and, generally, how to be thoughtful people.

This summer, in addition to keeping my children really busy with camps, trips, and activities, I've also honed in on this one. Because while I love my daughters and they truly are amazing people, we can really work on the whole "but I want something"- thing. There are days that, thanks to the myeloma maintenance therapy medications that I take every day, I am simply wallowing in extreme fatigue. Yet when they want to go swimming or have friends over, they fail to notice that I'm struggling with getting off the couch.

"Mom, can you get me water?" my nine-year old asked me last week. I was lying down on the living room couch and she was sitting in the dining room, just feet from the kitchen. Really? I wanted to scream. Instead, I told her NO but she could get me a water! And then I reminded and waited until she did it.

"Mom, I need you to take Ally and me to Walmart to get snacks. We're hungry," my 15-year old daughter stated just minutes later. Not even a question, a demand! 

It was time for a serious chat about empathy and thinking about their mom. Clearly they weren't getting it and it was my job to teach them.

So this whole "teaching empathy"-thing has been on my mind and has become a summer theme of mine, which I'll describe more below. But if we moms don't teach our children the importance of thinking of others, they are either:

1) Going to have a lifetime of struggling in their future relationships. Their friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, and co-workers won't like them very much and, really, our children probably won't understand why;

2) They will learn how to develop these traits the hard way-- because those around them will simply not tolerate narcissistic behavior. 

Please don't let it be the first option. I have someone in my life who SCREAMS "struggling with relationships." She is one of the most narcissistic, thoughtless people I've ever met and if I had a choice, I would cut her out of my life like a cancerous mold. I don't have the option but I am polite to her when I must see her and that is it. She gets new friends all the time but a month or two later, those friends have vanish. Her co-workers often head out to lunch when she's in the restroom or at times they know she's unavailable. And yet she doesn't get it. Wow, I want to scream, I can tell you why-- you are thoughtless, selfish and, well, awful. Ladies-- let's try not to raise kids like this one!

How to do this?

1. Lead by example

If we aren't good and kind to others, and if our children don't witness our behavior and actions, we can't possible expect to raise kids with these traits. They must see us acting in a way we expect them to pattern. Help those in need. Be nice to your children. Be a gracious hostess. Be an even more gracious guest in someone else's home. Be nice to people on the phone, your restaurant server, and the person at the check-out counter. Refrain from flipping off rude drivers (this is a really hard one for me). Be nice to people in lines. Let your children see you giving up your seat to someone who needs it more than you. Let them see you practicing thoughtfulness all day, every day. If someone is having an upcoming birthday, consider baking them a cake or buying a small gift and dropping it off. Have your children help you.

2. Get them involved in giving back to others

This summer, I am getting my children involved in raising funds for curing multiple myeloma (my cancer, the second most common blood cancer). A few days ago, we hosted our first lemonade and cookie stand and took donations for the Myeloma Crowd Research Initiative (www.myelomacrowd.org/mcri). We raised $70 and will host another similar stand next week. Our goal is to do five of them before summer's end. I got them involved by helping bake cookies, make signs, and go shopping for lemonade and cups. On the day of the event, my nine-year old daughter brought friends with her to manage the table and donation bucket. They loved it! We all have a vested reason to help cure myeloma and they can finally participate in helping make their mom well. This is a critically important venture-- giving back to others for simply no reason than it is the right thing to do. No strings attached. (Side note, if you'd like to make a tax deductible donation, visit www.myelomacrowd.org, click on the box at the top that says Build a Team Today, look to the far right and you will see my name Lizzy Smith, click on that, and donate to my team! No donation is too small!)

My fiancé, Bill Conley, is also running for local office-- Lehi (Utah) City Council (www.bill4lehi.com). He is walking every major Lehi neighborhood by Election Day. We wear neon T-shirts and join him on these walks. It has become a family affair. They are getting great exercise and learning a bit about the election process in the meantime. Why are we all doing this? Because it's simply the right thing to do-- help someone else out. No payment, no strings attached, no promises of gifts afterwards.

3. Expose them to "life"

Sometimes we moms are so successful in sheltering our children that they simply have no concept that others aren't so lucky. There are those struggling and they have it far worse than they can comprehend. Expose our children to life. It will help them gain valuable perspective. We are big travelers and my children have seen real poverty up close. We don't ignore it-- I actually point it out to them and we talk about it. I took them to the animal shelter a few weeks ago and we walked shelter dogs. It was fun but it was also important to do something for others, in this case animals.

4. Call them out on inappropriate behavior

If our children are being thoughtless, do not tolerate that behavior. Call them out on it and demand that they modify their actions or there will be consequences. Remind them, if you must, of all the things you do for them that you don't feel like doing. Let them know that their privileges can vanish in a second. And make good on it.

5. Demand it

Sometimes there is no other option than demanding that they behave differently. Be specific on what you require and the consequences for failure to change. Be consistent. It's ok to withhold perks when our children aren't behaving with kindness, thoughtfulness and empathy-- in fact we must. After all, it is one thing to have a narcissistic five-year old and entirely another when they are 15 or older. Good behavior must be your expectation of them and, nearly without fail, I believe every child is capable of learning it. Set your expectations high and work on it together.

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