The second tip in this new series on “Raising Kids Who Care” is to model emotional maturity for your children. Or rather, to model emotional growth, because who of us is ever fully mature? But we try, and if our kids can see us grapple with our emotions and actually improve in our ability to act appropriately with a full range of them, we are doing our kids a favor.
I am quite attached to this point because I was not privy to my parents’ emotions—other than my mother’s wrath, that is—and I grew up emotionally clueless. I mean no offense to my wonderful parents, for they are part of a generation that did not see the value in this tip, but today we’ve come a long way in understanding the importance of emotional health. Emotional health means that we are aware of our thoughts and feelings and do not act out on them carelessly. We do not, for example, eat a tub of ice cream because we are unknowingly lonely or work an all-nighter out of suppressed anger—two common occurrences in my own life prior to lots of therapy. But what does all this have to do with caring? Let me explain.
A prerequisite to caring about another person is to be aware of that person’s inner experience; and for that to happen, a person needs to be aware of his or her own. One of the best ways to nurture emotional growth in your children is to reveal your own emotions to them (using, of course, a bit of parental discretion). Your children are close to you; they should know you and learn empathy by seeing you sad, angry, happy, depressed, and then see how you comfort yourself, count to ten, talk through a hardship with your spouse, and so on. If you act on your emotions inappropriately—the classic example being cursing like a madman at an incompetent driver—model rectifying the situation: calm yourself down, apologize to those in earshot, and demonstrate a bit of healthy embarrassment for your lack of self-control.
One emotion that tends to be misunderstood in our culture is guilt. Guilty feelings, when they do their job well, simply cause us to stop and think about what we have done wrong and consider how to make it right. Guilty feelings may lead to remorse, which is being deeply sorry for trouble you have caused. Small toddlers do not experience guilt and remorse because they have no awareness of wrongdoing. But one day, it will dawn on them that they are guilty of something, and that is a good thing. When my son first experienced guilt, I actually took a photo of him—that guilty look on his little face was priceless! Then I explained to him that he was feeling guilty and told him what a big boy he was for recognizing he had done something wrong. My nephew had his first experience of remorse over the holidays when he jumped into the Christmas tree and brought the whole thing down, smashing ornaments and lights. He’s always been a rascal, but this was the first time he truly experienced sorrow over the damage he had done. This is healthy! Call these emotions out for your children! Allow them the space to get in touch with their feelings, even when unpleasant…and obviously, whenever possible, help them clean up after their mess.
All of this modeling and teaching will help raise kids who are unafraid of their own emotions and will, in turn, be more empathetic toward others.
By Gail Perry Johnston. Gail is the author of The Social Cause Diet and The Wish & The Wonder: Words of Wisdom for Expectant Parents. www.gailperryjohnston.com