To teach children to be more empathetic and less self-absorbed, keep the giving spirit of the holidays going all year. Here's how:
Teaching gratitude and raising happy children go hand-in-hand, says sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Partly through the website greatergood.berkeley.edu, the center aims to help parents raise "emotionally literate" children.
Thankfulness is not a you-have-it-or-you-don't trait. It's a learned skill that parents and kids need to practice regularly, says Carter, a mother and author of "Raising Happiness" (Ballantine, $24, 2010).
What helps, she says: Keep lists of what you and your kids are thankful for -- people, places, toys, anything. Also, when praising your children, attribute their success to effort, commitment, resourcefulness, hard work and practice -- not just simply natural talent. Plus: Lighten up. Laughter is contagious.
Andrea Reiser, co-author with her husband of the book "Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth" (Wiley, 2010, $27.95), has a similar philosophy. The book is written in the form of letters to the authors' four sons.
When children give their time and energy to help others, they'll be less likely to take things such as health, home, and family for granted, Reiser says.
Lessons in empathy, self-control and consideration of others, says Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D., child psychologist and author of "Learning to Listen, Learning Care" (Instant Help Books, $16.95 2008), can reduce behavior problems and add to academic and social success.
Teachers, not just parents, have a role to play. At Woodlawn School in Davidson, N.C., service learning is part of the curriculum at every grade level.
Among upcoming lessons:
Learning to knit to make scarves for an urban ministry center.
Here's how the school's curriculum works to encourage selfless service, through the eyes of seventh-grader Matthew Shaw, son of Brian and Pat Shaw of Davidson. In an essay shared with his community, Matthew writes about poverty:
Up for class discussion: "The difficult cycle of poverty -- when a person loses their job they have no income, and many cannot pay for even the basics: food, medicine or doctor visits, rent, and other simple needs like toiletries and dish soap, which makes it all the more difficult to get a job."
The classes take field trips to learn about the services available to the homeless and working poor.
Projects include a Hunger Banquet to benefit Oxfam, the international relief organization, and providing and making a meal for the clients at a rescue mission. The seventh grade also has run food drives for a local center that provides health and human services to residents in Davidson and nearby communities.
Part of the grading is based on "getting involved even when it means stepping outside our comfort zones," Matthew writes.
His reflections conclude: "When I see a man walk into a soup kitchen for lunch on a cold day, I begin to rethink my priorities. I begin to think about school in a more positive way. When I hear about a child with no dental benefits, I do not forget to brush my teeth. When I see a woman smile for free shampoo, I reflect on organizing our next fundraiser. Seventh-grade service might make a difference in the lives of others, but the real impact is that my life is enriched with compassion, understanding and hard work."
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