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Creating generous kids

The article in the New York Times the other day really struck a chord with me. It was called "A Daughter Too Kind for Her Own Good" and featured Jerisha Parker Gordon talking about the flip-side of teaching her daughter to always be nice...it only gets you so far. How do we cope with people who just aren't affected by niceness?

You don't have to look too far to see a world where people are selfish and lack the socialization to show concern for others. From national politics where just last night Congress tried to strengthen rules against refugees to our own local outcry against building a new pool for our high school, people often put themselves before community interests. It's disappointing, to say the least.

But we spend whole chunks of childhood trying to give our kids the opposite values. Preschool and early elementary are--as Gordon notes--obsessed with sharing, taking turns, and learning cooperation. Yes, it's a skill set in very short supply among adults. For young kids, on the other hand, it can set them up for confusion. Not only in the way that the grown-up world actually operates where we teach one thing but usually do the other. It's also important in their own social world where we're teaching our kids to sometimes sacrifice their own justified preferences and independence for the sake of the group. Neither is--strictly speaking--correct. It's not always about the group and it's not always about the individual. Our culture is filled with the push-pull of that duality on a daily basis.

I've noticed lately that I'm extremely proud of my kids when they stand up for themselves. It's a function of multiple inputs...the rise of helicopter parenting that we're working against, my own sheepish personality tendencies, and our constant encouragement to socialize. When they step up and assert their own dominance in an appropriate situation, it sends a chill of happiness down my spine that we're raising well-rounded, aware kids. Though the dynamic is different for each of my children.

For my son, as a stereotypical little boy, it's often working against a physically active mentality where simply asking him to keep his body and mouth calm and quiet is a major task. Slowing him down to show empathy or let others go first is a major accomplishment. For my daughter, her struggles to be generous in spirit often come from having her desires thwarted or a lack of inclusion hurting her feelings. As frustrating as it sometimes gets, her ability to speak up for herself is something I don't want to go away. When someone cuts in line in front of her at the museum for a hands-on exhibit, she's completely right to tell them it was her turn first. The trick with her is channeling the more mundane expressions of it when maybe it's not so clear cut she's justified.

I suppose, in the big picture, it's better to create overly generous kids given what we're working against as a society. But no matter what kind of generosity we hope they take with them everywhere, being equipped for the nasties out there is our duty as a parent as well. The ungenerous can neither get them down or become their obsession. Find the like-minded people, lead by example, ignore the haters. That's a difficult lesson to learn in the tiny world of school and friends where we wish we were liked by all and could win over even the harshest critic. Or online where the trolls are everywhere. A lot of the It Gets Better campaign was partially based on this understanding in response to youth suicides from bullying and harassment.

Generosity coupled with independence is a hard lesson for most adults. I always joke, politically, that people need to go back to Kindergarten and learn the basic concepts. At the other end, we have kindergarten students who are working on sharing and equality just fine--but many of these kids need a dose of confidence and skills for working through their complicated feelings about socialization. The best way we can show them how to navigate the waters is to do it ourselves. Our kids are constantly watching us for examples...let's be the kind-but-firm people they need.

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