During his tenure, Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, has enforced a mandate to eliminate taunting and other unsportsmanlike acts from the game. Currently, a player can incur a fifteen-yard penalty for gesticulating at an opponent, spiking the ball, or dousing himself with a fan’s popcorn. This year, slam-dunking the ball over the crossbar of the uprights has been added to the list of taboo celebrations. But with each new rule I read, I ask myself: Is forced sportsmanship really ‘sportsmanship’? By imposing penalties that can impact a game’s outcome, the league is, in effect, acknowledging that they have no expectation that players will exercise self-control or civility.
We create similar structures in our own homes. Reactions to, or rules against certain behaviors promote fear of punishment as opposed to asking a child to learn awareness and restraint. Listed below are three skills parents often try to force children to learn, and alternative ways parents can actually help children develop these attributes.
“You have to share!”
Uh… no you don’t.
I never preach for children to share. Telling a child to blindly give his toy or some of his snack to his peer is merely enforcing subjugation to the parent’s will. That is not the same as teaching generosity. Furthermore, it may be imprudent for Billy to give his fire truck to Tommy if he knows that Tommy likes to break toys. Billy is actually being responsible by NOT sharing.
The way I teach sharing is simply by doing it: Joey wants a few of my pretzels, take some! Johnny wants to play with my Lego spaceship, go ahead! However, if he eats my entire snack or if he breaks my ship, the next time the child wants me to share with him I will tell him that I don’t feel like sharing again because of his previous disrespectful behavior. And, if a child shares with me, I express my sincere gratitude and tell him that his generosity inspires me to share with him. Sometimes, I just want them to see that I profit from sharing simply by feeling empathetic joy.
If the consequence of sharing with a particular friend is unfruitful—either because he’s disrespectful, if he doesn’t reciprocate, or if that friend takes advantage of the generosity—then I have no problem with refusing to share with that individual. Sharing is only valuable if everyone benefits. That’s situational awareness and actual kindness, not just yielding to externally-imposed rules.
At Elliot’s Classes, developmentally-focused movement classes for children on New York’s Upper West Side, founder Elliot Cortez, Ph.D. never tells a child to apologize if he bumps into a friend. Instead, the child is prompted to say, “Excuse me.” “Excuse me” acknowledges the act but does not assume penitence. “Why would I tell a child to say he’s sorry?” Dr. Cortez says, “I don’t know that he’s sorry!”
Many children come to rely on using “I’m sorry” as a get out of jail free card, so that it ends up meaning less and less each time they say it. Merely saying the words does not equal feeling regretful.
I think that children can learn empathy best by seeing and experiencing it. If I hurt someone and I feel badly about it, I apologize like I mean it. I maintain eye contact as I recall what happened, how I feel about it, and how I would like to react differently in the future. And I never fish for forgiveness, which acknowledges that they are just as free to decide if they forgive me as I was to apologize to them.
When a child apologizes to me, I listen and react authentically, and I believe it is critical to express my respect and admiration of the child for apologizing. For example, I worked with a child once who was responsible for a water balloon exploding on me. I rubbed at the wet spots on my shorts and he sat beside me on the park bench in anxious contemplation. After a moment, genuinely, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m still upset because I told you before that I didn’t want to get wet, but I really appreciate your apology,” I responded. The internally-motivated remorse he felt and expressed in the context of the situation will shape his future behavior far more significantly than any punishment I could have imposed.
We hammer in “please” and “thank you” to our young children thinking that it teaches them to be polite. But what happens when you run that script?
“I want juice.”
“Okay, here’s your juice.” And the next time the child wants something, I’m guessing you go through the same routine all over again. Sometimes children even try to use “please” as a manipulation. “What do you mean I can’t have a popsicle for breakfast? I said, ’please!’” While I want to acknowledge the polite nature of the request, I am still comfortable illustrating that it’s not time for popsicles.
First and foremost, I teach children that the lack of a “please” results in a non-response on my part. If I hear an “I want…” sentence, I respond with a witty retort like “And I want a chocolate croissant” or “Your desires really fascinate me.” Even if they immediately realize their mistake and ask nicely, I tell them that they have asked in a great way, but I’m unavailable at this moment. And a few minutes later when they do ask nicely, I enthusiastically respond to their request. Before long, they say “please” the first time they ask for something.
But as with the qualities of sharing and remorse, setting the example is the best way to teach politeness. Saying “please” and “thank you” to and in front of children familiarizes their brains with the social expectations.
Remember, politeness should be the outward manifestation of true gratitude. Being polite shows respect and appreciation, so giving the words a personal inflection offers legitimacy. When I want a child to recognize my efforts, I acknowledge hers with more than just the words—a high-five, a smile, something—to let her know I really mean it.
I like to imagine a world where people are considerate because they want to be, not because it’s mandatory. Becoming a role model for these causes is the most effective way parents can show children desirable behavior. And in keeping with the tenets of the Practice Life Method, not only does the child develop these quintessential skills, but the parent gets to practice his own thoughtfulness as well.