Families foster kindness and respect at home by setting expectations for manners, sharing, and helping with chores. And families hope, often with a tinge of worry, that children will continue those behaviors when parents and caregivers aren't nearby: in the school cafeteria, at a friend’s house, or on Instagram and Snapchat.
But guiding children to be empathetic and ethical in their independent lives — even when no one is looking — can be more intentional than that. Here, a set of parenting strategies for teaching children to think ethically, care about the people around them, and create positive change in the world. These resources were developed by Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
To guide ethical thinking:
- Discuss ethical dilemmas you have encountered at work, with friends, or running errands. Ask your children what they would have done in that situation.
- Talk about ethical dilemmas your children might face in the classroom, at lunch, or during recess. Brainstorm (and role-play) possible solutions.
- Encourage your children to see conflicts from another person’s perspective. Discuss ways they can compromise between their needs and those of others.
To foster concern for others:
- Encourage your children to really listen to siblings or peers when they are upset, especially if they don’t initially understand that person’s views.
- Ask children to consider the perspectives of people they don’t usually talk to: a new student at school, a student who is often teased, a student experiencing family trouble, or a student of a different race or religion.
- Discuss hardships you see on the news, and talk about the experiences, challenges, and feelings of people who live in different places around the world.
- Complete this circle of concern activity.
To teach children to be change-makers:
- Inspire children to take action around issues that affect them and their peers, such as school uniform policies, transgender students’ rights, or the healthfulness of school lunches.
- Distinguish the importance of “doing with” others from “doing for” others. Encourage children to respond to community problems by working with and listening to a diverse group, rather than spearheading new initiatives without any guidance. This is particularly relevant for high school students seeking “community service” opportunities as part of their college-application process; parents can guide children to take a richer, more meaningful approach to volunteer work.
- Model that communal approach — and the importance of service. Volunteer together at a food drive, or set aside a day as a family to donate unwanted clothes and toys.
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