What We Teach Our Children (or Not)

I want to share a scenario I came across in an unlikely source. I was relaxing with a book a friend passed on to me called In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. It is about a lady detective in Botswana and was written by Alexander McCall Smith. There is a scene where the woman witnesses someone stealing a bracelet from a street vendor. She recalls a day from her childhood when she found a shiny coin on the street and picked it up with glee. Her father admonished her that it was not hers and they went to turn it in at the local police station to a rather surprised officer. It was a lesson she long remembered.

In the scene, the lady detective speaks of how difficult it is to imagine how anyone can steal from another, and the only explanation is that people who do things like steal have no understanding of how others feel: “If you knew what it was like to be another person, then how could you possibly do something which could cause others pain?”

She goes on to say: “The problem though, was that there seemed to be people in whom the imaginative part was just missing. It could be that they were born that way—with something missing from their brains—or it could be that they became that way because they were never taught by their parents to sympathize with others. This was the most likely explanation…. A whole generation of people, not only in Africa, but everywhere else, had not been taught to feel for others because their parents simply had not bothered to teach them this.”

Teaching empathy

Can it really be that simple? Thank you, Mr. McCall, for this sweet and simple yet profound lesson. We have to teach our children the values we believe in. We have to model them and live them before our children. We have to lead our children to the ability to see situations from more than one angle. It is the definition of “selfishness” to see things only one’s own way. Encarta Dictionary gives the definition of “selfishness” as “looking after one’s own desires, concerned with your own interests, needs, and wishes while ignoring those of others.”

I recall a similar event in the life of one of my children. She found something attractive on the school playground and brought it home to show me the neat item that, in her mind, was now hers. She reminded me that on the playground the children often chanted “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

She thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I explained to her that it belonged to someone and that someone was probably very sad about losing it. We talked about how it felt to lose something. Since she had indeed lost a few of her beloved toys, she could relate to that idea. She had simply not thought about it until I brought it up.

The next day she took it to the school office. She was a bit sorry to give it up, but realized that the pure and simple truth was that it was not hers. It was someone else’s and they were sad to lose it.

Teachable Moments

Some children learn this more easily than others, but we can be on the lookout for “teachable moments” when situations bring to mind the moral lessons we wish our families to live by. Then the door opens for us to easily and naturally teach our children what we expect of them.

Grace and Courtesy

We may choose to be even more proactive than waiting for events to stimulate lessons, but determine lessons we want to teach and create little dramas or plays where we model such events as well as appropriate, gracious ways to respond. Many Montessori schools do this as part of what we call “Grace and Courtesy.” We teach children how to say please and thank you, how to interrupt someone if they have a timely need, how to knock on a door and wait for a response, how to politely greet visitors, and how to pass a dish at the table. We teach them how to say “Excuse me” if they accidently bump into another, how to say “I’m sorry” when it is needed, how to accept an apology and much, much more. It is easy and fun to act out and give each child a turn practicing how to act in the given situation.

What “Grace and Courtesy” lessons do you want to model for your children?

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