Parents sometimes feel like they must walk a fine line in training their children to be kind. As a parent, I want my child to learn to stand up for himself and not be a victim of others' aggressiveness. But I don't want my child to be the bully either. How do we teach our children to have the proper respect for others yet not take a back seat all the time?
Now that my kids are grown, I can look at this situation with a more balanced view. Admittedly, it's hard to do so when you're making decisions affecting your own children since your parental pride and fears for them get in the way. It's easier now for me to think through my values, look for good examples, and come up with a set of rules. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that command us to be kind, love one another, and put others' needs ahead of our own, yet that same book sets out rules for self-defense and fairness. How much should parents expect of their children who, because of their young age, see only their own points of view and thus often act selfishly?
These are big questions, and the answers will vary based on the ages of our children. Of course, a two year old has limited ability to understand the point of view of another person, express empathy, or set his own needs aside. They will spend years learning these character traits. In the meantime, how should parents train their children to act in real-life situations? Let's bring this dilemma down to a particular age to help a four, five, or six-year-old child develop a proper balance between assertiveness and sacrifice for others.
Little Tommy is 5 years old, and regularly plays with Caleb who lives on his street. When Tommy gets together with him, they spur each other to lots of unproductive behavior. Tommy's mom wants Tommy to get along, 'play nice', and not argue. But Caleb is selfish and aggressive, and Tommy tends to always give in. Here are some principles mom can teach Tommy.
1. You can be nice and still say 'NO'. Always look an aggressor in the eye and use your words loud enough to be heard.
2. Fairness involves getting your way some of the time, and making sure others get their way some. It involves more than just sharing toys, it's sharing leadership, taking the first turn some of the time, and choosing what game to play some of the time.
3. If your friend can't agree to principle number 2, maybe he isn't ready to be a friend. (From time to time, children will violate this principle and act selfishly. But if this is a persistent pattern from one child or the other, training and discipline needs to happen before they play together again.) Tommy's parents will need to decide if they can influence Caleb to share leadership. If not, maybe Tommy needs a hiatus from Caleb.
4. AFTER trying to work out problems yourself, it's ok find a parent to help.
5. If your friend wants to keep things secret from a parent, there's usually something wrong.
6. Self-defense is Biblical, but peace-making is always the right aim. When we teach our children about being a peace-maker, it gives them a vision for fairness. Fairness brings peace, but the reverse is also true: Unfairness eventually results in strife.
7. Honor is important in every relationship. In a previous article I gave you this working definition for honor: treat others as special, do more than is expected, and have a good attitude. Help your child apply this definition with friends by planning ahead. Before having a friend over, discuss with your child what that friend might like (treating as special), what might surprise them (doing more than expected), and what attitude we should have before friends come over.
Parent, discuss with your spouse your standards for kindness with assertiveness. Teach your standards before play dates, then de-brief with your child after a play date. In my next post, I'll share a great conversation routine for just such a de-brief.