REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News

They played on the floor, the contented toddlers, surrounded by crushed candy wrappers, smashed candy pieces and other telltale signs of a party. One little one toddled over towards Menachem, and engrossed in his own efforts to get the little piece out of the container, dropped the whole container. Menachem, who had recently turned two, was involved in munching his own sweets, but he saw the action, and without missing a beat—or a bite—reached over, picked up the fallen candy container, and handed it to the other toddler before the recipient could cry.

From the sidelines, I watched, astonished. Most kids would keep the fallen goodies. Most kids would truly believe it was theirs, and most parents would excuse the miscreant. “After all,” they would reason with perfect logic, “he’s only a baby.” But will that kid learn to share? Will he learn “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is not mine”? At what point will he learn that? Will his parents make the same excuses for him at ten? At fifteen?

And the most important question: Where do they see their own role in the teaching process? Is the child supposed to somehow, by osmosis, pick up the concepts of civilized society all by himself or do they see themselves as involved in making it happen?

Menachem already knows the answer. He couldn’t explain it to you, but what he did is called “kindness.” A two-year old who does what he did so automatically has already been inoculated against being mean, selfish, cold, or criminal 45 years from now.

Kindness Must Be Taught

Cut. New scene: We heard the story of a very interesting case going on up North. It’s all about a Will being contested, possible medical shenanigans, and the likelihood that a doctor is part of a scheme to defraud someone of a serious amount of money. “How old is that man?” I asked casually. My husband happened to know him decades ago. “He’s about 71 or so,” he replied. “When I knew him, he was a decent person. I can’t believe this,” he said.

“Oh no, he wasn’t,” I stated. People don’t go from kind to crooked. “Sorry to tell you,” I added, “in character, he’s behind two-year old Menachem and it is unlikely that he will ever catch up.” How can I be so sure, you might wonder?

Correct Bad Behavior When They’re Young

The answer, sadly, is that I’ve seen it before, so many, many times. The kid who screams at his parents, hits or kicks them, and gets away with it; the kid who does only what he or she wants and ignores requests, pleas, and threats from parents; the kid who has a tantrum until he gets his way; the kid who talks back when his parents tell him his behavior is wrong: That child’s misbehavior may begin when he or she is a three-year old, but I see the same traits in people at thirteen and thirty. I see them at fifty, too.

The spoiled child is not merely a troublesome child who won’t respond to adult intervention; it’s a child who doesn’t care about others. That’s not a good start in life. At the least, that person is heading for problems in relationships; at the worst, that person is heading for prison.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at Kenneth Lay, the founder of Enron Corporation, who, on May 25, 2006, was convicted of conspiracy and fraud for lying to investors about Enron’s financial state five years ago. Lay grew up in an intact family. According to AP reports, his father ran a general store and then became a minister. Lay delivered newspapers and mowed lawns as a youngster. In a May 1 article by the Institute for Global Ethics, citing The New York Times and Forbes sources, Lay admitted ethical breaches. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, in their book, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, state: “Though few complained about it before Enron fell, Lay’s behavior also portrayed a powerful sense of personal entitlement.”

Parents Must Discourage Feelings Of Entitlement

Where did he get that from? I would doubt that his parents encouraged him to commit criminal acts; they were probably decent people, just like you or me, but what must have been missing was their discouraging him from being selfish, greedy, or unmoved by the pain of others. Kindness has to be actively taught, not passively absorbed. I’ve seen countless sweet and lovely parents whose children have no heart.

Once, a father complained to me that his son was not helpful in the house. “I don’t understand. I give him a generous allowance; I listen to his problems; I try to be there for him, and yet, he can’t bring himself to give a hand when I need it. Such ingratitude!” Yes, it is ingratitude, but it’s also human nature. Nice parents don’t automatically beget nice children; those parents have to vigorously and actively implant the right ideas in their children.

Steps To Teaching Kindness

So how does a parent teach a child kindness? Step one for that parent is to be kind: A firm voice, yes; yelling, no. Loving words, yes; rejection, no. Praise and encouragement, yes; impatience, no. Furthermore, in order to be kind to one’s child, parents must be kind to themselves. All of the above must first apply to the parent.

Step two is to spend a significant enough amount of time with your child to be able to catch him in the act of being kind—or otherwise. When you give your child specific praise for specific acts, it not only feels good, but it serves as wonderful feedback for the child. How else will she or he know what is good and what is bad? When you say, “I know you weren’t in the mood to babysit the younger ones, but you did it anyway, and I really appreciate it,” you’re giving your child important information. You’re telling him or her that doing something for your parent when you don’t necessarily feel like it is good.

When you say, “Talking back is rude and unacceptable,” you’re also giving your child necessary information. Now, the child knows what is considered right and what is considered wrong. What’s more, these messages end up constructing for the child an image of who he or she is. The more praise she gets, the more she will see herself as a good person—and will want to live up to that image. The more negative feedback, the more he will see himself as a bad person—and will try to live up to that image as well. That is the nature of words: They can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This implies that you’ll need to find more good than bad to give feedback about. That’s not easy, but you must do it to turn around a child headed down the wrong track. All this is the essence of positive discipline.

Step three, which is a direct result of all that good supervision in Step two, is to back up words with deeds. If the behavior is good, perhaps a physical reward is in order. If the behavior is unacceptable, perhaps a time out or loss of an activity is in order. Backing up praise or negative feedback with consequences makes the lesson stick.

It isn’t always necessary to administer consequences. As your child gets on the right track, you will need to back up words with fewer and fewer rewards and punishments because he will care about doing the right thing.

 

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