Oct 7, 2010

On apologies, gratitude, and other social norms...

I don't force (suggest, coerce, or tell) my kids to share, apologize, or say, "Thank you." I'm guessing that this might not be very popular, but it's something that feels right for them and me.

When Adeline is using a toy and Jack wants to play with it, I tell him, "Maybe she'll give you a turn." And I suggest he ask her if he can play with it when she's done (or better yet, see if they can enjoy it together). I don't force her to share ("OK, Adeline, it's Jack's turn now."). How am I to know when she's had her fill of joy from something? Why would I force an arbitrary limit on that? And if/when she does end up sharing, I draw her attention to how happy the other person is now and how her actions contributed to their joy. Do I give her friendly reminders that someone else would like to enjoy something? Sure. But I don't make anyone give something up.

When they hurt someone or mess up, I try my best to take a breath to connect with the situation. I point out how everyone is feeling. ("He seems very sad.") I comfort those who need comfort. (I welcome everyone to bring comfort to those seeking it.) And *I* can model an empathic apology. I don't tell anyone, "Say you're sorry!" What if (gasp) they're not sorry? Simply going through the motions and saying it doesn't create feelings of sorry. And what if their expressions show that they feel remorse, but they just don't say the words? Does that matter?

The same goes for "Thank you." You won't find a forced giving of thanks (much to the chagrin of some family and friends!). Really, if there is a smile, a glimmer, a simple (or extravagant!) expression of joy or curiosity, then I embrace that as gratitude. And even if there is no reaction, then a robotic and patronizing, "What do you say?" certainly feels disingenuous and contrived for both of us. I can appreciate that sometimes children (and adults!) may be distracted, shy, overwhelmed, bashful, introverted, preoccupied, or whatever. Either way, I don't give to get thanks. I trust people and assume the best.

All of this really boils down to the same thing for me. Empathy and prosocial acts must first occur spontaneously from a child. And for it to occur spontaneously (without force, coercion, bribes, or rewards), modeling is one of the most significant paths. Especially if we ever expect our children to have an intrinsic motivation to "do the right thing" (which, to me, means to connect, have empathy, and navigate their thought process). I apologize to my kids when I (often) flub up. I try to do so with my eyes, arms, and words. I spontaneously share things with them and invite them to share in my joy. I try to express my gratitude with passion and authenticity -- again with my words AND actions. I can show my children how their acts and words affect others around them. I hope they see the blessing and joy of empathy, understanding, and compassion for themselves and the people around them.

I also try not to forget my own humanity while journeying this path with my children. I'm not perfect, and neither are they. I hope I model grace for others and myself so they can expect and do the same.

The other day, my dad gave each of my kids a collector's coin. Jack really wanted the one that Adeline had. He spent a good hour deeply coveting her coin with his eyes, expressions, and comments:

"I don't have one like that." (sad, puppy eyes)
"I really like that one." (with longing and desire)
Then a final plea, "Adeline, do you want to trade?"

She said, "No," and went on playing with her coin. Jack looked defeated and disappointed. I resisted any urge to negotiate on his behalf or guilt Adeline into trading coins or passively comment on how she "wasn't being nice." I just gave Jack a hug and said, "You really like that coin, don't you?" He gave me a gloomy nod.

Ten minutes later, after Adeline was done playing, she walked over to Jack, put her coin in his hand, and simply said, "Here, Jack, we can trade now." Jack's face lit with excitement, he started jumping with joy, and he poured appreciation onto his sister, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Adeline giggled at his jubilee and said, "Look how happy he is, Mom!" I could see in her face how truly happy she was with his joy.

It was another touching moment in my life as a mama. And, honestly, the journey with this family of mine is filled with expressions of genuineness and compassion like this. Do we always manage to pause for empathy? Nope, not always. Do we bicker and argue? Umm, yes, OF COURSE! But I continuously have confidence that our hearts will guide our way, and I truly trust our connection. My admiration for my children is immeasurable.
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