You probably watch the news and think, the world seems to be falling apart. There are areas where we have real work to do, racism and sexism, to name a couple. Between George Floyd and the chronic cultural of misogyny (did you know one in five women are victims of rape?), you might be wondering, “What can I do? It all seems so big. How can I leave the world a better place? How can I create a more loving future—for everyone?” If you are a parent, you can start at home. There are small steps you can take every day that are achievable and have a huge impact. And, there is work to do. Here are some tips and tools to help you build empathy, self-awareness, and kindness in your children. You are raising the next generation, after all. Parenting is an agent of social change.
Change Starts with You
We are our kids’ biggest teachers, and they see everything. Many parents come to parenting hoping and assuming they will do it better than their parents, or at the very least, will try to do it differently. The thing is, parenting is the great equalizer—none of us have ever done it before until we have our first child. And when people are new to an experience, we pull on past experiences to guide us. In child rearing, we call this “our default parenting map.” Our default parenting map is what we learned (consciously or unconsciously from how we were parented). Things like emotional expression, values, expectations, and biases are all brought forward into adulthood. Understanding this is the first step in social change. Take a moment to ask yourself:
- How would your parents or caregivers say a boy should behave? A girl? Are they the same or different?
- What did your parents or caregivers say to you about people of different races?
- How was emotion expressed? Did you feel comfortable talking about all of your concerns or curiosities? Why or why not?
- What values were most important to you parents or caregivers? How were you taught these?
- What values are most important to you now, in your role as a parent?
Just notice what you bring forward to your role as a parent today, and compare how they align (or not) with the values you want to build into your children. Don’t judge, just notice and ask.
You Are Biased – No If, Ands, or Buts About It
Next, as hard as it is to admit—you are biased. Stereotypes and biases come from a place of brain efficiency. We mentally put people into buckets to streamline thinking. If we properly assessed every person we met, it would take up tons of time and energy. Instead, our brains are always scanning the environment and categorizing things—and people. Girl—pink, kind, soft. Boy—tough, active, silly. These are stereotypes. It is when we make assumptions about people. Based on things like sex, gender, and race. Stereotypes are dangerous, and their consequences are even fatal in our culture.
The hard truth—even the most kind and woke of us does this. Own it, know it, and work to understand your biases. Harvard’s Implicit Bias test is an easy way to see where your biases lie. To make a change and create an equitable environment for your kids, you must know what you are bringing to it, both explicitly and implicitly. Once you have a little self-awareness around your biases, it gives you the opportunity to notice them, name them, and choose something different.
Build Inner Resources to Build Kids Who Care
Kids who care for others the most are the kids who feel best about themselves. Help them build self-confidence and security through a strong, open relationship with you. The best way to do this is always “empathizing and validating.” Empathy means putting yourself in their shoes and allowing yourself to see how they would feel in a moment (even if it is different than how you would feel). Then validate— “I can see how you would feel that way.” It is a simple exercise that does not give permission for all behavior, and it validates their emotional experience—allowing them to build trust, love, and safety with you. A key phrase is, “all emotion is welcome, but not all behaviors.” This allows parents to set limits while validating the child’s internal emotional experience. Teaching this kind of deep, loving relationship sets the tone for how they love, care, and build empathy for others.
Teach Humility and the Importance of “I’m Sorry”
We are human. We are beautiful, and flawed. We will make mistakes. Although we come into situations with the best intention, sometimes our impact is hurtful. This is going to happen. Remember, we have biases, and these biases pop up at times. Expect this to happen. Teach our children this.
In all relationships, there are patterns of rupture and repair. Rupture is when we let someone down, or hurt their feelings, or do something that causes distance in our relationships. Although we might strive to have the best relationships possible, rupture is an inevitable part of any close (or not so close) relationship. These are moments like when you say something that hurts a friend’s feelings, or times when you accidentally make a microaggression. Intent was good, but impact was hurtful.
The best way to move on, and in fact deepen the relationship, is: notice it, take responsibility, say “I am sorry,” learn from the moment, and move on. Do not overexplain why you did what you did—hear the other person and take it to heart. This process actually deepens relationships. Practice this as a parent. Practice it as a human. And teach your children how to do this.
You are a good, kind, loving parent who wants to raise good, loving kids. I am sure you are doing it. The thing is, to raise empathic, self-aware, and kind children takes a little intention. Small tweaks in your everyday interactions. Don’t underestimate your power to make the world a better place through our children—they are our next generation, remember. And you set the tone—today.
Bobbi Wegner, PsyD, is a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, supervising clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine, writer, speaker, and cofounder of a virtual platform that provides real support for real parents from real experts. She has given three TEDx Talks on raising boys in modern culture, frequently writes on the topic, and gets much of her research from raising three children of her own (two of which are boys).