Preschool and early elementary school are obsessed with sharing, taking turns and learning cooperation. Yet, it’s a skill set in very short supply among adults.
An old New York Times blog post really struck a chord with me. In “A Daughter Too Kind for Her Own Good,” author Jerisha Parker Gordon writes about the flip-side of teaching her daughter to always be nice … it only gets you so far. So how do we cope with people who just aren’t affected by niceness?
You don’t have to look too far to see a world where people are selfish and lack the socialization to show concern for others. People often put themselves before community interests. It’s disappointing, to say the least. But we spend whole chunks of childhood trying to give our kids the opposite values. Preschool and early elementary school are — as Gordon notes — obsessed with sharing, taking turns and learning cooperation. Yet, it’s a skill set in very short supply among adults.
For young kids, on the other hand, it can set them up for confusion. Not only in the way that the grown-up world actually operates, where we teach one thing but usually do the other. It’s also important in their own social world where we’re teaching our kids to sometimes sacrifice their own justified preferences and independence for the sake of the group. Neither is — strictly speaking — correct. It’s not always about the group and it’s not always about the individual. Our culture is filled with the push-pull of that duality on a daily basis.
I’ve noticed lately that I’m extremely proud of my kids when they stand up for themselves. It’s a function of multiple inputs: the rise of helicopter parenting that we’re working against, my own sheepish personality tendencies, and our constant encouragement to socialize. When they step up and assert their own dominance in an appropriate situation, it sends a chill of happiness down my spine that we’re raising well-rounded, aware kids.
Generosity lessons vs. life lessons
Though the dynamic is different for each of my children. For my son, as a stereotypical little boy, it’s often working against a physically active mentality where simply asking him to keep his body and mouth calm and quiet is a major task. Slowing him down to show empathy or let others go first is a major accomplishment. For my daughter, her struggles to be generous in spirit often come from having her desires thwarted or a lack of inclusion hurting her feelings. As frustrating as it sometimes gets, her ability to speak up for herself is something I don’t want to go away. When someone cuts in line in front of her, she’s completely right to tell them it was her turn first. The trick with her is channeling the more mundane expressions of it when maybe it’s not so clear cut that she’s justified.
I suppose, in the big picture, it’s better to create overly generous kids given what we’re working against as a society. But no matter what kind of generosity we hope they take everywhere with them, being equipped for the nasties out there is our duty as a parent as well. The ungenerous can neither get them down nor become their obsession. Find the like-minded people, lead by example, ignore the haters. That’s a difficult lesson to learn in the tiny world of school and friends where we wish we were liked by all and could win over even the harshest critic.
Generosity coupled with independence is a hard lesson for most adults. I always joke, politically, that people need to go back to kindergarten and learn the basic concepts. At the other end, we have kindergarten students who are working on sharing and equality just fine — but many of these kids need a dose of confidence and skills for working through their complicated feelings about socialization. The best way we can show them how to navigate the waters is to do it ourselves. Our kids are constantly watching us for examples. Let’s be the kind-but-firm people they need.