We all want our kids to grow up kind, emphatic and with a strong sense of self but in a country where little lifestyle perks – such as having help around the house, being driven to school in a 4x4 and enjoying blow-out birthday parties – can seem like the norm, it’s easy for kids to become a little self-absorbed at times. There’s a lot you can do at every age and stage, however, to help your brood develop a solid set of values along with the confidence they need to stay true to themselves in everyday life.
“The formative years, from birth to age 18, is when the conscience is shaped and developed,” says Dalya Tabari, co-founder of The Developing Child Centre (www.tdcc.ae). “More than knowing right from wrong, having a conscience is about understanding the intention behind decision-making and how our choices reflect who we are and how we are contributing positively to the environment around us.”
The most important factor influencing our kids is the way we as parents behave as role models.
Dalya says: “Having a core set of family values, such as honesty, compassion, integrity, kindness, generosity and empathy and teaching kids through real-life examples and experiences – namely by practising what you preach – is key to their learning and personal development.”
Nurture their core values
While our core values remain constant, we need to figure out age-appropriate ways to demonstrate them to our kids. A good place to start is by setting some solid ground rules.
“When you are building character traits in kids they need both love and boundaries,” says parenting coach and author Andalene Salvesen, also known as Super Granny (www.munchkins.me). “Rules without relationships prompt rebellion while relationships without rules cause confusion. That’s why both aspects need to work hand in hand. Children need to understand that every choice they make has a ripple effect. The hard work starts in ‘mini adolescence’, when they are toddlers, as you can’t start with offering them freedom then expect them to rein it in later.”
Helping your three-year-old grasp the importance of sharing can be achieved by something as simple as watching mum sharing with dad, whereas older kids can benefit by learning from experience.
“Being raised in an environment with no boundaries would undoubtedly have a negative impact, but as our kids grow it is important to encourage them to test these limits for themselves,” says Dalya. “We are currently teaching my 11-year-old son about the importance of healthy eating, for example. At a recent school carnival, I gave him some pocket money so he could go off with his friends, feed himself and enjoy the games and attractions. Of course, he treated himself to cotton candy followed by cinnamon buns followed by doughnuts and, at 2am, woke up to be sick in the sink. Talking through the experience the next day helped him realise that the principles of healthy eating are not ‘mummy’s rules’, but that they exist to help him understand the limitations of his own body. It’s not about ‘teaching them a lesson’. As a parent you have to lead by example, which, in this instance, means eating healthily with treats in moderation. It’s all about being consistent with what you are striving to instil, which feeds back into the overriding notion of making the right choices for ourselves and those around us.”
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Zoom in on what’s important
Offering process-oriented praise, such as listening to their coach or teacher, rather than being applauded for actually mastering a skill like running or maths helps reinforce the fact that skills can be learnt and improved on, rather than used to judge them as a person. This forms an important part of the development process.
“Our children will face criticism and they will fail and come last in competitions,” says Joanne Jewell, parenting educator and consultant at Mindful Parenting (www.mindfulparentinguae.net) who runs workshops for parents and children of all ages. “Our response to that and how we teach them to deal with disappointment and negativity is the important factor here. Using empathy to see the situation from their perspective and showing them how they can learn from the situation – these are all opportunities to help our children develop those emotional muscles.”
As another example, if one of your family values is kindness then this means being kind to everyone, from the petrol pump attendant to your child’s teacher.
“To help them learn, be honest about how difficult this can be sometimes even for us as adults,” says Joanne.
Adapt your efforts as they grow
As your children get older, you can start trying different ways to set an example. Dalya is a fan of storytelling.
“Up to the age of 13, the importance of reading books aloud as a family is invaluable as storylines can spark conversations about core values, like how to treat people with kindness and respect, which can raise examples of issues such as bullying, for instance, that play out in their everyday lives and how to deal with this,” she says. “Ultimately, I don’t want my kids to be bystanders. If they saw another kid being treated badly by a peer then I’d like them to have the confidence to engage and say ‘that’s not right’.”
As kids progress through their teenage years, getting through to them becomes a little more complex.
“The brain development of a teenager means that novelty-seeking will also play a factor in their decision making,” explains Joanne. “Hence, the ‘risky’ decisions teenagers make are not because they don’t think of the consequences but due to the fact that, for them, the rewards outweigh the possible negative results.”
Helping them focus on developing a strong sense of self will form the basis for their decision-making.
“We can see how this is needed, especially in relation to social media,” says Dalya. “We have an opportunity to limit the damaging effect social media can have on a child but teaching them that we shouldn’t do anything that that doesn’t feel right. This can be enforced through repetition from an early age – you should be teaching them about how to handle social media from around age seven, for instance, so when they hit their early teens they know how to use it right.”
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Lead by example
Feeling stressed, tired or overwhelmed can make it more difficult to connect with kids so it’s crucial to practise some self-care to put you in a more mindful state, whether that’s taking a yoga class or simply drinking a cup of coffee while reflecting on the day.
“Being a mindful, conscious parent means being aware of how we respond to our children and where that response comes from,” says Joanne. “Providing our children with the opportunity to maintain and grow their self-worth does not mean spoiling them, it means focusing on meeting their emotional needs so that they can grow the emotional muscles they will need to become happy adults.”
Don’t fall into the trap of letting them get away with brat-like behaviour just for an easy life.
“In Dubai especially, I’ve found that parents don’t like to see their children upset so often give in to their demands and pander to their tantrums, but we are supposed to be equipping our kids with the tools they need to handle their feelings rather than avoiding them completely,” says Andalene. “What kids want is based on a lack of wisdom but, of course, they don’t realise it – that’s what parents are for. Parenting is not actually about you, it’s about what’s best for the child. It can be hard to say ‘no’ sometimes, but you need to make decisions that are best for the child.”
“It’s OK to show weakness,” adds Dalya. “If your kid says or does something that upsets you, be honest and say ‘that hurt my feelings’. Remember that it works both ways so the same goes if you raise your voice – simply say ‘sorry’. We all make mistakes and stepping up to the plate if you do so is an opportunity to teach them how to act. Although it’s not always possible to do the right thing 100 per cent of the time, by empowering our kids to be the best version of themselves, by being consistent with the values we teach and leading by example, we can help them grow into the strong, mindful people we hope they will become.”
5 ways to encourage compassion
Donate to those in need
“Each time your children receive a gift, ask them to choose one of their old toys to give away to a child in need,” says Super Granny Andalene. “Take them to go and give it to the recipient, if possible, so it is a rewarding experience.”
Support a worthy cause
“Find a trustworthy organisation you can support, such as an orphanage,” says Andalene. “‘Adopt’ a child, put their picture on the fridge and regularly send him or her letters and gifts.”
Add to their chore quota
“Helping out with chores around the house can help kids feel more involved and part of the family, which helps keep them engaged,” says Andalene.
Spend quality time together
“For kids of all ages, family time is important – this could mean spending 10 minutes each day with your kids on their own just chatting about the day,” says parenting eductor Joanne.
Learn through storytelling
“A child’s sense of self is developed through stories,” says Joanne. “Taking pictures of what they do, such as playing in the garden, where they come from, who their family is, where you’ve been on holiday and creating a book for them demonstrates not only that they are loved but also provides a strong foundation for them.”