This post is by contributing blogger Kelly Coyle DiNorcia, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in helping parents raise joyful, compassionate children. Find out more about Kelly's work at her blog, Ahimsa Mama.
- Educate yourself, not necessarily your children. Use extreme caution when introducing humane issues to children under age 12. Young children rarely have the emotional and intellectual sophistication to deal with these issues, and introducing them too soon could backfire. For example, a friend of mine took her five-year-old son to a soup kitchen where she had been volunteering for years, thinking it would help him to appreciate the luxuries and privileges he has. Instead, he came away terrified that his family might someday end up homeless and hungry.
- But remember – the real world is out there! While we don’t want to overwhelm our children with too much information, we also need to prepare them for situations they may encounter. We may not watch television in our homes, but we may still want to educate our children about what commercials are and what their purpose is. We may not use offensive language in our homes, but there may be circumstances where it is important that our children are aware of certain terms or stereotypes in case they hear them when you are not around to help them. Talk about race, not necessarily racism; talk about the environment, not necessarily environmental destruction; talk about kindness to animals, not necessarily animal abuse.
- Start local. Young children are egocentric. They are unable to really understand the size and diversity of the world. Therefore, when trying to teach them about important issues, it is best to focus on their immediate surroundings when they are young and gradually expand from there. Talk about the trees in your yard or local park, not the rainforest. Watch your companion animals or the wildlife outside your window rather than trying to introduce your preschooler to polar bears and whales. Get to know your neighbors and your community instead of talking about the lives of children in faraway lands.
- Make sure there is time for reverence in your day. If we want our children to develop a deep feeling of kinship with the world, we need to make time for that to happen. Unfortunately, in today’s busy world it is often difficult to find the time to stop and smell the flowers, if you’ll excuse the cliché. Especially when children are young, it is a good idea to keep scheduled activities to a minimum and leave a lot of open-ended time in your days that can be spent watching the sun rise, listening to the crickets at dusk, examining a worm after a rainstorm, or dropping everything to help a friend in need. I have a quote from Patricia Clafford hanging in my office over my computer: “The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won’t wait while you do the work.”
- Give children tools, not answers. Part of developing a child’s critical thinking skills is resisting the urge to answer all their questions. Instead, we can give them tips and ideas for solving problems themselves. Your young child wonders what kind of bird is outside on your feeder? Ask what name she would give the bird. Ask if the bird reminds her of any other birds she has seen. Ask her to draw it in her nature journal. Ask her to describe the bird -– his color, what he’s doing, where he is, what sounds he’s making, what he’s eating, what his feet and beak look like, and then look it up together (even if you already know the answer).
- Practice positive parenting. If we want our children to be kind we need to treat them kindly. However, any parent knows that this is more easily said than done. Not only can it be exhausting, both physically and mentally, to care for young children, but many of us were not parented in a way which was particularly kind. It can therefore be difficult for us to know how to raise our children with respect and compassion. There are a number of positive parenting philosophies and books out there, but a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Would I treat another adult this way?” If the answer is “No”, then it may not be the most respectful and constructive way to treat your child.
- Find support. It really, truly does take a village to raise a child. It is vital that like-minded parents come together so that they, as well as their children, have friendship and community in their lives. If you don’t know any parents who share similar values, find them. Join a parent support group. Attend events or classes in your community, such as parent and tot hikes or yoga classes. Post a flier at your food co-op, health food store or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and try to form a playgroup. Don’t try to go it alone – there is strength in numbers.
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