How Well-Mannered Are Your Kids?
A new book examines the effect of an increasingly selfish social climate and what parents can do to raise children to be kind and considerate adults
Melinda Wenner Moyer always knew she wanted to write a parenting book but wasn’t sure what aspect she wanted to tackle. One evening, she and her husband were discussing current events over dinner. “I was getting increasingly frustrated by the unsavory behavior of the grown-ups all around me, especially public figures,” Moyer recalls. “Statistics on bullying and hate crimes were on the rise. As a parent of two (ages 4 and 7 at the time), I started to worry about their future. I said to my husband, ‘How do we raise kids who aren’t a**holes?’ He replied, ‘I think you just found the title for your first book.’”
In How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t A**holes, Moyer, a parenting writer and science journalist, decided to put her research skills to use to find out what parents can do to ensure they raise good people. “Modern parenting has put the focus on raising kids who are successful and happy,” she says. “These are important, understandable goals. But so are raising kids who are kind and generous. We want our kids to grow up to be adults who fight injustice, not instigate it.”
Talk About Feelings
“When you talk to them about their feelings, it allows them to understand better how they feel but also, to understand the perspective of others,” Moyer says. “They develop empathy and the ability to recognize what another person needs from them.” Moyer also encourages parents to narrate the feelings of others. “For example, when you read a book together or watch a television show, pause to ask your child, ‘How do you think the character feels?'”
Nice Doesn’t Mean Pushover
We’ve all heard “nice guys finish last,” but that isn’t always true. Moyer sites a study that followed boys for 20 years from kindergarten into adulthood. “It turned out that the boys who were nice and helpful as children grew up to be the most successful financially,” she says. But being nice doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for yourself. “We want kids to grow up to think about others, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also think about what is best for them.”
Avoid Gender Stereotyping
“When we shame boys and tell them to be brave or not to cry, they don’t stop being sad,” Moyer says. “Instead, they stop feeling that they have our support to share and bottling up these feelings can cause problems down the road. It’s healthy for boys to show emotions. Conversely, we need to let girls know that there isn’t one way to ‘be a girl.’” Girls need to feel confident raising their hands in class, dressing how they want, and pursuing their passions.
Have the Tough Conversations
Parents tend to shy away from discussing complicated topics like religion, politics, and racial inequality with their children. “When parents don’t talk to kids about complex topics, kids’ opinions are shaped solely by peers and the media,” Moyer says. “We need to have these hard, awkward conversations so that we can communicate our values to our kids.”
Make Manners Matter
When kids are little, parents spend a lot of time enforcing rules and manners. We teach them to say “please” and “thank you,” clean up their messes, and share with other kids. But as they get older, parents tend to focus more on achievements. We need to let older children and teens know that we still value things like kindness and compassion as much or more than their math grade or soccer goal.
Kindness Starts at Home
Parents often insist on good manners outside of the home (“Don’t forget to thank Mrs. Jones for driving you to soccer”) but become lax about how everyone in the family treats one another. “It’s important to teach kids how to treat people outside the house and inside the house with respect and kindness,” Moyer says. “It also has a positive impact on kids’ self-esteem to have responsibilities that contribute to house as a whole.”
As for the debate over nature versus nurture, Moyer has this to say: “Kids have different starting points and different temperaments,” she explains. “But the research shows that parents can shape their children into kind, generous, helpful adults (and not assholes) if we point them in the right direction and model good behavior ourselves. We can’t just tell kids to be good people; we need to be those people. Kids are always watching, so let them ‘catch you in the act’ of being a kind and generous person.”
RANDI MAZZELLA is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, teen issues, mental health, and wellness. She is a wife and mother of three children. To read more of her work, visit www.randimazella.com.