The Children are Watching
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted September 17, 2011
Sometimes it’s discouraging to consider the lack of “heroes” for children in the public eye today. The news is brimming with sensational stories about celebrities falling from grace, the actors and sports figures and politicians (yes, Governator) whose indiscretions and uninhibited lifestyles capture headlines, and unfortunately, set behavioral examples for our young people.
There’s hope, though it’s a little less newsworthy. Every day, noble, charitable, humanitarian efforts are underway, led by well-known public figures: George Clooney’s support for global hunger, AIDS intervention, and medical research; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s humanitarian aid and activism; Bono’s fight against world poverty; Houston Rockets’ Tracy McGrady’s outreach to Sudanese refugees; Lance Armstrong’s campaign to support cancer treatment; Andre Agassi’s commitment to educating underprivileged youth; and more.
It’s nothing new that scandals and outrageous antics attract more attention than good deeds. Parents and educators seeking to refocus children’s frame of reference by promoting the noble work of public figures have to do so largely on their own, aside from rare television programming like CNN Heroes.
So apart from identifying and sharing the hopeful, exemplary behavior of celebrities such as those listed above, how can parents counter negative media influences and cultivate wholesome, productive social awareness in our children?
One proven strategy is to help boys and girls find a cause they care about, assisting with resources and research while letting the children lead the investigation to the greatest extent possible. The goal is to help young people feel good about doing good.
Simple activities at home can be an easy way to develop caring, charitable mindsets in children. Baking cookies or homemade dog biscuits, setting up the classic lemonade stand, or preparing a variety of homemade crafts for sale are fun and meaningful ways parents can help children actively and directly raise money for a cause like a local animal shelter or an environmental relief agencies, for example, among many campaigns that appeal to youthful idealism.
Some parents encourage generosity through an approach to giving allowance called “spend, share, save.” Parents devote a certain percentage of a child’s allowance to spending; the child directs another portion to share with a charity or cause that’s appealing to him or her; and the remainder goes into a savings account. This strategy cultivates moderation (and prudent financial management) as well as a generous outlook.
For donation ideas, consult Internet sites listing the best-regarded charities (i.e. www.givespot.com/lists/give100.htm).
Another effective approach involves microfinance, and specifically microcredit — the practice of loaning relatively small amounts of money to organizations supporting small business investments and startups in the developing world. Microfinance loans are repaid at a later date, and children can then re-invest their principal in another venture that appeals to them, knowing that they directly helped an underprivileged entrepreneur or hardship survivor get a good start toward a better life. Well-known microfinance organizations include Kiva, Women for Women, and ACCION International.
Most schools today offer (or require) some degree of service, often measured in volunteer hours. Volunteering at an animal shelter or a local food distribution center like Second Harvest is generally reserved for teenage and adult volunteers; however, some organizations welcome young volunteers accompanied by parents. Directly serving a cause develops charitable habits of mind, and is also very satisfying for children and parents alike. Locally, the Children’s Discovery Museum’s “Summer of Service” program offers service activities for children grades 7-10; other opportunities are available through organizations such as Learn and Serve America (www.learnandserve.org), Do Something (www.dosomething.org), and Kids Care Clubs (www.kidscare.org).
These sorts of service activities help promote positive values in children and build immunity to negative media influences bombarding youngsters today.
Of all the strategies shown to influence the behavior of children, the most powerful are real-life examples provided by adults in their lives day in, day out. So ultimately, the best role models for children are reading this article!
As many parents and teachers can attest, the children are watching you, and believe me, they’re absorbing your every move, decision, and action. Ask yourself:
- How closely do the values I profess as important – kindness, honesty, courage, generosity – characterize my actions?
- What do my children learn from watching how I treat important adults in their lives – loved ones, teachers, coaches?
- Does my child see me volunteer my time for a charity, or stand up for someone who’s struggling, or admit I’m wrong despite the consequences?
There’s an oft-cited story in education circles about a teacher who mistook a class’s locker numbers for IQ scores; mistakenly believing the children to be gifted, she made her high expectations very clear from the start, and was rewarded by their extraordinary efforts and accomplishments.
More than a charming anecdote, this story reflects a well-documented phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect, holding in essence that whatever standard we make explicit to children, they strive (or stoop) to fulfill.
American author Wilferd Peterson wrote, “Our children are watching us live, and what we do shouts louder than anything we say.”
Media imagery surrounding our children delivers endless messages about the inane and often illegal behaviors of the glamorous and successful and young and cool; and what we say about it all really means very little to our children unless our actions align with our words.
The children are watching!
Published in the Evergreen Times and the Willow Glen Times in August 2011 and Almaden Times in November 2011.