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Why Some Kids Don't Seem to Care About Others

Photograph by Twenty20

Sometimes it feels like the world of parenting is full of advice to stop unwanted behaviors. With just a few clicks, we can find out how to end the bedtime battles, how to stop a temper tantrum, how to make whining go away and how to "fix" just about every obstacle parents face along the way.

Parents are natural problem solvers, and easy instructions to stop problem behaviors are a welcome relief when parenting becomes overwhelming. I think it's safe to say that we've all faced down the end of a long day of being a mom or dad and wondered how to prevent that day from ever happening again.

As much as those problem-solving articles can help us cope with the hard stuff, we also need to focus on the positive. There are many ways to build kids up and give them the tools to make positive choices. If we want to raise kind, caring and happy kids, we have to take a proactive approach to teaching prosocial behaviors.

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I sometimes wonder if I go too far with the therapist-mom stuff. I try not to pour it on too thick, but I do tend to focus on empathy, verbalizing feelings and working through conflict and big feelings together. I teach relaxation strategies and help my kids find strategies that work for them when it comes to coping with frustration. I also tend to hang back and let them take the lead—they don't need a rescue, they need support. I trust them to seek help from me when they need it. It's a balancing act, and we all work on finding that balance together.

I think it's working. I see them empathizing with each other. I watch them help others at the park. And it warms my heart when they talk about saving coins to help another family during the holidays. They have big hearts, and they care about others.

All kids are different and raising caring kids can't be done overnight or by following one specific script, but there are steps parents can take to raise kids who care about others.

Try these:

1. Build a feelings vocabulary

I can't tell you how many kids end up in my office completely overwhelmed by feelings they can't quite identify. It's very difficult to process and cope with your emotions when you can't even figure out what those emotions are.

Talk openly about feelings—the positive ones and the negative ones—each day. Draw feelings faces and ask your kids to connect the dots between what they're thinking and what they're feeling in response to those thoughts. Once they have that down, ask them to think about what their bodies feel like when they feel mad, happy, excited, sad or worried. The more your kids talk about feelings, the more feelings you can add to the mix.

When reading the Ramona books with my daughter, we had in-depth discussions about the stress Ramona's parents experienced when they were low on money to pay the bills and how Ramona felt when her mom went back to work full time.

Understanding feelings plays a huge role in caring for others. When kids can read the emotions of others and think about why another person might feel sad, mad or worried, they can empathize with them and provide help.

2. Focus on emotional literacy

Books can be great tools for building empathy in young children. Pointing out facial expressions in picture books is a great first step in helping kids consider the thoughts and feelings of others, but taking an extra step is even better.

Whether you're reading chapter books together with older kids or reading picture books with young kids, take breaks from the text to ask your kids to think about how all of the characters in the book or story are feeling. When reading the Ramona books with my daughter, we had in-depth discussions about the stress Ramona's parents experienced when they were low on money to pay the bills and how Ramona felt when her mom went back to work full time.

Focusing on emotions within the text helps kids learn to decode the feelings of others and empathize.

While most parents help kids churn out thank you notes after a party, writing a heartfelt thank you is more than just saying you love the gift.

3. Volunteer together

Many parents go to great lengths to shield kids from the suffering of others in an effort to protect their innocence. I get that. We want to keep them little and help them feel safe in the world. When we volunteer to help others, however, we empower our kids to become change makers. We show them that even though there are people suffering in this world, they can make a difference.

4. Show empathy and express thanks

If we want our kids to be caring and kind, we have to show them how to do it. We can't insist that they use kind words every minute of the day and then turn around and scream at the guy trying to fix the wireless. That sends a mixed message. Sure, we are all entitled to bad days, and we don't always handle things the way we should, but we can step back and talk about our choices with our kids. We can make things right.

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We can also express gratitude. While most parents help kids churn out thank you notes after a party, writing a heartfelt thank you is more than just saying you love the gift. Encourage your kids to write thank you notes beyond the birthday. I recently received a thank you note from a friend who appreciated my support of her new book. That kind gesture put a huge smile on my face. When we take the time to thank the people who support us, we build a community of helpers.

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