Children Follow Adult Examples
Enabling “We” Instead of “Me”
“If you want to be miserable, think about yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.”
~ Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
The phrase “connected kids” may describe youth consumed by Internet-dependent relationships. Yet these same young people still crave old-fashioned, face-to-face connections with the adults in their lives. With one parent or two, stepparents, a grandparent, aunts or uncles, older family friends, teachers and coaches—experience shows they all can help guide our children by showing the compassion that nurtures kids’ own caring instincts.
Swedish futurist and author Mats Lindgren characterizes these young people, raised by the “Me Generation” (born in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s), The MeWe Generation, for their efforts to balance a culture of individualism and their need to belong. He notes, “Although the MeWes travel and experience more than any other generation before them, [in surveys] the small things in life still get the highest scores. A happy life is based on relations and companionship.”
Family life, for better or worse, establishes the way children connect with others at school, in their communities, on the job, as citizens and as members of the human race. How can we help youngsters feel truly connected and learn to be responsible for themselves and others?
All Together Now
The cycle we want to start at home encompasses compassion, connection, responsibility and citizenship. The alternative is selfishness, alienation, exploitation and disenfranchisement; terms we hope will not apply to our children. If we want children to embody healthy and positive qualities and play an important role in family life and beyond, we need to understand how to enable kids to think “We” by outgrowing some of our own Me-thinking ways.
To start, it helps to understand that when we ask nothing of our children—keep them from experiencing larger challenges and taking real responsibility for themselves and others—we risk spoiling them. Children that instead see and experience We-oriented caring for others and regularly participate in compassionate acts feel more attached to a community of family and friends. A child that feels noticed and embraced, and is then given opportunities to act independently of his parents, also will know what it means to be trusted. Parents convey, “I know you can do this.”
A youngster that experiences this compassionate caring and trust will mimic such compassion, because it feels good to give and he wants others to acknowledge his worth. Also, having been allowed to suffer the consequences of some bad personal decisions (up to a point), he understands that his choices affect both himself and others. Given the opportunity to think things through for himself, he can make helpful choices instead of feeling forced to either resist or give in to what adults want. He knows how to show respect because he knows what it feels like to be respected.
Acting responsibly follows naturally as a way to identify with others and demonstrate the strength of his connections and contributions to the welfare of others. It sews a child into the fabric of his family and community, which responds, “You are a part of us. You belong and we rely on you.” The child quietly says to himself, “I’m here” and “I count.”
These connections to others and community are also profoundly shaped by the physical spaces we occupy. Studies cited in Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, attest to their effects on mental well-being, relationship patterns and even physical health and longevity.
Cloistering children inside large, middle-class houses may be the greatest single threat to the realization of We Generation values. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average U.S. home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,434 square feet in 2005. This overwhelming spaciousness dampens family interaction, denying the informality that allows us to offer ourselves to each other spontaneously. Fewer central family hearths reduce the passing of stories among generations, leaving children feeling alone in their room amidst material abundance. They grow up expecting to have things to themselves without having to share.
Why live in a bigger house if it threatens our relationships with our children, neighbors and spouses? It takes a lot of extra hours at work to afford the mini-mansion and two cars for the long commutes required to sustain a detached lifestyle in the suburbs. Countermeasures are called for.
When I ask kids where they’d like to live, they want to be where they can navigate their own way to the store, school and friends. They rarely mention square footage. Most would be happy to give up large rooms and en suite baths for greater personal freedom, a cohesive community and more time with parents that are less stressed.
Listen closely and we will hear children asking permission to live their lives truly connected with us and with their widening circles of friends around the world.
Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a clinician and research professor at the School of Social Work at Canada’s Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He based this article on his book, The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids, published by Da Capo Lifelong Books.