February 5, 2010

Charity, Haiti, and The Teachable Moment

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We all think of ourselves as generous.  Obviously, that can’t be right because we definitely think of some people we know as not being generous at all.  From their point of view, however, I’ll bet they would say they are very generous (as generous as they feel they can afford to be).  People who are more giving, in their view, aren’t more generous, they are simply foolish or misguided.  So an empathic perspective is that we each give what we feel we can.  We know there are those who give much more of themselves, and those who give much less.  I hope most people aren’t too judgmental about this, but I think we all tend to label people when we perceive a mismatch between what some people appear to have and what they appear to give.  We are unforgiving of those who seem to have a lot yet give little, and impressed by those who seem to have little yet give a lot.

Research in early child development has rid us of the antiquated idea that all babies are born as a blank slate, equal in capacity but either blessed or limited by their nurturing situations.  Let’s face it, some people are really good at math and some people find it really hard.  But this skill or weakness isn’t destiny.  With some sympathetic tutoring and lots of patience and practice, even the math-phobic can get through high school.

But how can parents teach important things that they themselves were never taught?  How can children learn concepts that don’t come in workbooks or sets of DVDs or in listings for tutors?

Empathy isn’t a course you can sign up for.  It’s a way of looking at other people and trying to imagine what it would be like to be them.  This is a teachable skill.  Empathy is a particularly human ability, and those that don’t show much of it are not well liked.  We are born with our brain chemistry wired for a particularly great amount of it, or maybe a lesser amount in some people.  Some have an intuitive skill and some don’t.  I’ve seen this in children:  some find it easy to sense a playmate’s feelings, and some seem oblivious.  Can we teach it?

Teaching children feelings is much more complex than teaching them behaviors or factual knowledge.  Each child is different in how their experiences affect their own feelings.  For this reason, talking to them about what they should feel is likely to be fruitless.  If they don’t feel sorry for the crying child in the park, your telling them they should will just be confusing, inexplicable, frustrating, or insulting.  If they do feel they way you think they should, then your telling them about it is simply unproductive.  It’s great to try and help your children get a vocabulary that helps them express their feelings verbally, so talking about feelings is an important exercise to do with your child, whether the feelings are strong or mild.

But how can we get them to see what they don’t?  How do we teach them to open their hearts?

Since I suspect we each believe ourselves to be appropriately generous—open handed but not profligate—I also suspect we want to instill these values in our children.  As with most behaviors, what we tell our children is mostly irrelevant and what we force them to do largely backfires.  So forcing them to give part of their allowance to some charity—no matter how worthy—when we don’t show them our paychecks and how much we are giving, is preying on their arithmetic naivite.  What happens when they get to high school and find out that you weren’t giving 20% to the poor, it was more like $20?  You will have created yet another reason that you can never undo for them to avoid calling you or visiting when you’re 70.  I wonder if, at that age, you’ll be thinking it was worth the money you saved.

To those not naturally inclined, we teach math through gentle encouragement, positive feedback, and practice.  And perhaps most effectively, through real-life examples.

The important aspects of life are there every day, all around us in our lives.  They might not lend themselves to school books, but they are everywhere.  If you want to teach your child something really difficult, like altruism or charity, master the teachable moment.

A teachable moment is defined (by me) as an important event that gets your child’s attention without direction from you.  It could be when he comes to you in the park and tells you that a child is crying.  It could be when she asks you where Haiti is.  Once the teachable moment is brought to you, it’s up to you what to do with it.  You can certainly show her where Haiti is on a map.  You could look it up online together and map its leading agricultural products by topography.  To me, that’s a teachable moment squandered.

She’s asking about Haiti because she hears about it on the news.  Maybe she’s seen some pictures.  Her words might be asking where it is, but she’s really asking why it’s important, why it’s on TV, why people are talking about it.  Tell her—she deserves to know, and will continue to come to you for these important questions.

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Here’s what I did.  I took some of the ties out of the top shelf in my closet.  Over the years, I have received many as gifts that for one reason or another I was never going to wear.  I hope I was always gracious about the generosity, but I knew I would never wear them.  The Garfield tie above..well, that’s obvious.  The Save the Children tie was nice, but not useful as a prop when I examine a preschooler.  I sold them on eBay, and designated 100% of the proceeds to go to Medecins Sans Frontières, an amazing group that was already on the ground in Haiti.  I donated the ties and the shipping and the fees for listing the items.  Anything people paid would go to MSF in Haiti.  They sold really well!  I’m also selling a camera lens I’ll never use.  Haiti needs whatever it will bring more than my closet needs a lens.

When your child asks you about Haiti, tell them that you want to help and ask her if she wants to help, too.  What does she have on her shelf or closet that she can give up?  She must make her own decision!  And she has to see you do it, too.  If you’ve never sold anything on eBay, now’s the time.  This is a real teachable moment, and it will make a lifetime impression on her to see you take a photo of the stuff and then write the listing.  It doesn’t matter if you only get a dollar.  The lesson isn’t about how much, it’s about identifying the feelings, then taking action.  There aren’t too many more important lessons than working with your child to make the world just a tiny bit better.  That’s incredibly empowering for a child, who often feels unable to change the world around her.  Besides, we both know how long that stuff has been in your closet.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?