By Hannah Jordan
Raising kids — the responsible, caring, and well-adjusted kind — is a daunting task, especially in this fast-paced age of social media, video games, affluence and political divisions. Parents and children can feel overwhelmed by the constant news coverage which often instills fear and leads to immobilization instead of action.
In the midst of all this chaos, parents continue to try to find ways to help their children turn out “good.” After all, no one wants to be that parent whose kid turns into a callous bully or worse yet, a violent offender. To mold this well-behaved and successful child, many parents decide on house rules, focus on consequences, and often encourage activities that will “look good” on a college application. That can all be well and good, but there’s got to be more to parenting than that or we’d all end up with anxious rule followers lacking in many of the qualities we value in others.
So, if parents have to do more than just create rules and consequences, what should they do?
They need to find ways to help children discern right from wrong — that’s called developing a conscience. It’s our job as parents to help our kids develop their own sense of right and wrong, including when black and white can bleed into grey — and when it can’t. We are their first role models and their witnessing our own struggle to make decisions based on our moral compass sets the pattern for their own life. They literally couldn’t do it without us.
Along the road, parents also need to help children ponder why they and other people act the way they do — whether it’s through reading together and talking about the characters’ actions or motives, analyzing the day’s news together, or just talking with their child about how they feel when they see someone in pain or struggling to fit in.That’s called developing empathy — and without empathy, our world would be full of people who view others through a distorted lens that zooms in on their own importance and feeds their own sense of self.
Most parents want to raise children who do good because it feels good, and that doesn’t come from merely following rules. It comes from years of demonstrating compassion in our everyday lives and thoughtfully listening to others’ perspectives, no matter how different they are from our own. It comes from welcoming people from all walks of life into our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods and clubs and from recognizing the role privilege plays in our own successes and seeking to remove those barriers that prevent others from succeeding. It comes from growing up in a community that works to lift up those who are in need or in pain without judging or labeling them and from watching neighbors help one another even when it’s inconvenient. It comes from growing up in a household and a country where name calling is shameful because no one should be reduced to a label. It comes from being taught that every person has value and that if they don’t know their own worth, it’s our duty to help them find it. It means teaching our children that duty and service are not exclusively the domain of military or Peace Corps families, but that service to our country and our community can come in many different packages and can take shape in the simple kind gestures we extend to those around us each day.
As parents, we need to listen and look for the teachable moments, like when a child sees a homeless person in the street and asks us why she or he is homeless. Everyone has a different story, we say, but right now, let’s look this person in the eyes and greet them with a friendly smile. That in itself is a good start towards putting our children on the path to becoming compassionate adults and involved citizens who are guided by a strong sense of right and wrong and whose ability to empathize with those suffering under the weight of bad luck or poor choices leads them to action more often than despair.
So, this winter (and always), say hello to the homeless people you meet and greet them by name if you know it. Then, wonder aloud how you can help them, and, if you can, back up your smile with a donation of time, talent or money to the Falls Church Homeless Shelter. You’ll not only be doing something good for the homeless, you’ll also be shaping the future leaders of our Little City and our great country.
The Falls Church Homeless Shelter opens for the hypothermia season on Thursday, Nov. 15. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer staff, please attend a training session on Thursday, Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the shelter (217 Gordon Rd). Email us at [email protected] to learn more. Visit us at www.fcshelter.org.
Hannah Jordan is executive director of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter.