I remember being in graduate school and learning about the field of behavioral economics with this simple story: if you fill a coffee cup with sugar, the customer will never drink it. But if you fill the cup with one grain of sugar at a time and ask them to sip, eventually you will have filled the cup with sugar but subtly so. The broader point: you can modify behaviors through small, incremental changes that line up with both your hopes for others and the honest best for the person you’re hoping to mold.
Teaching kindness and empathy is no different: we can’t tell our child to be kind and expect it to be true no more than we can expect our child to be an ace reader or a mathematics whiz. We also can’t assume that a child who has everything they’ve ever wanted will do well with quiet and minimal stimulation.
Lucky for us, behavioral economics and the “sugar principle” give us guidance. This recent article from The Washington Post uses some of the insights from behavior economics to help us parents with maybe the most important things we hope to teach our children: how to be more empathetic, kind, and less entitled. For those with a little less time, here’s the scoop:
Under- rather than over-stimulate. Children with more expect more and more. Children with less are grateful for more and cherish and care for it better. A single grain of sugar rather than a cup. It’s an important distinction.
Ask questions about context. Relate your family’s and child’s experiences to those who might be different – ask important questions that help your child understand and better appreciate their lives in context with others.
Encourage grace. Say thank you to your child for small things, and frequently. They’ll do the same and learn to appreciate when small things are done for them.
Identify ownership. We all make mistakes and we have a tendency to project mistakes, accidents, and bad outcomes to other things, people or situations. Encourage your child to understand the cause and effect of behaviors and actions and, as appropriate, take ownership for things going right (or wrong).
Help them see the greater good. Rewards for expectations can prove problematic. Instead, start early with encouraging your children to do things for intrinsic value rather than external approval and for the good of the family or community rather than for money or the expressed approval of others.
Empathy, kindness, and grace aren’t things that happen overnight: they’re rituals that become habits that then translate to behaviors. Try something small today to grow them with your child and tell us what you’re up to in chat or by sharing a tip with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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