Kids learn more about how to give and receive love from what we do than from anything we could ever teach them with words.
1. Disagree with your partner in front of them.
Experts have been saying for a long time that parents shouldn’t fight in front of their kids, and I can’t disagree with that at all. At least not the highly emotional, private or loud kind of fighting. But parents should absolutely be disagreeing in front of their kids, even if it gets a little heated.
Why? Because kids need to learn how to fight fairly and with compassion for others. They need to see what a healthy fight with a partner looks like – that there’s not belittlement, intimidation, name-calling, manipulation, or abuse happening – in order to know how to behave with their own partners and how they should be treated.
2. Make up with your partner in front of them, too.
Too often, parents start to argue in front of their kids and then table the rest of their discussion for later, so as to not upset them. This seems like a great idea, but the problem is that then your kids don’t get to see how the argument was resolved – they may not even know that there was a resolution, and they may internalize some stress over the fact that they’re not sure how or when their parents made up.
Remember to say “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and “I will try to do better” and all the other phrases that show compassion and love, even when you disagree, and try to find a resolution in front of your kids – even if it’s just temporary.
3. Help those in need as part of your daily life.
Saying, “Today you kids are going to learn that there are people who are less fortunate than you!” and marching them down for a once-yearly visit to the food bank or soup kitchen is not the way to teach kids to be giving.
It’s better to show them that others’ needs are important in our day-to-day lives by including them in small but frequent acts of giving, like bringing old blankets and towels at the animal shelter, dropping coins in the donation bins by the grocery store check-out, volunteering at school, and every other act of giving your family takes part in. The trip to the soup kitchen is great in concept, but the people who work there and those who are eating are not a “scared straight” program for you to use and abuse for your kids to learn to appreciate eating their green beans.
It’s better to take a trip to the offices when they’re not busy prepping or serving and asking them how you can best help. Take the kids with you. Offer to cook or clean or, if they ask and you’re able, write them a check. Ask what you can buy weekly and deliver to them that they can always use. Listen to the professionals about how you can help, they know how to get the most good work done.
Whatever it is that you do, make it a regular activity, and don’t make a big deal out of it to your kids. Just make giving, as an act of love for all, a part of life.
4. Treat your friends the way you hope they’ll treat theirs.
The way you treat the people in your life is a daily lesson to your kids about how love people. No matter what it is you tell them to do, if your kids hear you gossiping, they’ll become gossips. If they hear you badmouth someone they know, they’ll think that’s normal and okay.
What’s more, they’ll also expect people to treat them this way, and accept the presence of crappy people in their lives.
If you absolutely must vent about a friend in front of your kids, do so constructively, in a way you’d like to hear them talk about a problem. Saying, “When Bob said that, it really hurt my feelings,” is a way better lesson on how to talk about a problem than, “Bob is such an a**hole, I hate that guy.”
5. Treat strangers the way you hope they’ll treat strangers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a parent command their child to say, “Please” or “Thank you” but then treat people (especially baristas and other service staff) like crap right in front of their kids.
Do you think your kid is going to grow up polite because you forced them to say “Thank you”? No, your kid will look straight through people or snap at them the way you do.
You should treat strangers politely because it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not reason enough, do it so your kids don’t grow up to be rude. Take a moment before interacting with people to remember the humanity of every person in front of you. Look them in the eye, smile, and greet them as you would a friend. Your kids will gain this skill and it will take them far.
6. Be an up-stander, not a bystander.
Whenever you get the opportunity (if the situation is safe for you, with your kids), be the person who steps in to help or to advocate for people. Call 911 if you see a drunk driver, report domestic violence if you see it, assist someone injured in a car accident, help someone who has dropped their bags, or catch a loose grocery cart that’s headed for another person’s car.
And let your kids know that you stand against injustice by being vocal in your community. If somebody is being harmed or discriminated against, be the person who raises their voice against it and tries to make change.
One thing that can help end bullying among young people is a community’s unwillingness to accept bad behavior. There are great anti-bullying programs that can help, but parents can teach these values, too. Kids on the playground standing up for someone who is being picked on can make real change, even if they just quietly tell a teacher.
One major act of love is to teach your kid to say, “Hey, that’s not cool” when someone makes a sexist, racist or homophobic joke. But more importantly, be that person yourself.
7. Don’t be a snob.
First, don’t be a snob simply because snobs are terrible. But if that’s not reason enough for you, think about how your kids are internalizing your snobbish behavior.
Snobbery, or any other form of elitism, operates by making a person feel superior for having something that’s supposedly better than another person. You may not think you’re teaching your kids this value, but if you’re judging others based upon things like having a run-down car, “tacky” clothes, living in a “bad” area, or a different body shape than yours, you’re teaching them to be a snob. And judging someone like this is not love.
On top of that, your kid will think that people judging them based upon something shallow. Your child will worry about not being good enough, having nice enough clothes, or having enough money for the rest of their lives if this is your value. After all, there’ll always be someone richer, prettier, stronger, or with a nicer car. That’s just the way life goes. Snobbery teaches kids they have to be the best, or they are less-than.
Empower your kid to look past surface judgements by doing so yourself. Keep your comments about other people to yourself, and always be an example of not only how you’d like your child to judge others – but also how you’d like others to judge your child.
8. Look them right in the eye.
We’re parents, I get how busy we are. We come home from work with our heads spinning and the boss still buzzing us on our phones. It’s hard to connect.
But as soon as you meet up after time apart, take a moment to get face-to-face with your child, and connect with your eyes. Smile, tell them you love them, and ask them how their day was. Your attention, with your eyes on their eyes with softness and love, shows them how important they are more effectively than any words of affirmation you could offer.
And when you can, put down that phone. It’s hard for me, too, but I’m trying. I want my kids to learn how to listen effectively and with a whole heart, and when I’m on my phone or distracted, I’m not teaching them that skill. So much of love is about truly listening. It’s a gift.
9. Always offer unconditional love.
Love for your child is not conditional. It doesn’t go away when you’re mad and it doesn’t hinge upon how they’re behaving. In order for your child to know that he or she deserves respect from others, you need to offer the same to them. That means not withholding love or attention from your child as a means of punishing them.
Show them how to set healthy boundaries by setting your own, even when that means enforcing consequences to bad behavior. But always keep your love for your child at the center of everything you do, and let them know it. If you don’t, they will spend a lifetime tiptoeing around their friends and partners, afraid of losing their love.