For the first few years of our children's lives we concentrate on teaching them how to take care of themselves.
With our guidance, they learn how to walk, how to wipe their own noses, how to feed themselves, not stick butter knives into outlets and how to look both ways before crossing the street. They learn how to be successful in school and (hopefully!) how to be good citizens and have a decent social life.
The second half of our gigantic responsibility as parents is to sort of undo some of what we've done and teach our children to think beyond their own welfare, wants and needs, and think about the wants and needs of others.
I think it's important to teach our children that sometimes we have to do things we really don't want to do. Sometimes, we even have to do things that might make us uncomfortable. And we do them not for ourselves, but for others. In a civilized society, communities and families thrive when people can look beyond their own needs, see the needs of others and take action. This is why volunteering is so important and should be encouraged, even required, of students.
I wish I had volunteered more in high school, instead of concentrating so hard on learning the Pythagorean theorem and memorizing the periodic table. I can tell you which one would have had a lot more life value in the long run.
This lesson is getting lost in a society that has become all about "me." Social media concentrates on the individual, not the whole. It seems to be more important to many to share a picture of what was for dinner or post the latest nighttime hot spot visited, than to share a picture or a memory of visiting a loved one (or even a neighbor) in a nursing home or hospital.
It starts small, teaching this concept of a community larger than self. Sometimes, it seems easier to just let it go, to not force your older child to visit an ailing grandparent or family member because he just doesn't want to face the fact that death could be around the corner or go into a place that makes him uncomfortable.
I make my kid do a lot of uncomfortable things that she doesn't really want to do. I force her to face fears and discomfort head on. Guess what? She has survived every single uncomfortable thing and has become a better person for it. A person who can reach beyond the realm of her own little world and take a peek into someone else's world and realize that sometimes, our worlds merge if we just take a step.
I haven't forced her to visit a sick person or attend a funeral, because those things haven't come up yet. But we've taken little steps. We visit older friends at their homes, where there are no children, and she doesn't always like to go. I ban her electronic devices during visits so she has to become part of the conversation and engage in the visit. She cites boredom and has been known to whine about it on more than one occasion.
Sure, it would be easier (and probably more pleasant for me in some cases) to just leave her at home where she can whine to empty space. But, I make her go. I explain to her how much it means to the other person that we have taken the time and effort to visit. Eventually, she moves beyond self and into a realm where her wants and needs come second. Most of the time, she eventually enjoys the visit.
I started small with her. Being a bit "old-fashioned." I have required her to write thank-you notes for every gift, card, money or favor someone has ever done for her since she was old enough to put Crayon to construction paper. She wrote letters to my mother and my sister, thanking them for inviting her to visit California and taking her on a fabulous adventure.
She used to occasionally whine about it and say she had better things to do than write some stupid note. And why couldn't she just call and say "thank you?" Because, I explained, someone spent her time, effort and money doing something just for you. Recognizing that with a simple handwritten note is simply good manners, considerate and thoughtful. It's thinking about how your actions affect someone else's.