You Can't Teach Altruism

When I taught in public school, one school I worked at had a character education program. Each month it focused on another trait - Responsibility.  Honesty.  Caring.  Courage.  Integrity.  Respect.  And so on.  

Every week we were supposed to select students who had done something to exhibit the trait of the month and submit their names to the school office.  The names would be drawn lottery style on Fridays and announced over the intercom.  The lucky child would head down to the office to go get a ticket or certificate or something that may have been redeemable for a prize (I can't really remember).  

When Good Intentions Go Astray

I know the school district was well meaning when they wanted to help raise responsible kids.  Isn't that what we all want?  However, attaching an extrinsic reward (the certificate, recognition, or prize) can be counterproductive to helping children learn how to be "good citizens".

So how do you teach altruism?  The answer don't.  Children learn from you.  They watch you.  They listen to you.  If you are kind and generous, caring and responsible, they will do their best to emulate it.  I love reading stories, and I think that a story about a courageous, caring person can be inspirational. So can studying beautiful humans who worked for justice and love, like Martin Luther King, Jr.

But in the end, the most important influence on your child's behavior is your own behavior.

And perfection is not required. A good friend reminded me recently that it's okay to let your children see you being "real" because we all lose it sometimes when we are tired or stressed.  Maybe especially when you are not on top of your game, your children have the opportunity to rise up and be the grown up: the kind, responsible one taking care of you.