Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

Posted in the Washington Post on July 18

By Amy Joyce

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, and the Making Caring Common Project have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. (The Washington Post)

Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching empathy, and whether you are a parent who does so. The idea behind it is from Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs theMaking Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.

I know, you’d think they are or that parents are teaching that themselves, right? Not so, according to a new study released by the group.  About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:

1. Make caring for others a priority

Why? Parents tend to prioritize their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friend who is being bullied.

How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.

Try this
• Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
• Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
• Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.

2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude

Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.

How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition—whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job—make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practicing it.

Try this
• Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.

• Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.

• Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

3. Expand your child’s circle of concern.

Why?  Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.

How?  Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.

Try this
• Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all of the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.

• Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.

• Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor.

Why?  Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”

How?  Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.

Try this:
• Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.

• Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.

5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings

Why?  Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.

How?  We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.

Try this
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.

Impact of meditation, support groups seen at cellular level in breast cancer survivors

November 3, 2014 Alberta Health Services

CALGARY — For the first time, researchers have shown that practising mindfulness meditation or being involved in a support group has a positive physical impact at the cellular level in breast cancer survivors.

A group working out of Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary Department of Oncology has demonstrated that telomeres – protein complexes at the end of chromosomes – maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who practise meditation or are involved in support groups, while they shorten in a comparison group without any intervention.

Although the disease-regulating properties of telomeres aren’t fully understood, shortened telomeres are associated with several disease states, as well as cell aging, while longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.

“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” says Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied,” says Dr. Carlson, who is also a U of C professor in the Faculty of Arts and the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the Southern Alberta Cancer Institute. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”

The study was published online today in the journal Cancer. It can be found at:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.29063/full

A total of 88 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatments for at least three months were involved for the duration of the study. The average age was 55 and most participants had ended treatment two years prior. To be eligible, they also had to be experiencing significant levels of emotional distress.

In the Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group, participants attended eight weekly, 90-minute group sessions that provided instruction on mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga, with the goal of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Participants were also asked to practise meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.

In the Supportive Expressive Therapy group, participants met for 90 minutes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide women in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.

The participants randomly placed in the control group attended one, six-hour stress management seminar.

All study participants had their blood analysed and telomere length measured before and after the interventions.

Scientists have shown a short-term effect of these interventions on telomere length compared to a control group, but it’s not known if the effects are lasting. Dr. Carlson says another avenue for further research is to see if the psychosocial interventions have a positive impact beyond the three months of the study period.

Allison McPherson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. When she joined the study, she was placed in the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group. Today, she says that experience has been life-changing.

“I was skeptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus,” says McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. “But I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it’s reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others.”

Study participant Deanne David was also placed in the mindfulness group. “Being part of this made a huge difference to me,” she says. “I think people involved in their own cancer journey would benefit from learning more about mindfulness and connecting with others who are going through the same things.”

The research was funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance.

Calgary-area cancer patients can access information about Alberta Health Services programs in both mindfulness meditation and supportive expressive therapy, as well as other support programs at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, by calling 403-355-3207.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation’s most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction – “Eyes High” – to become one of Canada’s top five research universities by 2016, grounded in innovative learning and teaching and fully integrated with the community of Calgary. For more information, visit ucalgary.ca .

Pain – Our Precious Teacher

By John Bruna, posted on his blog on October 16, 2014

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

It is quite natural and very healthy to seek out pleasure in our lives and try to avoid pain. From the moment we wake up, it is a natural instinct to seek happiness and try to plan our day around people and activities that bring us joy. I have yet to meet the person that wakes up with the attitude of intentionally seeking pain.

Having said that, pain is an integral part of life and does serve a very important purpose. Pain lets us know what we needs attention. When we are sick our body is letting us know that it is out of balance and we need to tend to it. A pain in our body, such as a stubbed toe, broken finger or a sore muscle, let us know we need to take care of it. Likewise, mental and emotional suffering in our life, informs us that we have some inner work to do.

If we look back in our lives, we will find that the times that we grew the most were often the result of painful events in our lives. It is when times are difficult and challenging that we are driven to look inside and develop ourselves. When life is easy and everything is going our way, we are rarely inspired to stretch ourselves and grow. It is the challenges of life that give us the opportunity to cultivate our highest potentials.

Of course this is not fun, nor do I suggest that we search out pain so that we can grow. Rather, that we understand that pain is a normal part of life and that it serves a purpose. When painful or challenging events in life do arise, and they will, instead of trying to avoid or minimize them, we have the opportunity to learn from them. They inform us about ourselves and the world we live in and provide us with the incentive to develop ourselves, cultivating the qualities, values, and wisdom to be the person we want to be.

In truth, life is filled with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, challenges and opportunity, pain and pleasure. For some reason, we think that our life should only contain the good stuff. As unrealistic as this is, it tends to be a pervasive attitude and makes even common problems and difficulties all the more challenging to deal with. If we can remember that we’ve already overcome much adversity in our lives, and it was in dealing with the adversity that we grew the most, when pain inevitably does show up, we can see it as a teacher, one more time, guiding us to look within and grow.