Kids are Feeling Tortured and School has Only Just Begun

Have you asked your child who sat alone today?
Have you asked your child who sat alone today?

Who sat alone in the cafeteria? Do you know? Have you ever thought about it before? This school year instead of asking your children first about homework, or what they scored on their last test, ask your child or teenager, “Who sat alone in the cafeteria?”

As parents under pressure, sometimes we lose sight of the simplest things that are essential for our kids, and we need to set our priorities straight. We feel so concerned about the big issues and quickly click the “Like” button on Facebook when we see a story about bullying in the news. But do we ever take it a step further and ask about the lonely kid or the child with a disability who sits by himself? It’s early in the school year and already many kids are dreading school and their parents are in the car line praying that this day will be better than the last. They are hoping someone took a moment out of their day to show kindness to their left out child. Maybe you are one of them.

In my coaching work with children and families, I have worked with too many children who are left out, who stand alone on the playground, or sit by themselves in the cafeteria. Why? For any one child there are many reasons, but the single one that stands out has to do with the rest of us. We have overemphasized excelling and doing so at all costs. Tutors, pitching coaches, elite soccer camps, and the list goes on. Yes, grades and personal excellence on and off the field are important, but so much so that we forget to teach kids how to be kind? To teach them that personal excellence includes kindness?

Somewhere in the social roar of the digital age and the race to be the best, simple kindness has been disappearing. That's not good for any of our kids.

It seems that the important things today include whether or not your child makes straight As, won the science fair, is on the Math Bowl team or has been inducted into the National Elementary School Honor Society. In fact, in a study released by The Making Caring Common project, about 80 percent of the kids today said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they care for others. In a PEW Research survey of American parents, hard work and being responsible were the values more parents felt were the most important to teach children. Empathy fell further down the list, behind good manners. So if your child’s lifelong success and well being is your top priority, think of kindness as a core competency.

You might not make the ideal soccer or math or music coach for your child, but when it comes to kindness, I assure you, you're the ideal coach for your child and you can start today. It’s simple enough to start. Consider rather than just the constant focus on academic and sports accomplishments to also add in highlighting the goodness in people and kindness. Think about those kids who may be socially awkward. Teach your kids to think about them too. Maybe they have something going on in their life that prevents them from fitting in or feeling comfortable around others. Maybe they just don’t know how to fit in socially and would welcome a little bit of compassion from others. Show your kids that leadership and success can come from being supportive and caring just as much as it can from grades and athletic fortitude. Lead by example, and your kids will realize that empathy and helping others is important too.

I love coaching kids and teaching them the survival skills to maneuver through the school day. I can role-play with them and help them become less socially awkward. But you can work with your children too, even if you think you can’t. Teach your children the skill of perspective taking—the metaphor of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to get a sense of what it might be like to be them. Ask your kids to get to know those who just don’t quite fit in.

It’s great to be proud of your children for whatever they accomplish. We all know the glow of those moments for our child, and the glow of our pride when we can share them. But time and time again, I sit with a child who hates school, and deeply suffers there every day, for the sole reason of being left out. This is such an easy fix for the rest of us, relatively speaking: no new curriculum to adopt, no new textbooks needed, no scheduling or additional homework. A simple shift in our attention can work wonders.

Five ways to coach your child for kindness:

· Ask about kindness in the context of school. Who sat alone in the cafeteria? What do you think the day was like for that kid? What do you think it feels like for that left out child?

· Notice when your child or someone else shows kindness and remark on it. “I am really proud of you for the way you interacted with (fill in name).” “When you are nice to other people that is when you really shine.”

· Read books and watch movies together and use them as an opportunity to talk about it. How did that person feel? Which character would you want to be your friend and how come? What could you do to be a better friend?

· Teach your child some one-line icebreakers as simple ways to be a kind presence in another child’s day. “Hey, how are, you?” “Do you have Mrs. so and so for math?” “What did you think about Sunday’s game?

· Show your child what kindness is by practicing it yourself. With your child, with siblings, with family members, with service people in stores, coffee shops, wait staff in restaurants.

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