Teaching Children to be Good People – A chat with Annie Fox

teachingKidsHiResCoverI had the opportunity to have a chat a while back with with Annie Fox, an educator, novelist, radio host and  allround bright light in the world of parenting, about her book Teaching Children to be Good People.

Being the curmudgeon I am, I just had to take the opportunity to ask a few Eeyoresque questions about whether it is even possible in today’s world to teach kids anything, never mind how to be a good person. I mean really, is there any hope for our future or are kids today just a lost cause?…

In classic Annie Fox fashion, she manages to throw a wrench into the works and gives me some hope that raising our kids to be “Good People” might still be possible.

I’ll start off with an easy one… When you say a good person what are we talking about?

Well, “we” may not be talking about the same thing at all, Keith, but when I use the term “good person” I’m talking about someone who’s actively compassionate. It’s not enough to care about other people. Caring is good, of course and it’s a start, but if caring stops with feelings and thoughts but never moves into action then it isn’t all that helpful, is it? For me, a good person is one who consciously looks for opportunities to be helpful, to do good in the world and then, when s/he finds an opportunity, s/he takes action.

Do you think your definition might just be a misty water memory of days gone by? I mean, people can easily come up with the answer we all want to hear, like when you crowd-sourced the definition for your book but do people really believe in what they are saying? 

I wasn’t giving out chocolate bars for the “right” answers, so, yeah, I believe the folks who responded to my query “What’s your definition of a good person?” really believe what they wrote. At least that’s the impression I got from their very thoughtful answers. Whether they actually live their lives that way, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that there is a tremendous amount of “good work” being done in the world by millions of people involved in all kinds of humanitarian aid distribution, relief efforts, education, medical outreaches, etc. I’m willing to bet there are more people involved in global, regional, community-based and individual good works now then ever before in the history of the world. And we need those good people more than ever because of the scope and frequency of the challenges so many people face.

Perhaps I should reframe that last question. Do you think people may know what a good person is but because of external pressures the world places on us, being that person has become impossible whether it be in whole or in part?

I’m not talking about some level of “goodness” that rivals Mother Theresa or The Dalai Lama. I’m just talking about being kind and helpful. Whether you’re in a high-pressured life situation (professionally or personally) shouldn’t impact your ability to notice what’s going on with the people around you and respond in a way that is helpful. If we are “too busy” to notice how the folks we live and work with are doing, then we’re dangerously busy and we’re losing far more than we’re gaining by pursuing that path. I mean, really, at the end of the day (at the end of your life) you’re probably more likely to measure your “success” as a person in terms of the quality of the relationships you’ve maintained. Healthy relationships (the only kind worth having) depend on an ability to tune into the needs of others with compassion and understanding, to communicate (talk and listen) effectively, and to manage your emotions responsibly.

In your book, you talk about how communication between parents and children is important in creating or raising a good person. In my opinion, this is a relatively new thing. When I was a kid, talking about how you felt, what you thought… Was not done. You were measured by your actions in the community not the tune that you sang. This suggests to me that teaching your kids how to be “Good people” is more than just talk and feelings… Thoughts?

As I said before, it’s not enough to be a “nice” person… you also need to do good in relation to others. I assume the parents who are drawn to the title of my book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People, don’t need convincing that raising kids of good character is good idea. They’re already onboard. They just want to know how to do it. Yes, it’s true, I write a lot about effective communication between parents and kids. Part of the transmission of good character is done through modeling  Parent behaves in a friendly, respectful manner toward spouse, child, neighbour  waiter, cashier, etc. and son or daughter takes in many lessons just from observing. But character isn’t transmitted by osmosis alone. That’s where communication comes in. The book offers the reader lots of tips about improving parent-child communication. (An especially challenging art form when the kids reach middle school and beyond!) I include a recurring section called Conversations That Count, where there’s a topic and some suggested open-ended questions that (hopefully) will result in a meaningful dialogue between parent and child where both are teaching and learning from each other. Too many of us tend to limit our conversations to the “Is your homework done yet?” variety. That’s not a conversation! Our kids are growing and changing as they hyper-warp toward young adulthood. If we want to stay connected with the people they are becoming (so we can continue to influence them) we need to talk less and listen more. We also need to be the kind of parent who is easy to talk to. The book helps a lot with that.

You mention “not being good enough” a couple times in your book and this lends itself to the question of whether or not you feel that we (as a society) have begun to define “good person” by more narcissistic measures such as image and success?

The short answer is: yes. Sadly so. I’ve been on the receiving end of email from tweens and teens since 1997. A full 30% of the email I get expresses, in one way or another, feelings of personal dissatisfaction. Kids frequently express feelings of not being:  thin enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, athletic enough, rich enough, popular enough, cool enough or hot enough. Basically, they’re saying “I’m not good enough.” Their putdowns are a form of self-bullying. It has become such a habit with many kids that when I point it out, typically, they’re very surprised. When I ask, “If a friend put himself or herself down in the way you put yourself down, what would you say?” And they usually answer, “I’d tell my friend that they’re cool and they shouldn’t think those negative things about themselves!” Which of course, is exactly the kind of support a real friend gives. What I attempt to do, with tweens and teens, is to teach them to be their own best friend. When they have figured out that treating themselves with respect is something they deserve then they are much more likely to treat others with respect and to stand up and help a child who is being treated badly by others. In the book I make parents aware of the social pressure their kids are dealing with (online and off) so that parents can empathize and not (ever) add to the put-downs that come at their kid from peers and from their own inner dialogue. Parents have tremendous influence on the way their kids feel about how well they “measure up.” I want parents to use that influence only in positive ways.

I have a challenge for you! In three bullets, no more than 5 words each, list three things that parents can do to reclaim the traditional definition of “good person” for their family and instill that in their children.

  • Be respectful to your kids
  • Open your heart and mind
  • Cook and eat meals together

 

Thanks for stopping by Annie! Finally someone to class this joint up!

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