The Plus One Core Emotional Need for Spiritual Values and Community can be defined as parents impressing a “worldview in line with their own positive values” on their children, and connecting children with something bigger than themselves, perhaps (but not limited to) their faith and traditions. It is also about parents helping children experience “kin-ship” with like-minded people who will treasure the same values and beliefs, and be there for one another.
Throughout this book we have referred to our research that resulted in the identification of the four core emotional needs and the nine exasperation interactions. So where does the “plus one core emotional need of spiritual values & community” come in? We did not have time to conduct a separate study on spiritual values & community, so we don’t have empirical evidence, but we have read related research—plus we know it from our experience! We believe that to the extent parents do not meet the need for the plus one core emotional need for spiritual values and community, their children may experience the opposite, meaning they may lack values, lack a moral compass and be at risk for loneliness & isolation.
In our experience, children who have had this need met will consistently and at an emotional level hear and believe the following messages from and/or about their parents:
They base their lives on certain principles and hold to them even when things get difficult, and they expect me (and my siblings, if applicable) to do the same.
They want me to hold to their values because they love me and want the best for me, but they hope that I will do so with my own personal convictions.
They love being a part of their community.
They make sure that I get to spend lots of time with friends who hold similar values.
They encourage me to help the less fortunate, read inspirational literature, and be active in a community.
Even though we have said it repeatedly, we will once again remind readers that none of the core emotional needs “lives in a vacuum”—parents will find meeting the plus one core need almost impossible if they have not met the other needs as well, particularly the core emotional need for connection and acceptance. Parents who communicate unconditional acceptance, who create connection, who believe in their children without frightening them off with exaggerated expectations, and who have been consistently firm but not rigid with limits are admired by their children; these kids will want to imitate their parents’ values.
“What Do Parents Want?”—Therapist and best-selling author, Peter Levine, researched the topic for ten years and found that the top three qualities American parents hope for in their children are honesty, having good sense and good judgment, and being obedient at home (being studious got a mere 3%).1 In the deep recesses of their hearts, parents value values! On the other side of the globe, Singapore residents were asked to rate a variety of qualities, in order of importance to them personally; honesty, kindness, gratitude, fairness, and forgiveness came out tops.2 In a nation that prides itself on excellence in education, we were encouraged to see the highest rankings given to values accompanying good character.
For many parents, teaching their children values, and the limits that come with having values—even getting children to obey simple rules at home and at school—has been made confusing by modern culture, and has brought its own set of heartaches, stress and frustrations. Parenting experts Dr. Diana Baumrind and Dr. Michael Popkin feel strongly about the “whys” behind passing down values: Baumrind, best known for coining the terms “authoritarian, permissive and authoritative parenting styles”, believes practically the whole point of parenting is to develop character and a sense of competence.3 Popkin, known for his “Active Parenting” series, advises parents to hold out obedience to a set of values as something that benefits the child, not the parents, that the parents’ concern for the children developing principles is not to satisfy the parents’ agenda but totally for the child’s own good (“It’s your life . . . you’re the one who’s going to live with the decisions you make now . . .”).4
Meeting this core need is really about parents shaping their children’s belief systems, their values, in essence, their hearts. It is not about a one-time talk or even a once a week talk; it takes parents sharing the “whys” behind what they think, say and do, attributing meaning to everyday conversations and occurrences. There are many values (gratitude, service, integrity, empathy, respect, loyalty,forgiveness, kindness, and embracing diversity are but a few); different families may have differing opinions on which are the most important. Rather than tell parents which values they should be passing down, we put forward five “views” that we feel parents should impress on their children in order to meet the plus one core need: the way they view themselves, the way they view others, the way they view right and wrong, the way they view taking correction, and the way they view conflict in relationships, forgiveness & reconciliation.
Shaping Our Children’s View of Themselves
By striving to meet the four core emotional needs and avoiding the exasperation interactions we have identified in this book, parents will automatically be helping their children to have a healthy view of themselves. Kids will unconsciously play reassuring messages from their parents over in their heads, which will over time reinforce positive messages and a healthy self-image. Parents who give their children space but are also committed to spending time with them and listening to them are the ones who will be invited into the private thoughts of their children. If parents are (appropriately) open and vulnerable about their own feelings with their children from a young age, their children will be more likely to follow. When this becomes a two-way relationship, parents will know exactly how the children feel about themselves and have a window into their children’s hearts which provides opportunities to shape their thinking about themselves.
When our children were three and five years old, I (Karen) began talking to them about the need to be open and share their thoughts and feelings regularly. This was partly so that they wouldn’t get in the habit of hiding things from us that may have happened during the day, such as when they were at kindergarten. But with Sonia, I had a second motive. I worked with her on having positive thoughts about herself and the way she viewed herself in relation to the world around her, because from a very early age, she would sometimes tell herself negative messages. She would actually say them aloud, but under her breath; I could hear a kind of mumbling coming out of her. I would ask her what she was saying; at first she wouldn’t tell me. Eventually it would come out, “I’m saying I am stupid” or something to that effect. I seem to remember these conversations happening when I was driving her home from school, so I would park the car, turn around, look her in the eye, and tell her positive messages to counter the negative ones she was telling herself. (Knowing what I know now, I am not sure what was happening in our home that caused her to have “defective” thoughts, which come from the domain of disconnection and rejection. We must have been exasperating her in some way—possibly the Perfectionistic & Conditional Exasperation Interaction. At this stage in life she hasn’t been able to come up with anything but I bet if/when she has children one day, some of the memories will come flooding back.)
Tapping into the power of community, which we will cover later in this chapter, can also help your child’s view of himself. When your adolescent child has other adult friends whom they like and respect, they will also be willing to share with them about their inner thoughts and issues. It’s amazing how much of a difference this makes in helping a child view himself in a healthy way, and in being tied into the community. There may not be a better gift parents can give their children than helping them have a healthy view of themselves.
Shaping Our Children’s View of Others
If our children do not feel for and show compassion and empathy for people, they will feel that having concern for others is a task or duty, and their relationships will not be long lasting or fulfilling. Lecturing them about the need to care for people is ineffective; we need to help them feel it from the inside and it starts with the way they view others.
a. Create a Home Environment That Fosters Empathy
We have spoken about helping our kids empathize by getting them involved in volunteer work and through other means. However, caring about others does not just come from visiting the needy and those who have less than we do. Parents need to help their children take others’ feelings into account as they go about their day-to-day lives. Parents should explain things as they are happening so that they are able to attribute positive meaning to situations, not just be a good example for the sake of it.
We talked about the need for parents to show empathy to their children, and to not dismiss them or put them down. We mentioned that by listening to their children’s hurts and showing empathy, parents are modeling what they want their children to do as well, and exhibited a wide array of good that comes when parents show empathy to their children (see Chapter Eight). Sadly, there are some parents who show little empathy with other members in their home, and then expect their children to become people who care. When parents do not model empathy, it is doubtful that it will be deeply embedded in the hearts of their children.
b. Focus on Cause and Effect
Marilyn Watson popularized the idea of talking to children about cause and effect. We have to stress the need to keep talking about the manner in which our children’s actions affect other people’s feelings. If we just point out our children’s mistakes and wrong doings and tell them how much they are messing up, they may eventually get fed up. Many parents exhibit this kind of zeal in their parenting, but do not take the time to explain and process the effect of the misbehavior. Such opportunities should not be missed. They can be turned into valuable life lessons instead of times when we as parents are trying to “teach them a lesson” by harshly correcting them.5
On the flip side, when they do positive things, focus on how it helped other people feel. This will teach them that part of loving people is taking into consideration their feelings. Incidentally, it also helps them with the previous “view” of right and wrong, because children learn best about right and wrong when they see how their right and wrong actions affect other people. This is the heart of ‘The Golden Rule”: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
More from Nucci, our moral development expert (remember his different domains of morality in Chapter Three?): Nucci’s research found that children feel helped when parents correct them with statements about their actions (rather than exasperation interactions) such as, “That really hurt Mike,” “How would you feel if someone had called you a name like that?” “Do you think it is fair for you to get two toys when everyone else gets one?” He wrote, “a child’s moral development is affected by experiences (including conversations) having to do with feelings and thoughts about the ways actions affect people.”6 Focusing at the feelings level is crucial here, as opposed to using one of the exasperation interactions, or even just labeling an act is wrong. Imagine a home atmosphere where negatively labeling actions dominate the way parents teach their children. What would that atmosphere be like from the children’s perspective?
c. Parents as Role Models
One of the most important “others” in the lives of parents are their very own children. As parents we have many opportunities to teach our children this principle, situations when they do well by taking into account other people and those when they do not. This would include speaking to our children in the way that we wish people would speak to us, correcting our children in the way we wish others would correct us, giving our children the benefit of the doubt in the way that we wish others would give us the benefit of the doubt, and encouraging our children in the way that we wish others would encourage us.
Children are very smart; not much gets by them. When they see their parents having a good marriage (not perfect but always working things out and loving each other), and feel that they are treated with love, respect, kindness, and firmness and given appropriate freedom as well as limits, they will put two and two together and admire parents’ values. Before we pass virtues on, we need to live them out ourselves first. An example is extremely powerful, and can become a legacy that we will leave behind for our children.
Our children will see us through the good times and the bad, through our highs and lows, and when we go through our “normal” days. All these put together give our children numerous opportunities to see what we really are on the inside, what values we really hold dear. It goes without saying that they will carry these memories with them till they themselves become adults. It is amazing what they pick up from our behavior on a daily basis. For example, they will see the way that we do the following:
• Work (our work ethic)
• View money, wealth and status
• Share with others (generous or stingy)
• Handle conflict, anger, and forgiveness
• Apologize and display humility (or not)
• Talk about others
• Treat our spouse
• Treat waiters, cashiers, and the “ordinary” people the same as the rich and powerful
• Treat and talk about our own parents, or their grandparents, and our siblings.
The list goes on and on. If there is duplicity between what we teach and what we practice, it will have an impact on them. No doubt, we have weaknesses, but there is a difference between parents who are imperfect and admittedly “works in progress” versus parents whose lives are riddled with hypocrisy and duplicity. Being good examples is crucial; but we also need to verbalize and teach them what we believe.
In their book The Altruistic Personality, Samuel and Pearl Oliner tell how they interviewed 406 persons who rescued Jews from the Nazi Holocaust and 126 people who lived in the same parts of Nazi-occupied Europe but did not get involved in helping the Jews. The rescuers were much more likely than non-rescuers to say:
• Their parents modeled caring values. In contrast, parents of non-rescuers were more likely to have emphasized economic values, such as getting a good job. (This should make us really consider what kind of conversation we have around the dinner table!)
• Non-rescuers also said that their parents were more likely to use harsh punishments. Rescuers instead cited that their parents would occasionally punish them but more often they would teach and explain things.
• Rescuers’ parents also were much more likely to explicitly teach a positive attitude and tolerance towards people of different culture and religion.7 (RR19.1)
The bottom line is parents who show compassion are more likely to have children who are empathic and show compassion to others themselves, and who are more likely to know the difference between right and wrong. Wow! Which leads into our next topic . . .
Shaping Our Children’s View of Right and Wrong
Similarly, we must help our kids learn how to make wise choices and to see that there are consequences for choosing unwisely.
Nucci observed that disputes over issues in the conventional, prudential and personal domains comprised virtually all of adolescent-parent disputes.8 Disciplining and training children about issues within the Moral Domain, which are truly about right and wrong, is always correct. Protecting their safety with boundaries within the Prudential Domain is also a must for parents. However, when parents argue with and discipline their children for “offenses” within the conventional and personal domains, they are on slippery ground. As parents fight with their children about the arbitrary and personal choice issues that are not truly a matter of right and wrong, their children will become exasperated and will experience frustration of their core emotional needs.
There are many issues that tend to get parents frustrated, for example, poor table manners, vulgar language, dishonesty about grades, unusual hairstyle and hair color, to name a few. Think about the types of disputes that you frequently have with your children. Are they about making you look good? Are they about conventional issues? Or are they about helping your children develop morally? Studies have also shown that children who are given control over the personal domain are much more willing to share their personal information with their parents, even when it concerns involvement in sexual behavior. Controlling parents have less chance of knowing their children intimately, especially those at an adolescent stage. Parents can expect a rude awakening about the secret behavior of their children when they sabotage their children with exasperating behavior such as belittling, being punitive, perfectionistic, or controlling. Trying to control the behavior and appearance of children will only lead to these children keeping parents in the dark about their personal struggles and challenges.
Go to our website, www.gep.sg for an exercise in categorizing issues into domains (Nucci’s domains mentioned in Chapter Three) in order to gain insight about guiding your children’s view of right and wrong.
When I (John) was 15 years old, my parents sent me from Malaysia to England to attend boarding school. As you can imagine, the boys there misbehaved and got into all sorts of trouble, including all sorts of bad language, lying, stealing, you name it. However, rather than address hidden issues that could scar boys for life, the school usually focused on the conventional domain. For example, when we spoke to our teachers, we were not allowed to place our hands in our pockets, even in the dead of winter, because it was construed as disrespectful. If we forgot, we would be punished by getting up 45 minutes earlier the next morning and reporting to a prefect. Here were some of the other rules to which we were required to adhere:
Cheering on the rugby field while facing the winds from the Atlantic Ocean with a very high wind chill factor (and no hands in pockets!)
Going for walks in the open farm fields at set times (Sunday afternoons).
Holding our knives and forks the proper (British) way; we were told off if we did it in the American style.
While I am not against conventional rules, it strikes me as very skewed that we had the same severe punishment meted out by kids practically our age (prefects) just for “improperly” holding a fork as we had for being disrespectful to our teachers. We were punished for the dumbest things. These rules were totally arbitrary. Needless to say, I developed a lot of bad attitudes towards the prefects’ authority while schooling there.
When parents focus too much on conventional and personal issues in teenagers and reprimand them for not complying, it often causes a divide. For many teenagers, it results in rebellion. Forget the peripherals and focus on the issues of the heart that really matter.
Shaping Our Children’s View of Taking Correction
Much has already been said in the sections on connection and acceptance and reasonable limits about how to give correction in a way that doesn’t exasperate. It is important for parents to teach their children that they are expected to receive correction with humility and obedience. This may sound difficult but the teen years will be much easier if children were trained in this area during the growing up years! Husbands and wives should get united on expectations for the way they want their children to view correction and be consistent.
Parents should teach their children it is normal to make mistakes, but children and adults alike should own up to our mistakes and make amends for what we did wrong. Having a remorseful and contrite attitude about what we did that has hurt others is a crucial value we need to inculcate in our children. Children should see parents modeling that admitting wrongs and apologizing brings joy to the heart. Kids also need to be taught that when they choose to hide their mistakes and wrongdoings they will end up feeling guilty and miserable.
When children do find the courage to confess their struggles, parents should in turn respond with forgiveness, acceptance and reconciliation. We should refrain from being judgmental, negative and punitive. The “I told you so” and “How many times have I told you and you have not listened?” all convey our disbelief in them and will only turn them away from confiding in us further.
From the time they begin to speak their first words, children should be taught to take responsibility for their disobedience. They should learn to say “I’m sorry” from the heart, which should be followed by forgiveness from parents and assurance of our love for them with hugs and kisses.
How humble are the parents towards each other in managing their conflicts or conflicts with others? How ready are parents to apologize sincerely when they have done something wrong to the children, e.g., yelling at them or being punitive? How open are parents to feedback and input from their own children or from others? These are all noted by the watchful eyes of our little ones who will only learn from what they see in our lives, not from what we teach them.
Shaping Our Children’s View of Conflict, Forgiveness and Reconciliation
When we forgive, bitterness, resentment, and anger are swept away. The negative emotional energy is gone and is replaced by feelings of light-heartedness, freedom, and peace. Indeed, forgiveness is the cornerstone for healing in relationships.
When defining forgiveness, researchers make a distinction between the genuine and the superficial. Dr. Everett Worthington and Dr. Robert Enright are among the foremost experts on forgiveness in North America. Dr. Worthington says, “In genuine forgiveness, one who has suffered an unjust injury chooses to abandon his or her right to resentment and retaliation, and instead offers mercy to the offender.”9 And Dr. Enright writes, “People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right).”10
We would say forgiveness is made up of several components: we are aware the offense was unfair, we acknowledge we have the right to respond with anger, we give up the right to revenge and retaliation that may cause injury to the offender; and we replace the feelings of resentment with compassion, benevolence and love.
(We also believe that parents should teach children that while they have rights, their rights do not trump others’ rights, so they do not have the right to hurt someone just because they feel like getting revenge (see italicized phrase above; also see Chapter Fourteen’s discussion of bottlenecks). At any rate, we acknowledge that when people are hurt, they may feel like retaliating. Stephen Covey, the Seven Habits guru, says one of the differences between humans and other animals is that we have a pause button;11 we believe that parents should teach their children to press the pause button when they feel they have been wronged.)
Back to forgiveness . . . Dr. Enright goes on to say that when people have successfully forgiven someone, they have reduced or eliminated negative feelings, thoughts and behaviors toward the offender. Instead those who forgive have developed:
• Positive feelings or affect toward the offender
• Positive behavior toward the offender
• Positive thoughts or cognitions toward the offender.12
(By substituting the counseling words “affect” for feelings and “cognition” for thoughts, we get Affect, Behavior, Cognition: The ABC’s of Forgiveness).
According to Enright, forgiveness is not condoning the offender’s actions, excusing the offender’s actions, justifying the offender’s actions, or just calming down.13 Forgiveness does not necessarily equal reconciliation. As Dr. Enright puts it, “Reconciliation is the act of two people coming together following separation. Forgiving, on the other hand, is the moral action of one individual that starts as a private act, an unseen decision within the human heart.”14
Reconciliation involves both parties coming together, both rendering forgiveness and asking for forgiveness. Both parties are willing to continue in a relationship with each other. However if one party feels unsafe being in a relationship with the other party who is not remorseful over his/her actions, then the injured party, after forgiving, may decide to not be reconciled, but have only a limited relationship with the other party. (For example, if bullies at school beat up your eight year old, you will hopefully want him to forgive them, but you will probably not expect him to become best friends right away.)
Research has shown convincingly that lack of forgiveness can be detrimental to health; all the more reason we should teach our children about forgiveness. Scientists have found that forgiveness impacts marriage: The higher the level of forgiveness between husband and wife, the higher the marital quality. Other studies show that people who forgive easily have less cardiovascular reactivity and better recovery patterns than those who do not forgive easily. Those who forgive easily also experience less anxiety, depression and anger. When we do not forgive the party that has hurt us, we are not “punishing” them; rather, we are putting ourselves in harm’s way (RR19.2).
Most instances of children bringing the pain of childhood into adulthood relate to areas that were never brought to a proper closure through reconciliation and/or forgiveness. Most people do not know the proper meaning of forgiveness. For many, it is about “pushing things under the carpet”, trying to “forget about it,” or simply saying “sorry”. Why let our children ruminate on unresolved issues when we know these will negatively affect their mental and emotional health?
Dr. Enright and his colleagues conducted two studies on forgiveness with children and came to the conclusion that younger children think about forgiveness differently than older children.15 They found:
• Children ages 9-10 equate forgiveness with revenge (“if I haven’t forgiven you yet, I deserve to take revenge.”)
• Young children desire an apology before they are able to forgive; this should not be a requirement for adults, but for young children, this matters. (Even for adults, this goes a long way to helping people get reconciled.)
• Parents who apologize for mistakes that were their fault, both in front of, and to their children, are not only getting reconciled, but also being good role models for their children. We have heard many adults say their parents have never apologized to them!
• Children whose parents modeled forgiveness ended up practicing it themselves.
• Many adolescents listen to authorities on this matter, such as their teachers at school. When there is a clear, consistent message from teachers and parents, children will likely internalize it and make it part of their belief system.
• Older adolescents focus on the outcome after forgiveness is extended, such as whether or not it leads to a restored relationship afterwards.
• Some adults took a loving and unconditional view of forgiveness—they separated the behavior of the offender from the offender himself. When we do this, forgiveness becomes easier. The goal is to be able to see the behavior of the offender as wrong but not the person himself (RR19.3).
Other points to note when teaching children forgiveness:
• All people, regardless of color, religion, race, etc., have feelings and they all deserve respect. Some in society teach that only “important” people need to be respected. Whether our children are rude to their school principal or to a parking attendant at a grocery store, we must teach our children to extend apologies. In Singapore, we sometimes see children being very disrespectful to foreign domestic helpers employed by their parents, and parents simply ignore this; but when it comes to disrespect towards parents, the children get punished. This sends a very strong message that respect is only for certain people. It is sad to see anyone thinking they are “one-up” on domestic helpers from neighboring countries.
• Not all the people in our children’s lives will apologize, respond to apologies, or agree to reconciliation; all the more reason why forgiving and getting reconciled should be a habit in the family. Children will then appreciate the family even more and understand that giving and receiving mercy and grace exists in the family but not necessarily everywhere else, and they will appreciate the family even more.
• When parents repeatedly model forgiveness as they encounter rude drivers, waiters, and salesmen, it becomes part of the family culture. For young children especially, using books (such as Dr. Seuss’sHorton Hears a Who)16 can be very helpful in teaching this concept. For older children, seeing movies and then discussing them together (rather than lecturing) with the parent is another great way.
• Resolve conflicts quickly in the family and between siblings. When conflicts go unresolved they cause a lot of anger, bitterness and resentment. These layers of emotions become barriers that make it difficult for future acts of love and kindness to penetrate and heal. Family members can become numb and lose empathy for the person they are in conflict with—they become less concerned even if the other party is still in pain over the tension. However, when issues are sorted out quickly it teaches our children sensitivity to the feelings of others; that they should take into account what others are concerned about and not just focus on their own emotions. When tension is allowed to linger, our children will become immune to the pain and feelings of others. When children lose their ability to empathize, they then become adults who are not able to empathize. This will affect their own marriage and relationships with others.
Experts have long extoled the virtues of healthy community. When people connect with one another and each person has the interest of others at heart, something supernatural happens. Through that emotional connection, our deepest hurts get healed. We rejoice together, we mourn together. We love together, we laugh together, and we cry together. We are all weak at some points in our lives. In a healthy community, love, connection, care and acceptance flow from the healthy to the more needy individuals, and that is when healing takes place. Not instantly, but through a steady, slow and consistent process, people do get better. No wonder it is better for people to live in “community”.
Unfortunately we live in a day and age when the responsibility for this kind of connection rests on counselors, educators and therapists. A New York Times article from May 2012 spoke of how we are losing the ability to connect and be intimate as we feel the need to outsource our private lives to specialists and no longer seek help from friends and family.17 Research shows that, more than the skill of the therapist, the most helpful and healing ingredient when seeing a therapist is the connection between counselor and client.18 Close friends should be able to provide that essential, most important emotional healing ingredient.
In the fast-paced world where couples have to schedule in love-making, and friends have to plan a month in advance to meet for coffee, people feel too awkward to show this kind of love and connection. Many times they do not even know how to go about it. Sometimes they feel ill-equipped and out of place. Sometimes it is because of a lack of trust. There exists a lot of hype about the global village and social networks keeping people connected, but for the most part, people in the world seem shallower and have fewer deep relationships than ever before. People rarely talk about their emotional pain with one another, and if they do, it’s not unusual for their circle of friends to advise them to see a counselor or a therapist. We are professional counselors, so obviously we believe in these professions. We respect those skilled, trained and gifted professionals who pour themselves out in trying to bring emotional healing to others, and we do not want to play down the need to be adequately trained, but we wonder if people understand and appreciate the healing power that can come when people just connect with one another? We can surround ourselves with good, healthy and caring people, who want to take an interest in our lives, but if we refuse to let them in, we will not be healed—and it will be to our detriment. We are the ones who will get lonely and feel isolated as a result. This means each of us has the ingredient to heal someone else by giving of ourselves and by pouring out our hearts to one another.
When we feel truly connected, we feel accepted for who we are. Even though we have different gifts and limitations, we feel peaceful, knowing we are forgiven. These friendships add spiritual depth and blessings to our lives. Imagine what all these qualities can do for our well-being? Contemporary research points to the health and mental well-being benefits of a closely, connected community.
In today’s world there are many valuable institutions that offer community: places of worship, universities, schools, child-care centers, Boy Scouts, sports teams, and others, not to mention the family. We believe that if we are going to meet the last “plus one” core need of our children, we cannot do it alone. We can only do it if we are part of a healthy community, and if we get our children immersed in that healthy community.
We have already seen statistics that show how much influence parents have on their children. Make no mistake about it—parents are the primary influence of their children. However, because we are all dysfunctional to a degree, we can only go so far. This is why the most we are able to be is “good enough”.
When our children are weak physically, we take them to a doctor. When they want to improve in a sport, we get them a coach. When they are not doing well in their relationships with us as parents, what do we do? Normally, we just let time pass by and usually relationships and conflicts come to a standstill, and no progress is made. Whom do we call for help? Talking to our spouse, attending parenting seminars, and reading books are all helpful, however do we tap into the power of healthy communities? (RR19.4)
The use of the word “community” for many people carries a range of meanings. It can imply being part of a social club where people come together primarily for social reasons. Their friends are there, and so they feel comfortable there. In his book entitled, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block describes well what community is:
Community as used here is about the experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong. The word belong has two meanings. First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. It is the opposite of thinking that wherever I am, I would be better off somewhere else. Or that I am still forever wandering, looking for that place where I belong. The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends.
The second meaning of the word belong has to do with being an owner: Something belongs to me. To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture. The work, then is to seek in our communities a wider and deeper sense of emotional ownership; it means fostering among all of a community’s citizens a sense of ownership and accountability.19
This idea of belonging and of emotional ownership is really an accurate way to see our respective communities. Having a sense of ownership means caring about the community, playing a role in it, and constantly looking for ways to improve the practice of the values they hold dear. This includes giving feedback and attending meetings. Both of these concepts, the sense of belonging and emotional ownership, need to be grasped by all members, and to the extent that this is understood and practiced will be the extent of the health of that community.
We believe that we are never too young to begin experiencing community. But for children, this has to be balanced with safety. Whenever couples are allowing their children to be with others, they must ensure that the people are trustworthy. We hope this does not sound mean, but we have seen the damage done when parents were not vigilant.
Having said that, we are all for having great vacations with other families from your trusted communities. Combine family holidays and get together regularly, host sleepovers/slumber parties and outings and facilitate sports activities with others. Help your children to develop relationships with the children of other parents that you also know well—that is where community begins. It is not just about children knowing other children, but parents also knowing and having relationships with other parents and their children. Many parents do not know the parents of their children’s friends and this is a mistake. Friendships must take place at both levels, children with children and parents with parents. This constant interaction, sharing, and giving, is what will help develop the sense of community.
When our children were young, we got priceless input on their behavior whenever we would hang out with more experienced parents—we felt a burning desire to ask for advice whenever we travelled or had guests over. We telephoned friends in the USA for advice about breastfeeding or how to put our children to sleep—usually at 3am Singapore time! We learned from our friends in India; they also helped us with discipline, scheduling, and taught us the importance of not allowing our children to moan and whine. We got input from older couples in England and Australia about making sure we did not back down from limits for our children or foster entitlement. We will be forever grateful for this feedback. However, we notice that in the 21st century, the Googling generation does not necessarily have this same sense of community and propensity to learn from older couples. It seems that young couples today are more likely to search the Internet rather than telephone a friend or drop by the home of mature friends who live down the street. We would like to encourage young married couples to seek out help from older folks (those worthy of respect) in their families and neighborhoods who can give real-time advice and feedback for and about their children.
Service for Others
One of the activities young people really look forward to is being able to participate in acts of service that benefit other people. We have seen teenagers completely turn their lives around after getting involved in something bigger than themselves. It is exciting to see how acts of service could have a huge impact in people’s lives. (By the way, have you ever noticed how children do not seem to learn gratitude by being told how grateful they should be? That doesn’t seem to work!)
It is important for parents to encourage teens to spend a lot of time together. Parents need to make the sacrifices necessary to get the children to hang out with other teens from trusted families. This helps like-minded teens have the chance to become close to one another and build community. If you’re worried about your children being gone too much, make your home the center of activity.
Involvement of Other Non-Family Adults to Mentor Your Child
In addition to great peer relationships, the value of having other non-family adults involved in the lives of our children cannot be overstated. Part of why community needs to be fostered at a young age is that this will help your children have relationships with safe adults they can trust when they get to the age where your words do not carry as much weight. Once this happens, you will be glad that they get along with trusted older friends.
In 2005, a nationwide sample of USA adolescents were surveyed and those who were involved in positive mentoring relationships were more likely to complete high school, attend university, be employed afterwards, have positive mental health in the areas of self esteem and life satisfaction, avoid problem behavior (gang membership, physical fighting, risk taking), enjoy good health, and have good relationships with their parents, peers, and other adults such as teachers.20 Wow! Parents, let’s make sure we tap into this positive by-product of mentorship and make things happen for our children as we meet the core emotional need of spiritual, and community values. (See the research in this next RR to discover proven traits of a great mentoring relationship!) (RR19.5)
Partnership Between Parents and Mentors
We think it is particularly helpful for parents and mentors to be on the same page and not work at cross-purposes, working together for the benefit of the youth in question. We encourage parents to ensure that a healthy relationship is built between their teenagers and their mentors. Ideally, we think parents should invite their children’s mentors over for dinner from time to time. Parents and mentors can exchange information on how the teens are doing, using the four plus one core needs as the basis for conversation, which helps ensure a consistency throughout. Mentors should experience our gratitude, not just a verbal thank-you. Think about it: Someone cares enough to invest in the well-being of your child! It is helpful for the teen to see both parents and mentors get along. A functional community calls for this kind of a relationship.
One of the issues in this relationship is confidentiality. Teens need to feel safe with their mentor; i.e., what they share in confidence with a mentor will not make its way back to their parents. There are only two conditions upon which confidentiality should be broken, as in the counseling profession: When the teen is potentially causing harm to themselves or others or to another’s property.
When relationships are solid on all fronts, the bond becomes strong and the community is functional.
It is exciting to think that by meeting the plus one core emotional need of spiritual values and community, you will be able to influence the way your children view themselves, others, right and wrong, taking correction, and the huge area of dealing with conflict, and forgiveness! These essential values that define and shape our children are further entrenched into their hearts when they are part of a loving, connected community that continues to bring out the best in them as they grow up to be loving, healthy adults.
When David was in first grade, or Primary One (P1) as it is known in Singapore, he had a nice circle of friends, including a boy named Jonathan who had a permanent disability and needed a walker. During the school’s annual Sports’ Day, of which I (Karen) was a volunteer organizer, the P1 kids took part in simple relay races and were allowed to choose their own team, six to a team. One of the relays was a beanbag race: the kids had to walk to a marked spot and back while balancing a small bean bag on their head, then place it on the next chap’s head without dropping it. David ended up being on a team with all of his buddies, except for Jonathan, who had not been allowed to participate in any relay. For whatever reason, David’s team had supersonic speed and was a person ahead of all the other teams by the time the sixth boy took off—victory was eminent! However, right at that moment, Jonathan’s mother, holding the disabled child in her arms, asked David if he would allow Jonathan to race for their team, since he had not been allowed to participate in any other race all morning. I saw the conflict on David’s face—they were seconds away from first place . . . If he said “No” to his friend, he would feel lousy; if he said “Yes”, Jonathan would be happy, but they would surely come in last and his teammates might be angry. In that split second, he decided. “Yes, Jonathan, you can join.” Seeing the look of absolute joy on Jonathan’s face probably helped David to feel a little bit better as they came in last place. When Jonathan’s mom carried him across the finish line, he was beaming, so glad to be a part of a team. I was holding back tears, proud of my son, and suffering for him, too, because I knew it was killing him to give up the trophy. After the hoo hah died down and the kids were getting refreshments, David walked over to me and said, “Well, Mom, we may have come in last in the bean bag race, but I bet in heaven, we came in first place.” I hugged him and told him that he had made me the happiest mom on the planet.