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What Our Children Need to Learn

By Dr Sue Roffey

Dr Sue Roffey, a psychologist and academic specialising in whole child, whole school wellbeing, believes strongly that what we teach children about what matters in the world needs to change right now. Here’s why:

In the last few years, we have been handed huge wake-up calls about the future – the climate crisis, the pandemic and the rising tide of hate in some places against those ‘not like us’. To have any hope of our children living in a safer, kinder world, we need to teach them the importance of ‘us’ rather than focusing only on what matters for ‘me’.

From the second they enter the world, babies are absorbing information at a rapid rate, making millions of neural connections a minute. As they grow, they try things out, and over time develop an understanding about what matters to their parents and carers.

What they are learning about themselves, other people, and the world around them in these early years determines who they become, how they interact and the values they live by. Every family needs to decide on these values– both for their children’s wellbeing and for the future they create. The values I have focused on here are responsibility, kindness, empathy and inclusion and I believe they are core values that will enhance the lives and happiness of our children, and the world around them.

Taking Responsibility

It is tempting for parents to sort things out for their children. When they are upset, we want to find ways to soothe the crisis and stop the tears or tantrums. But this doesn’t do our children a service – by finding a solution for them, we aren’t giving them the chance to learn to problem-solve for themselves.

Even before they can talk, adults can model how to think through issues by asking questions such as, ‘What will help make this better?’ ‘What can we do now?’ And maybe when they have enough language to answer- ‘What might you do differently next time?”

Throughout life, we all have the opportunity to make decisions about what concerns us, rather than let other people control what we can and can’t do – doing this is called having ‘agency’.

With agency comes responsibility.

When you make choices, then what happens as a result of those choices is down, at least in part, to you. It is harder to blame others when things go wrong. This is not only about individuals – we also have a responsibility towards others. This has been highlighted by how people have acted to protect each other in the pandemic.

Encouraging responsibility throughout childhood demonstrates that this is something you value. Talk about the importance of not littering to show respect for our wonderful world or about looking for alternatives to plastic to protect our oceans. If children have a pet, support them to take at least some responsibility for its everyday care.

Kindness and Empathy

More than anything, it is the quality of our relationships that bring us long-lasting happiness. Showing children how to be friendly and include others is both in their interests and in the world they are creating. Friendliness includes being pleased to see someone, inviting them to play, sharing toys (not always an easy task for toddlers!), and showing care when they are hurt or left out.

Although little children are ego-centric, with everything centred around them, even babies are aware of others and will be upset by another child crying. Empathy is more hard-wired than we imagine. We need to foster this innate quality and help children learn about their own feelings so they can more easily tune into others.

Help children feel effective by telling them that giving you a hug really cheers you up or that smiling at an elderly neighbour probably made his day. When parents/ carers talk about their own feelings, children learn a language for emotions. Using words is better than resorting to fists or feet when things get tricky.

Diversity and Inclusion

By stereotyping someone, you stop seeing them as an individual with their own strengths and challenges and you put them in a pigeonhole depending on their race, gender, ability or background. This limited view can be harmful and at worst leads to treating people as objects rather than other human beings with whom we share our world.

Children learn about each other not just from families and care settings, but also from books and other media. If we are to help children understand that everyone is valuable and deserving of kindness and inclusion then the images, activities and conversations that surround them matter.

Here are some books you might like to try:

Marmaduke; the Very Different Dragon by Rachel Valentine – celebrates the differences in each of us.

Grrr by Rob Biddulph - about a bear who thinks being first is most important.

It Isn’t Rude to Be Nude by Rosie Haine - celebrating different shapes, sizes and colours.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessie Love – showing that boys can be anything they choose.

Whose Toes are Those by Jabari Asim A board book for sharing with little ones.

Focusing on Strengths

Parents and carers can quickly fall into the practice of telling children they are naughty, messy, lazy or some other negative term. When we give our children labels in this way, it  gives them an idea of who they are becoming, and they are likely to live up (or down) to these labels.

By focusing on strengths, we help to develop a different self-concept and give children positives to live up to. Finding opportunities to tell them they are, for instance, loving, helpful, brave or gentle, will support the values we would like them to have.

Dr Sue Roffey is the co-author of Creating the World We Want to Live In (Routledge) available now £19.99.