Raising Children of Peace

Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones

Children of Peace

Empathy and Self-Discipline, the Soul Builders
Joy Morrow

I am a school principal and as such, I obviously am concerned with academic success, but I think it must be recognized that a child who is academically gifted may or may not be successful as a person. Far more important to their overall success in life is their ability to exercise self-control over their emotions and their actions. This begins with the understanding that everyone has a choice in matters of emotions and actions.

There's a great deal of interest and discussion these days about character education. There are core values that are universal to people of all faiths such as honesty, integrity, kindness, and fairness. But undergirding the development of all these positive character traits are two social skills that are prerequisites for character development: empathy and self-discipline. Amatai Etzioni, a sociologist at Georgetown University and a leader in character education, views these two attributes as the infrastructure upon which character development is built.

Empathy allows a child to appreciate the perspective and feelings of others, to sense violations of justice and care and to distinguish right from wrong. Self-discipline provides the ability to delay or even forego gratification in order to remain committed to a set of values or goals.

Empathy and self discipline are complementary skills, each resting on a form of perspective taking. Empathy involves taking the perspective of another and responding accordingly. Self-discipline involves taking the perspective of the future, or of the social context of rules, mores, social ethics, and consequences. Research has shown that both can be nurtured.'

Empathy can be developed by helping children become sensitive observers of others. Thomas Likona, in his book Educating for Character, states that "much of our creative moral thinking arises out of emotionally laden experiences. 1 2 The deepest memories of childhood spring from emotionally rich or intense moments. One never forgets the tears in the eyes of the senior citizens when they watch the little children singing Christmas carols, especially if you are one of those little children. A very deep personal satisfaction and feeling of "rightness" comes upon a child when they spend their time and energy helping others. Whether it's with Special Olympics, teaching swimming lessons to handicapped youngsters, or helping to clean up an elderly neighbor's yard, they can appreciate their own lives, gifts, health, and capacities more by serving and working with those who are less fortunate.

It's important for the parent to model such behavior for the child. Many parents do so without even thinking about it, when they shovel the neighbor's snowy walk, help a friend who is moving, take someone who is sick a meal, or invite a lonely single to share a holiday. As the children get older they too can help shovel the walk or carry the boxes. It's important to provide them with such opportunities when they are young and eager to help. If at a young age they have the opportunity to experience this feeling of "rightness" they will be more open to giving of themselves. If you wait until they are teenagers to expose them to these experiences, they are more likely to be resistant and less embracing of giving up their time and personal agenda.

To develop empathy, children need first hand, face-to-face helping relationships. Children can participate in special service projects with churches, clubs, Scouts, or programs serving the handicapped, elderly, or the homeless. These can provide very memorable experiences that will expand their consciousness and deepen their empathetic hearts. But equally important are the common, day-to-day chances to practice empathy in the family; to serve a sibling who has the flu, make a get well card for Grandma, or help Dad carry in the groceries. By helping our children to notice when others could use their help or support, we open their eyes and hearts. With a little encouragement, God and their conscience will lead them the rest of the way.

Empathy is taught through modeling. Listen to your child's heart and let him know that you hear him and understand his feelings. When a parent acknowledges the child's feelings, it models becoming a sensitive observer for the child, and teaches him how to respond to others in similar situations.

When seeing someone else's pain or suffering, it's important to make the time to talk about it with your child. "Jamie is really sad over her Grandpa passing away. Has she said anything to you about it?" or "It's hard for Aaron to have to spend the summer with a broken leg. What do you think we might do to make him feel better?" Sometimes even a movie or TV show provides such an opportunity to discuss what the character was feeling.

It's especially important to allow your children to share the experiences you are going through. Some parents think they are doing their children a favor to shield them from life's pain. But loss of a parent's job, a miscarriage, or the illness of a loved one are all important parts of life that children must learn to face. They are also opportunities to deepen love relationships and for the development of empathy.

For example, when a parent loses a job, the children feel the undercurrent or increased pressure within the family. If they don't know what is causing this they may worry unnecessarily, thinking they are at fault, or frightened that Mom and Dad might be heading for that scary unknown of divorce. They need to have it explained to them on a level they can understand. They can handle it once they are reassured that the family is going to be all right, that Mom and Dad love each other and love them, and that together we will get through this. They can also learn a great deal about empathy through these experiences.

For example, when my husband lost his job, I talked with our children and told them, "I know it's hard not to ask for McDonald's and treats, but Mom and Dad simply do not have the money to do these things right now. It hurts our hearts to have to say no, so please help us out by not asking for things you know we can't afford. This can be your way of helping Mom and Dad through this hard time." It was actually a very good lesson in self-discipline and empathy for them. I could see them starting to ask for something, thinking about it and stopping themselves. I am actually grateful for having gone through this. Though it was a painful time for our couple, it was a very valuable experience for our family.

The promoters of an organization known as Community Service Learning cite as a critical factor in the development of empathy what they refer to as "debriefing'.' Debriefing involves reflecting on and sharing about the service experience. It can be as simple as sitting under a tree sharing a soda with the parent after cutting the neighbor's grass and talking about how it feels good inside to help others. Or it might be sharing around the dinner table what it felt like to sing at the senior citizens center. But it is the reflection and sharing about the emotions and the experience that cements the heartistic learning.

Empathy through Conflict Resolution

Another way that empathy is learned is through successful conflict resolution. The parent or teacher must be vigilant to notice what the children are talking about, and who seems to be angry or hurt or upset. It's important for the adult to encourage the children to resolve their own conflicts. But when they are unable to do so, the adult can model fairness by hearing both sides and then guiding the children through a scenario like the following:

Sean threatens to beat up Cory.
Adult: "I'd like both of you to look at one another. Sean, look at your friend's face. How do you think he is feeling?"
Sean: "Mad and hurt:'
Adult: " How would you feel if I threatened to hit you? You'd think I was a really mean person, a bully, wouldn't you?"
Sean: "Yes:"
Adult: "Well, I wouldn't do that to you. But Sean, do you want other people to think that you are mean? Is that how you want others to see you, as a mean person, a bully?"
Sean: "No."
Adult: "I want you to apologize, explaining what you did, and ask Cory if he can find it in his heart to forgive you."
"And then Cory, if you can find it in your heart to forgive Sean, tell him so. But also tell him how you feel about what he did and let him know how it made you feel. Also explain to him what you'd like to see change in the relationship. Also, please look each other in the eyes when you're doing this."
Sean: "Cory, I'm sorry I said I'd beat you up when we were on the playground. Will you forgive me?"
Cory: "Yes, I'll forgive you. But you have to promise to stop picking on me and trying to boss me around. It really hurts my feelings when you do that."

Through such an experience of conflict resolution the child who had hurt another begins to put himself in the other child's shoes. For a brief instant they feel the fear and uncertainty of wondering if the adult would really follow through. After being reassured that they are indeed safe, they can relate to the fact that they wouldn't like a person who would do that, nor do they want to be thought of as being that kind of person. The child who has hurt another physically or emotionally, needs to humble himself and ask forgiveness of the one wronged. The child who has been hurt can thus go beyond being a victim, since being able to offer forgiveness is very empowering. This process also provides the child with an opportunity to stand up for himself and express what he feels needs to change in the relationship.

Through this simple formula, we can lay the foundation for very valuable communication skills, as well as provide an opportunity to develop empathy.

Encouraging Self-Discipline through Positive Language

When interacting with children, we have many opportunities for helping them to become self aware. Instead of yelling, "No; or "Stop that!" try saying, "Are you making a good choice right now?" Get the child to stop and think about what he is doing. Mom and Dad (or teacher) are not always going to be there to tell him to stop doing inappropriate things. A child needs to develop the ability to think for himself about his actions and then to develop the habit of making a "good choice."

The use of the word "bad" is discouraged, since children, upon hearing this word, tend to take it to heart that we are saying they are bad. This affects how they see themselves and can end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy... 'As long as everyone sees me as a bad boy, I guess I must be one." Instead we speak of "sad choices:" Sad choices are ones that keep us from growing and being the best person we can be. Sad choices hurt us and others and our God that lives within us. Again sad connects to the heart and the emotions, which then helps the child to internalize his experience and contributes to his moral development.

Children need to understand that their true value is that each is God's son or daughter. We have to have that dignity and honor always, and see how valuable we are to God and humanity. The beauty of our position is that God as the Creator has given us the power to be a co-creator with Him. And what we have to create is ourselves. Each person has the responsibility to make the best choices he can in life so that he can grow to be a true reflection of God, a true man or woman, and a true parent to his children.

Children from an early age need to see that the choices they make each day will grow and shape them into the persons they will become. To be a wonderful mom or dad someday, to become a person who can be a true and trusted friend, or a person who will do great things for God and humankind, all these things start with the choices we learn to make as children.

This framework provides an overall sense of the purpose of life and from an early age helps to support children in clearly understanding why making good choices is important. They can see their value in relationship to God, others and the universe. Through this they begin to find intrinsic value in choosing to do good, with "goodness being its own reward." This is the foundation for becoming a self-disciplined person.

Of course children learn by modeling. Therefore, it matters far more what you do than simply what you say. If you want your children to have control over their bodies and emotions, it means you must be able to demonstrate that for them. Parents who argue and scream at each other in front of their children model disharmony and the inability to resolve conflicts with words. Parents who contradict one another's attempts at discipline cannot model unity, which then leaves the children confused and insecure.

You can teach only what you yourself are truly able to live. Of course we all fall short at times and make mistakes. This is not all bad. It's important that the child also see modeled for him the ability to make a mistake and the way to take responsibility for that. If you lose control, it's important that you restore that relationship. If your child can see that mistakes can be restored, this too is a valuable lesson, especially if you make the time to talk about it and address his concerns. Taking responsibility for your mistakes, and for their emotional impact on others is one of the more profound acts of empathy and self-discipline. Modeling this for our child is a gift of high proportion.


1. Sheldon Berman and Diane Berreth, Schools as Moral Communities: Methods for Building Empathy and Self Discipline Communitarian Network's Task Force paper, 1996.

2. Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character, New York, NY: Bantam, 1991.

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