Have you ever tried to lecture your children on the importance of empathy, cooperation, and kindness? Older kids tune out faster than you can say "b-o-o-o-o-o-ring." Younger children don't understand what you're talking about. Luckily, teaching kids values doesn't have to be a dull experience. Here are seven ways to do it without preaching or nagging.
1. Plant a garden. Growing even a single flower can demonstrate how perseverance pays off—but it's more fun to nurture a small garden instead. The trick is not to try your children's patience too much. Sharon Myrie, vice president of education at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, suggests going with marigolds and zinnias, since they're easy to grow. Sunflowers are also great because kids get a kick out of their height. When everything's in full bloom, have your kids make a bouquet for a neighbor, which will teach them thoughtfulness too. If you plant vegetables instead—peas and radishes grow fast—you can cook and eat them, a wonderful demonstration of the satisfaction self-reliance can bring. Bonus: "A child is much more willing to eat her veggies if she's planted and tended them herself," Myrie says.
2. Reach out to an older person. Brighten the days of a senior citizen in your community, and your kids will quickly learn respect for their elders. Make a basket of muffins or home-baked bread, and have your children deliver it to an elderly neighbor. When you go to the supermarket, check whether you can pick up a few items for a senior who can't get around easily. Or, if your son or daughter takes music lessons, arrange a recital at a nursing home. It will not only entertain the residents, it may spur your child to practice a little harder.
3. Have a toy wash. David Newell—Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—recalls an activity that the beloved Fred Rogers often recommended to instill a sense of responsibility in kids. Put your child's washable toys in a bin and fill two dishpans with warm water, adding soap to one. Demonstrate how to clean off the toys in the soap-water bin and rinse them in the other, then lay them out on a towel to dry. Children love water play, so this chore seems more like fun than work. Sing, "This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes" as you work together, substituting "toys" for "clothes." When you're through, tell your child, "You're doing a great job of taking care of your things!"
4. Design homemade thank-you cards. Here's an arts-and-crafts project that teaches kids to express their gratitude in a creative way. Sit down with your child and make cards out of construction paper, crayons, stickers, and whatever else is in your art closet. Keep the notes handy, and help your little one send them out whenever someone gives him a gift or comforts him on a difficult day. You can either hand-deliver one or tuck one into an envelope and mail it. To show your child how good it feels to be appreciated, send him a thank-you note on an occasion when he's been especially helpful to you.
5. Start a scrapbook. Kids can't develop strong values until they have enough empathy to gauge other people's emotions. To help your child learn to read nonverbal cues, gather up copies of your (or his) favorite magazines and flip through them together. Instead of focusing on the words, study the people in the photos. Talk about what kind of mood they're in, judging by their expressions and body language. Rip out the pages and let your child help put them in a binder, or cut out the faces and paste them in a scrapbook. Later, look at the pictures again, and talk in depth about the emotions you identified. Point at a face and ask whether it's okay to feel that way (the answer, of course, is yes, no matter what emotion is depicted).
6. Clean up for good. Want to teach your kids the joys of being charitable and declutter your house at the same time? Have them pick a local cause they believe in, and sell their old stuff to raise money for it. Help round up outgrown toys, books, clothing, and sports equipment, then set a date to hold a yard sale. Encourage little ones to color a poster to advertise it. On the big day, your kids can sell lemonade or, if they're old enough, collect customers' money. When the sale is over, they'll be proud of how much they earned. Plan for everyone to personally deliver the proceeds to the charity.
7. Be a pal. The "buddy game" is a wonderful way to help children learn to be unselfish, since it shifts their focus to another family member. And getting started is easy: Put everybody's name into a hat at breakfast, then have each person take a turn drawing from it. For the rest of the day, instruct each person to look for nice things to do on the sly for his buddy—it could be anything from leaving little gifts to playing his pal's favorite game. (Mom or Dad can help the youngest children think of sweet gestures.) The element of secrecy makes it fun.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the May 2005 issue of Parents magazine.