Guest Blogger Erik Fisher: In today's society, so many of us feel that children are growing up with unhealthy values and unproductive attitudes. Children and teens are sometimes viewed as self-centered, seldom thinking about others in their families or communities. While there are many factors that contribute to their behaviors and beliefs, there may be ways to guide and affect their belief systems -- and develop a closer relationship in the process.
Often children develop a self-centered view toward the world either through observation and/or lack of exposure to helping others. As parents and caretakers of children, have we ever really looked at ourselves as the sources of unproductive, self-centered attitudes? In the formative years of our children's lives, we are their most important models -- and whether we realize it or not, they see and hear almost everything we do.
Work, Work, Work
In many families today, it's common for both parents to work, so the time that one or both parents have to spend with their children is compromised. If we feel we have to scramble to make ends meet, it seems like time to do anything else is compromised, too. Between the responsibilities of work and home, time to ourselves seems almost nonexistent.
We may not want to look closely at ourselves, but have we asked ourselves how our children see us spending our time when we're home? They may see us resting, watching TV, cleaning, cooking, helping with homework, shopping online, playing sports .... We may think that we devote much of our time to our kids by driving them to games, friends' houses and movies, and by working our fingers to the bone to make sure they have food, clothes and a roof over their heads. But we still need to recognize that all of these efforts also serve our own purposes at some level -- and that frankly, our children expect these things of us. Our children often don't realize that we're "volunteering" our time to serve them.
Ask yourself: "When was the last time that we volunteered our time to people in need?" Or, even more important, "When was the last time we, as a family, volunteered our time to people in need?" For many of us, the answer to the first question may be, "A long time" -- and the answer to the second question may be, "Never." On the other hand, sometimes we feel that we ARE the people in need, and in some ways we may be; however, if all that we expect when we're in need is to receive, what are our children learning? They say, "If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime." Giving back to others is teaching the man to fish: It creates a cycle of giving and receiving. Frankly, what got us into the mess we're in now was more taking than giving (plus an excessive sense of entitlement that seemed to be taught from the top down).
United We Stand
The family unit has the capacity to be a very strong, cohesive team, but the members of the family have to learn to work as a team first. Volunteering as a family can teach many positive lessons. When we contribute our time and effort to an altruistic cause, it helps us to feel better about ourselves. It strengthens our work ethic, teaches us about the world around us, brings us into contact with different people, helps us form different relationships and builds self-confidence.
If, as a parent, you feel that you work hard enough as it is, then you have to be very careful of the message you are sending your children. If you and your kids spent just three hours on a Saturday morning once a month cleaning up a park or planting flowers, or committed part of Thanksgiving or Christmas Day to feeding people at a shelter or church, it would send a positive message that your children would value for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes we allow ourselves to be stopped by different barriers, obstacles or excuses that prevent us from giving our time to others. It doesn't matter how much or how little money your family makes, the time of day that you can volunteer, where you live, if you can walk or talk ... there are always volunteer options. If you find yourself finding reasons to not volunteer your time, consider the messages your children might be receiving.
Parents are often looking for ways to spend quality time with their children, and volunteering as a family can be one of the richest forms of quality time. If you're looking for ways to do it, contact some of these sources: Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Meals on Wheels and your local animal shelters, churches, homeless and battered women's shelters, after-school programs, public broadcasting stations, nursing homes and hospitals.
Ask your children what they would like to do. They may have great ideas! When you listen to your children and include them on decisions like this, they feel more valued. Always remember that our children are a gift to us -- and the time we spend with them is priceless.
About the author: Erik Fisher, PhD, a.k.a. Dr. E, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.ErikFisher.com to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict," or to check out his blog.