Thoughts on raising altruistic children

Miep Gies, the last surviving protector of Anne Frank’s family, died last week at the age of 100. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, Gies risked her life on a daily basis to keep the Franks and other Jews safe and fed. She also gave Anne books of blank paper to write on, and retrieved and preserved Anne’s diary after the Franks were arrested.

Reading accounts of Gies’ life, I was struck by the way she described her decision to help conceal Dutch Jews: “I simply had no choice.” “I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.” (continues after the jump)

Her words reminded me of an article from a political science journal, which I read at least 15 years ago. I can’t remember the author’s name or even the journal, but the article compared people who had rescued Jews from Hitler’s regime with people who had not participated in sheltering Jews. Asked to explain their actions, people in both groups tended to suggest they had no choice. Rescuers would say things like, “He showed up on my doorstep. What else could I do?” Others might say, “I had no choice–I couldn’t risk my family’s lives.”

Kristen Monroe reached a similar conclusion when writing her book The hand of compassion: portraits of moral choice during the Holocaust.  After in-depth interviews with a number of rescuers, Monroe concluded that these people’s identity rested on the assumption that “we are all human beings.” That identity, “their perceptions of themselves in relation to others […] worked to constrain and shape the choices they found available […].” In other words, these moral heroes did not weigh the risks and benefits of helping Jews. They felt they had no other option. Monroe concludes, “ethical acts emerge not from choice so much as from our sense of who we are, from our identities.”

Even though I haven’t read Monroe’s whole book–just some excerpts–her argument about altruism got me thinking. How can I encourage my children to develop the sense that “we are all human beings”?

Fortunately, my family will never face the kind of dangers Miep Gies or Monroe’s subjects confronted. But standing up for any outsider involves some level of personal risk. It’s easier not to get involved.

If I want my children to feel compelled to help peers who are struggling, or intervene on behalf of kids who are bullied, they will need to have a sense that everyone in the community deserves protection, not just members of our tribe or circle of friends.

My children are already exposed to some diversity, through their peers as well as their school curriculum. They also understand that most people in our area celebrate different religious holidays from our family. While they are too young to understand tolerance and social justice as abstract concepts, they are learning about fairness, interacting with peers and resolving conflicts every day.

I would like to hear from parents of older kids about how you encouraged your children to identify with outsiders or people in trouble. For instance, how did you involve your children in donating to charity or serving the needy in another way? How have you talked with your child about cliquey-ness or bullying in school? My older son sometimes tells me that a classmate was saying mean things about another person. I try to convey that even though you don’t have to like everyone or be friends with everyone, teasing and name-calling are never ok.

When I cross-posted this diary at Mother Talkers and Daily Kos, many commenters suggested that modeling kind, respectful and altruistic behavior is the best way to influence children. Good advice. In fact, one of my mommy blogger friends has written that “Treat your child with respect” is the best way to summarize her whole approach to parenting.

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  • Excellent book to start conversations...

    I highly recommend “The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander” by Barbara Coloroso.  Coloroso does an excellent job of identifying what she calls, “three characters in a tragic play,” and in her analysis holds the bystander as accountable and responsible as the bully his/herself.  I know that at least one of the Waukee middle schools is using it for a staff-wide book study to reduce incidents of bullying in their building.  I think it’s a must-read for parents, educators, and any adult who is interested in breaking the cycle of bullying and violence among our children.

  • Model the behavior you want to see...

    And make sure the kids know that this behavior is what you expect.