Dr. Ron Taffel is one of the most eclectic and practical child-rearing experts in the country and the author of two best-selling books, Parenting by Heart: How to be in Charge, Stay Connected and Instill Your Values- When it Feels Like You’ve Got 15 Minutes a Day (Addison Wesley) and Why Parents Disagree: How Women and Men Parent Differently and How We Can Work Together (Morrow). He has also been featured on 20/20, The Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of radio shows.
Solid historical evidence shows that children’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth, mood, and anxiety lifts when given the opportunity to help others. In fact, Freud instructed parents of an anxious and ill child to purchase a dog for the girl. The child moved beyond her fears by focusing on caring for her pet. Since this time, parents and professionals have found, over and over again, that vulnerable or stressed children (and adults) are relieved of burdens when offered the opportunity to care for others. Unfortunately, today’s pop culture promotes the notion that kids just want to consume things. This focus on “stuff” and material acquisition makes us forget that children’s powerful and inate desire to help others is still intact. It is compelling to remember that even children who are clearly suffering will be relieved of their burdens when they can do something to help someone else.
Acts of kindness give children a sense of power at a point when they are feeling the worst sense of powerlessness. The hospital environment isolates children — machines beeping at all hours of the day and night, tubes, procedures, and too much time away from friends. They feel so many negative things inside because “nothing seems to be working right” in their body and they have no control. Doing an act of kindness helps children feel empowered. This feeling is contagious. It makes them feel more in control and more powerful at a difficult time.
Children identify with each other. Doing something positive for another ill child reduces feelings of isolation and despair. From nursery school through college, children are surrounded by their peers. Their self-identity is wrapped up in beliefs, language, trends and behaviors that are shaped and shared in groups. That’s why it is not surprising that the isolation of illness is one of the biggest hardships for hospitalized and chronically ill children. When ill and challenged children reach out and take actions to help others, it gives them an experience that is incalculably positive because it instills a sense of hope. They can immediately see or imagine how this kindness transforms an ill child. Then they feel a sense of possibility and hope, leaving their sadness and isolation behind. The child learns and borrows from this experience allowing them to feel more hopeful and positive in the face of the most difficult circumstances.
When children are ill, adults tend to focus primarily on the treatment of the child’s illness. It is natural that when a child is ill, his or her parents will organize around attending to the child’s needs, treatments, and the alleviation of symptoms and discomfort. Normal routines (enjoying fun activities together, doing homework, eating dinner together, watching TV and relaxing) go by the wayside and the child’s identity can be subsumed by the illness. Another positive consequence when an ill child does kind acts for other ill children is that it gives parents, doctors, nurses and other caregivers the opportunity to acknowledge the child’s true personality as evidenced through creativity, kindness, and compassion. This in turn makes the child feel more positively about themselves and their actions.