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February 27, 2013

Love Thy Neighbor: Teaching the Golden Rule to Your Children

Image: Flickr/Alec Couros

Image: Flickr/Alec Couros

We all heard it growing up, didn’t we? “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” It’s the Golden Rule, one of the central commands offered up in the Jewish tradition and again reiterated by Jesus. “Love they neighbor as thyself.” So how do we teach the golden rule to our children? How do we instruct them in the skills necessary to have successful relationships?

If you’re anything like me, sibling rivalry ranks right up there with filing your taxes. There is nothing that can get me as easily riled up as watching my kids fight, pick on each other, or tear one another down. So naturally, learning the Golden Rule in the context of family is the first place to start. It also happens to be the hardest, but if we all (and I intentionally include us as parents in this)…if we can ALL learn how to love others as we love ourselves within our families, then we’ll more easily transfer those skills outside the family.
The Apostle Paul, a follower of Jesus, elaborated on the Golden Rule by showing us what love looks like.  In First Corinthians 13, a rather famous passage that is read at many weddings, he talks about love being patient, kind, not easily provoked, etc. I want to look at three specific descriptions of love that we would do well to teach our children.
Love Does Not Brag “My science fair project is the best.” “I got a 100 on my math test. What did you get?” “Look at my new shoes. They cost $125.” Over and over, we hear the comparison game, which is merely an attempt to feel valued, important, or special. At times, it can feel like life is one constant competition to see who can make it to the top first…or most often. The unfortunate reality, though, is that bragging damages relationships. In an attempt to elevate self, someone else is devalued, made to feel less than, disregarded.
Instead, let’s teach our kids the importance of valuing others and their own unique contributions, talents, and abilities. Going back to the Golden Rule, we can start the conversation with our kids, “How do you want to be treated when you turn in your science fair project?” Invariably they will tell us that they want others to notice it, to point out how hard they worked on it, to appreciate the good things about it. If that’s so, then encourage them to start to notice other’s accomplishments. Hand out genuine compliments and seek to encourage others for what they’ve achieved.  Here’s the clincher, though.  Don’t wait around for the return compliment.  We’ve all done it, haven’t we? We’ve uttered “You look really nice today” hoping that we’d hear the same. Ugh! That’s not genuine! Here’s the magic that inevitably comes from being a person who does not brag but notices the good in others: people like you! Rather than vying to be top dog, which tends to push people away, people are drawn to us when they feel valued by us.
Love Is Not Jealous Interestingly, jealousy is, in many ways, the opposite of bragging. Rather than trying to be the top dog, we are angry and resentful of the one who is. When we see someone who’s better at something than we are or who possesses something that we want, then we have a tendency to be jealous…and maybe even wish that they no longer had it!
So how do we help our kids with this aspect of the Golden Rule? It starts with growing gratitude.  And one of the beautiful byproducts of a thankful heart is contentment. It’s much more difficult to be jealous of another when we are content within ourselves. Jealousy loses its sting in the midst of gratefulness. Most of us excel at practicing gratitude in the month of November, but it is a muscle that needs to be developed year round. In fact, studies have shown that kids who keep gratitude journals are better students and happier overall. So why not have individual gratitude journals for each of your kids or a corporate one for your family?  Have it sitting in the kitchen, with a pen handy, for everyone to record the things they’re grateful for: green grass, Cherry Coke, the swing set, a baby’s belly laugh, a safe trip to see family, dryer sheets. For smaller kids, have them draw their gratitude list and you can label their pictures. As you practice gratitude, watch for contentment and joy to increase and the green-eyed monster to decrease.
Love is Kind My parents were masters at teaching my sister and me practical applications of the Golden Rule. For instance, when I was about six, the four of us (Mom, Dad, Jennifer, and I) exchanged names and then “practiced kindness” by doing something encouraging: a lipstick message on the bathroom mirror saying, “You rock!”  or whipping up a special treat for the other person. It was a fun and creative way to show each other how much we cared.
So as you ponder how to teach your children the Golden Rule, look for creative opportunities to give them a chance to practice it, and then encourage, encourage, and encourage them some more when you see them living it out!


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