You often hear people say that children are the future. Of course this is true. However, the current reality is that children are dealing with so many more issues then we did 50, 20 or even 10 years ago. Of course, a forefront issue includes bullying. The numbers of teenagers across the country who have committed suicide over the last year because they were bullied are unfathomable and must be addressed, by government, by schools, by parents...but ultimately, by us as humans.
Add poverty, abuse, neglect, lack of self-esteem and low motivation in school, and it makes you wonder how children can possibly cope with the expectations placed on them by society.
Don't get me wrong. There are many youth out there who are motivated, who are loved and who are supported, and who exceed expectations that are placed on them. And that are happy. But there are many who are not.
Having one children or teenager who is facing these social issues is too much.
According to research, as well as my own personal and professional experience, the key is mentorship. Kids who have a positive role model in their lives are more likely to succeed academically and develop healthy lifestyles.
Personally, I can attest to this. I grew up with a Big Sister from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton throughout my teens. Despite living in a single-parent home, coping with the death of my father at a young age, and dealing with bullying and self esteem issues, having a mentor saved my life. And it stays with you into your adulthood.
For me, the impact is demonstrated in professional life. Fifteen years later, my priority is to help Canadian children and youth find their mentors to help them succeed. At the same time, I continue to seek out my own.
Mentorship does not have to be limited to wayward teenagers. Elders have important lessons to share with adults. Adults have important lessons to share with youth. And youth have important lessons to share with children. It's this cycle of sharing our own experiences that will help make a positive difference in the community.
Many researchers and educators are emphasizing the importance of prevention in the form of early childhood education. Mentorship is a significant aspect of this. The very thought of not having a person to look up to, listen and support are incomprehensible. Mentors may come and go, but the lessons you learn from your mentor(s) can last a lifetime.
Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters in Canada are imperative in this regard. Imagine if each Canadian volunteered one hour a week to be a mentor for someone. The possibility that this could have for our future is endless. And the hope brought about by volunteers is immeasurable.
Children are surrounded by teachers, parents, and other adults telling them how to behave, what to wear, who to trust. Sometimes they need someone there to just "be there." No judgements. That's what a mentor is.
From an early age, we teach children to identify and organize objects: A is for apple, B is for ball and so it goes. And we should also teach them to identify their emotions: "You must be happy the sun is shining, we can go to the playground." Or, conversely, "Maybe you are disappointed it's raining and we can't visit the park." In this way, the dialogue begins, as does the ability to take another's perspective. Kids can only talk about their feelings if we give them the vocabulary; so show them how and give them permission to express them.
Parents sometimes don't give their sons the tools they need to properly express their feelings. Child psychologist Dan Kindlon, who co-authored Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, told us parents -- and society -- often protect boys from having to do the emotional work that will help them become whole people. He shared the story of a mother and daughter coming across a little boy crying in the park. When the daughter asks why the boy is crying, the mom helps her speculate. "Maybe he's lost." "Maybe he hurt himself." A mother with a son, however, may tell her son not to worry about the crying child. An encounter with a curt waiter at a restaurant might provide more food for thought: "Why do you suppose he's so angry?", parents could ask. Boys don't need special training, Kindlon says, they need opportunities to show off their natural capacity for caring for pets, siblings, grandparents, elderly neighbors and others in the neighbourhood.
Parents can also show their children how to express their feelings by doing it themselves. Start by sharing the highs and lows in your day. If you are facing a moral dilemma, talk about it with your kids. They don't need to know every detail to try to get the gist. If you make a mistake, apologize. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it shows kids how it's done. As Mary Gordon, the famed founder of Roots of Empathy, an award-winning organization that offers empathy-based programming for children in their classrooms, told us: attentive, loving and empathetic parents are the best role models for children. Gordon should know. Independent studies have shown her program's graduates are more socially sensitive, less aggressive and more likely to challenge injustice than other youngsters.
It's a question that's perfect for every occasion. Ask kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes -- happy or sad. From the playground to the grocery store to the living-room sofa, our day-to-days are filled with moments that could be considered from someone else's perspective. At the park, for example, a power struggle at the swing-set could evolve into a lesson in sharing and perspective taking: "How would you feel if you weren't allowed a turn?" A bedtime story or children's movie that ends happily-ever-after might merit a follow up: "What do you think you would have done in that situation?" It's a lesson some rather accomplished people have learned. In his video introduction at the Democratic Convention in August 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the only time he saw his mother angry. It was upon witnessing an act of bullying on someone who appeared to be different. "She'd said to me, 'Imagine standing in that person's shoes. How would that make you feel?' That simple idea, I'm not sure I always understood it as a kid, but it stayed with me."
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