As martial art instructors, we not only teach self-defense, but positive character traits. And one that we often work to counteract within our students, especially the younger ones, is selfishness and greed. These are easy qualities to acquire and perhaps they are even somewhat innate. Look no further than the toddler who wants the last cookie for themselves or young siblings who are fighting over who gets to play with their favorite toy. You'll quickly see how easy it is to fall into the habit of looking out for yourself as opposed to sharing with others.
Two Reasons We Learn
Before we talk more about this, let me point out something I learned as a teacher. When children learn a skill, they learn it for one of two reasons. Either it is a skill that is somewhat expected, such as learning how to walk or speak. Or they learn it because it is something they enjoy doing, such as learning how to beat a video game. There is some overlap, such as some children learning how to read because that is what school requires of them, while other children read simply because they enjoy it, but for the most part a learned skill or trait falls into one of these two categories.
The reason I bring this up is because "generosity" is a skill that we have to teach to our children (though some adults need to learn it too). If our default setting is to be selfish, then learning how to share and care for others is something that we must continually learn and improve upon. But I want to take a moment to look at the reasoning behind why we want to learn this skill. Do we want people to learn how to be generous out of necessity or because they enjoy it?
One thing I caught myself doing when my children started getting older is that when they questioned the morality of decisions and asked my why they had to do something, my response was simply, "Because it is the right thing to do." And that is a perfectly acceptable response. No one would argue that being generous is ever the "wrong" thing to do. However, as I continually used this response, I discovered that my kids did not feel a sense of pride in their compassion, but rather the burden of necessity. It bothered me that when I told my daughters to share their toys, they did so with a sigh of frustration. They didn't argue, they weren't rude, and they absolutely listened to my directions, but I could tell that they got no happiness from showing one another kindness and generosity.
That bothered me.
So I propose to you that we should be generous and, by extension, teach our children to be generous, out of our own happiness and joy. Our generosity shouldn't be a burden, but rather something we freely give. We should be generous with our generosity! If we want our children to be generous when we aren't watching them out of the corner of our eye, then we must show them that generosity is the right thing to do not because their parents and teachers told them it was, but because we have empathy for others.
Change Your Language
Next time you want your child to share or be kind, try saying these phrases instead:
It may seem like this change in language could baby our children and demand less of them, but that is simply not true. It is still very demanding language. The only difference is it puts the responsibility of being generous on the individual instead of an external source like a parent or teacher. I am no longer telling them to be generous, but simply pointing out a circumstance where they could practice their generosity. This causes them to really think about how their actions affect other people, teaching them to be empathetic to other people's situations. This is the first step in teaching students how generosity is important.
Reward from Within
If you took a basic psychology class in college, you probably learned about Pavlov and his dogs. Pavlov conditioned his dogs to to drool when they heard a bell by associating the bell with food. Soon, he didn't need the food to make them drool...the bell was enough. Though it may seem silly, we use this principle with children. They eat their dinner, they get dessert. If they do their chores, they get their allowance. We reward them in hopes that they will learn good habits and one day they will do the task without the reward.
But when teaching generosity to young people, rewards can backfire. Remember, we said that we should teach kids compassion through empathy. When you give them a reward for sharing a toy, they learn that they are sharing simply to better themselves. So how do we positively reinforce generosity?
I said earlier that students learn skills either out of necessity or out of joy. So if we want children to learn generosity through empathy, then their reward must also be empathetic. They should feel joy in the fact they brought joy to others. Point out to your children how they have been a light to others, even if it is insignificant. Even if your kid shares a single M&M with another child, that is generosity! Make sure to say, "Wow, I bet that made Chris really happy!" This way they learn the internal reward of helping others. It's not a tangible reward, but perhaps that is the best type.
Yes, you shouldn't need a reward to do the right thing. But perhaps this internal satisfaction is less of a reward and more of a remind of our moral obligation to help our brothers and sisters.
Not Just For Kids
We've talked a lot about how we can create generosity in our children, but generosity isn't a skill that only children need to learn. As adults, we often get caught up in our own needs and don't focus on what would help other people. As martial artists, we are always looking to better ourselves. One way we can improve our character is by improving the lives of others. If you want to be more generous, you will have to start being more intentional. After doing it for awhile, you will start to feel the rewards and eventually it will create a habit of being empathetic and compassionate. Those connections to other people are priceless and will only better your character. And that's what martial arts is all about: improvement-- not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
Do you or your child want to develop the life skills necessary for dealing with failure? Contact Trinity Martial Arts to find out more about our martial arts program, focusing on traditional martial arts, self-defense, and positive character traits needed to succeed in life!
About the Author
Master Matthew Eyler is a 5th degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do and a New York State certified general and special education teacher. He has over 20 years experience practicing self-defense and teaching students of all ages and abilities.