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Fostering Otherness In Your Child

Written by Katherine Lugwig

Photography by Jenna Wilson, Photographed by Jaclyn Campanaro

As all moms know, raising kids is no easy task. Not only does one have to worry about their mini-me’s physical well-being, but you also want to ensure that you instill in them all of the skills necessary to make it on their own in the world: kindness, compassion, hard work. Often overlooked, however, is the concept of otherness. Below, Katherine Ludwig, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, shares her perspective on the topic and how you can teach your children to practice empathy, rather than looking out exclusively for number one. -JKM

From the earliest ages, kids learn that how they compare to others is immensely important at school, on the sports field, and in their social lives. This awareness can breed hyper self-focus, which is particularly acute in U.S. culture, which has a long history of rugged individualism, competitive spirit, and a self-interested, “survival of the fittest” view of success.

American parents understandably want to arm their children with the right tools to succeed in this harsh environment. These include maxing out family time and resources on lessons and extracurriculars, as well as on cultivating psychological assets: high self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense that their kids are “special” and entitled to achieve great things. As the competition for college acceptance (and even preschool admission!) has gotten fiercer in recent decades, so have these parental efforts, and the ratcheting up seems to be paying off: researchers have found that Millennials are the most self-centered Americans yet.

Despite academic and professional focus on self-interest and competition, however, the truth is that humans evolved to empathize and collaborate with and help other humans. It was crucial to our survival on the savanna; it’s essential to our well-being; and it’s becoming even more imperative in the face of a new kind of professional predator: artificial intelligence (AI).

Experts predict that AI-fueled automation could displace nearly half of U.S. jobs in the next decade. The jobs left for humans will require the highest levels of critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and emotional engagement with other people, because machines have yet to conquer those areas. The rub is that these uniquely human jobs and skills require much less inward focus and competition than the current manner of raising and enculturating kids would suggest. These kinds of creative and emotional jobs and skills instead necessitate a much greater capacity for connecting to, collaborating with, and serving others. In a word, they require otherness.

Parents have a major role to play in resetting the balance of focus between self and others, because kids who can tap into and cultivate their instincts for otherness will be that much more successful in the future.

How can parents better foster otherness in their kids?

Show don’t tell: First and foremost, paying lip service to otherness is insufficient. What parents do matters far more than what they say, according to numerous studies. It’s all the seemingly insignificant daily interactions with your children and other people that matter. It’s the compassion you show and the priority and value you give to others with your actions, not your words, that impact your kids’ beliefs.

Put others first
Make helping others and strengthening relationships a priority for yourself and your children. Take the time to frequently visit with relatives, support friends, and help neighbors and place a high value on these activities. If a kid’s list of sports and lessons don’t allow enough room in the schedule for these things on a regular basis, start pairing down that list.

Celebrate their kindness as much as achievements
Don’t just cheer when they score a goal or make a good grade, show the utmost enthusiasm and admiration when your kids are supportive team members, volunteers, and good friends. Ask often about their acts of kindness and make a point of praising them for being good helpers.

Help them practice gratitude the right way
Practicing gratitude is a great way to boost wellbeing, but if it’s too self-focused—“I’m so lucky because I got a new phone/ went on vacation/made the team…”—it’s not doing much to foster otherness. Help kids regularly recognize the value and specific contributions of other people in their lives.

Steer them toward the right kind of heroes
Our culture loves to celebrate mavericks in entertainment, sports, and business. Often though, these kinds of people blaze a trail simply for their own fame and fortune, which teaches kids to admire people who look out for numero uno. Parents can’t dictate role models, but they can be influential. Expose them to media that recognizes true heroes of humanity (fact or fiction) or at least pop stars and athletes who give back to their communities.

Skip the empty exercises
Forcing kids to share, say they’re sorry, or write obligatory thank you notes does little to cultivate otherness. Most of the time these social niceties are for appearances sake (often a parent’s own). Carrots and sticks don’t work for truly developing moral behaviors. Otherness needs to become so valued and ingrained that it becomes natural and habitual.

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