By Bernard Riola, MD
Humility is an under-appreciated and often overlooked virtue in today’s world. It is among the most admirable personality traits. A humble person has an unassuming attitude without any arrogance or pride. A powerful or gifted person who is humble will always be well-regarded. However, in a society dominated by facebook, instagram, and tiktoc, and a sports culture obsessed with winning, how does one begin to teach humility? More importantly, how do you teach humility while encouraging children to have confidence, drive for excellence, and embrace their uniqueness?
Being humble does not mean lacking self-esteem, but rather being less self-absorbed. C.S. Lewis defined humility as “… not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.” To be humble means to think more about others than ourselves, and not need to be the center of attention.
Why teach children humility?
It encourages children to be kind, respectful, and forgiving.
It teaches children that they can learn from others, thus facilitating their own personal and intellectual growth.
It allows for healthier, lasting social relationships.
It helps children live happier lives, by learning to be grateful for what they have, and not bitter at what they don’t have.
It lets children be self-assured in their knowledge and abilities.
How do you teach children humility?
Model Humility – Children always learn best through observation. Remember, children notice everything. They notice if you treat someone badly, lose your temper, or take an ill-advised shortcut. They also notice when you hold the door open for someone, speak kindly to others, and treat others with respect. Volunteering to help others and involving your children also pushes them to think of others before themselves.
Build Them Up – Highlight the process rather than the results in their daily accomplishments. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart to get A!”, focus on their hard work and determination in getting their result. Remember to focus on teamwork when appropriate. Instead of saying, “You did so well, they couldn’t have won without you,” consider saying, “You and your teammates played well together and did so great!” This teaches them to consider others instead of only themselves.
Admit mistakes – Children find humility by learning to admit their mistakes. Claiming responsibility for mistakes is important for learning integrity and responsibility. Encourage children to apologize and learn from their mistakes, rather than to justify and defend themselves, and be sure to model this yourself. To promote this behavior, it is also important for parents to be forgiving and curb their anger to help children be comfortable approaching them.
Discourage an attitude of entitlement – We all want to build our children’s self-esteem by telling them how smart, athletic, pretty, or amazing they are. However, this can cause children to feel entitled, arrogant, and self-absorbed. Again, focus on the process, what they did to become how they are, and that they can always learn and improve. Instead of saying, “You’re so athletic!”, try saying instead, “You are such a great athlete because you practice hard and never give up. Keep it up and you can always be better!”
Reduce materialism – Children often want the nicest clothes, latest games, fanciest bicycle. We want to make our children happy and provide the best for them, but this can lead to self-absorption and arrogance. Often a few weeks later the child is on to wanting the next ‘best thing’. Try having them work for the things they want, or make it a rule to buy their ‘wants’ only on special occasions. Have them learn about disadvantaged children where these ‘wants’ are less important as food or a place to live. Try having them donate some of their toys to share with others.