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Why Learning to Think Beyond Ourselves is the Single Most Important Thing You Can Teach Your Kid

Tim Tinnesz | Nov 21, 2016

Girl at food drive

Nov 21, 2016

Today, we can be in our kitchen for breakfast and across the ocean in time for lunch.  From our living room sofa, we can speak face-to-face with someone in Shanghai.  We’re more connected to each other than ever before in human history, and our world continues to get smaller every day.

Watching the news, we see the significant challenges that our connectedness can bring—terrorism, epidemics, and cyber threats, just to name a few.  Schools like mine now must teach “21st Century Skills” that include maxims like “There is no delete,” and “Nothing is private.”  But, with our help, I believe our children ought to be more hopeful than fearful. 

Yes, in our connected world, one terrible or reckless moment can do significant harm, but imagine the intentional good that one thoughtful moment might also be able to produce.  If more people had the imagination, the will and the awareness to pursue it, we might accomplish good at a scale and significance unmatched in our history.  This is why it’s so important for us to help our children develop the essential “21st Century Skill”: the ability to think beyond themselves.

Developmentally, our youngest children will naturally struggle with comprehending a world beyond themselves.  And as they grow up in the “era of selfie,” getting children and adolescents of any age to think beyond themselves poses a challenge.  However, just as it’s far easier to learn to play an instrument or to pick up a second language when you start young, thinking beyond ourselves is a skill that should be acquired and practiced as early and as often as possible.  Our children, and our world, will be better for it.  Here’s how I think we can do this:

1. Ask new questions. 

Let’s start by asking our children over dinner or at bedtime each night, “What’s something kind you did for someone else today?”  Notice how this is different from the more traditional, “How was your day?” or “What was the best part of your day?”  Those latter questions invite a conversation primarily about what happened to you today--- you are the recipient of what happened.  The new “kindness” question gets us thinking beyond being a recipient, but instead as a contributor, and plants early on in life that essential notion that each day, we ought to be finding some way to impact others.

Or here’s another staple from our youth: “What do you want to be when you grow up?  It’s a worthwhile question, but if we limit ourselves to just this question, we start to subtly suggest that perhaps our purpose in life is simply being, as opposed to doing.  Consider one of these other, more purpose-oriented, questions, instead: “Why do you think you exist?” or “For what purpose are you on this earth?”  It’s harder to answer those questions without thinking of others.  As Einstein (Living Philosophies, 1931) so compellingly put it “…there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men...”

 2. Model It.

As teenagers they might rarely admit it, but for most children, their parents are the single largest influence on who they will become as adults.

So even though you might not think your child in the back seat notices, let people merge in front of you during rush hour traffic.  Even though your child seems more interested in the candy selections than anything else in the grocery checkout line, make a point to let the person behind you go in front with their ten items before you unload your twenty items.  Try to stay behind an extra five seconds when you’re entering or exiting a building to hold the door for others coming behind you.  Make a point to thank the refs for their work after your child’s soccer game (even if they made a bad call).  Pick up the piece of litter you see in the parking lot or on the hiking trail and throw it away so someone else doesn’t have to. 

Yes, grand gestures of generosity and compassion once or twice a year—or even once or twice a week—might offer some important lessons to our children, but the accumulation of the many daily and hourly “little moments” they witness will be even more consequential in the kind of adult they become.  In each of those little moments, we have an opportunity to model whether we are aware of the needs and the perspectives of others beyond ourselves.  Let’s show our children how it’s done.

3. Remember: Practice Makes Permanent

Long ago, I had a teacher who often told us, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.”  And, of course, after quizzing us and making us repeat it back to him periodically, it stuck with me… which proved his point.

“Thinking beyond ourselves” isn’t a natural instinct for most of us—and especially for our younger children—so the most important thing we can do for them is to practice it in big and small ways until it becomes a habit.  I highly recommend the Random Acts of Kindness website  for all kinds of simple, easy ideas that children can do alone, or together with family and friends.  A few of my favorites:

- With your child, fill some plastic bags with care packages for the homeless.  A quick web search can offer ideas for what to include, like lip balm, sunscreen and soft, non-perishable food items.  Keep them in the car to periodically hand out your window the next time you’re at a stop light and have an opportunity to help someone in need. 
- As a family, make some simple notes or cards for veterans that thank them for their service.  Together with your child, start looking around when you’re in parking lots for license plates that identify veterans so you can leave one of those notes for them, or even hand one to them as they return to their car. Our eighth grade students use Writer’s Workshop as a time to write letters to veterans – they get the added bonus of improving their writing skills while thinking beyond themselves and brightening someone’s day.
- And speaking of notes, connect with your local chapter of Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to homebound seniors.  On any holiday (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.) make cards with your child that can be delivered along with the meals.
- Get in the habit of making clothing or toy donations every time your child receives new clothes or gifts.  For birthdays or Christmas, decide together with your child which gently used items might be a wonderful gift to donate to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, or countless other charitable organizations.  (A related tradition at our school is the “Tooth Fairy Tree”, where each time a student loses a tooth, he or she brings a toothbrush, floss, or toothpaste donation to be given to a family in need.)


Our modern, shrinking, connected world will present our children with some daunting challenges now and in the future.  However, it will also present them with incredible opportunities, if only we take the right steps now to instill and cultivate in them the ability to think beyond themselves.

Imagine the future for children raised in an environment where the right questions are regularly asked and others-oriented behavior is constantly modeled.  Imagine the future for children who practice giving back to the community just as often as they practice their math facts for school.  Those children will have an excellent opportunity to live a meaningful life of purpose and impact.  They can be a force for good in this world, knowing they have a power to effect widespread, positive change in ways no other generation ever has.

Tim Tinnesz is Head of School of St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh, NC and sits on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools.  St. Timothy’s is an Episcopal preparatory school that weaves service opportunities into the curriculum to encourage students to make a positive difference in their community and world. In addition to being a life-long educator, Tim is a father to three sons, ages 5, 7, and 9.  

This piece is part of the Parent Toolkit’s Week of Giving. Click here to read more inspirational stories.

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About the Author

Tim Tinnesz
Raleigh, NC Head of School of St. Timothy’s School