Simple Steps to Raising Socially Conscious Kids

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With summer coming to a close and the beginning of a new school year looming, it is the perfect time for parents to reflect on our hopes for our children in this coming year. We likely all want our kids, no matter their age, to try new things, deepen current friendships and create new ones, and develop skills and talents.

Perhaps we also hope they strengthen their sense of self, live in a way that is consistent with our values, and take time to notice others and help those in need. For me, not only as a professional but primarily as a mother of three young children, the central questions that shape my hopes for the year revolve around the notion of raising socially conscious children – what does it mean, how do I do it, and how will I know if I’m successful?

What does it mean to raise socially conscious children?

Raising socially conscious children is about helping kids at every age to be socially aware, empathetic, and educated. It’s about empowering them to be dependable friends, compassionate leaders, and involved members of their community. It takes a village to make that a reality, so as parents need to ensure that we are part of communities supporting this work.

While we know that parents are key influences in their children’s lives, we don’t raise children alone. Our children learn from teachers, counselors, peers, their friends’ parents, relatives, and a whole host of others. So how do we think about everyone in our children’s universe and consider how they are helping our children recognize their ability and obligation to make our world better?

And, much like the airline safety instruction of “put your own oxygen mask on first,” the work of raising socially conscious children requires us as parents to unpack and understand our own biases, sense of privilege, and core values.

How can we meaningfully engage in this work?

If there were an easy, straightforward answer, you’d have Googled it already and we would all be doing it!  Here’s my “top 5” of what I do know after seven years of parenthood and more than double that as a professional working with children of all ages:

  1. First and foremost, know your child. You know what he or she can handle; you know what scares him or her. Trust your instincts. If we ever push too far, our kids will let us know. And they are resilient, so it will be okay.
  2. Listen to your children’s questions. Use them as your guide. Answer what they are asking, not what you think they are asking.
  3. Pay attention to what your children are noticing. It is okay to come close to them and whisper, “I noticed you were looking at that person. Do you have a question you want to ask me?” Making a safe space and encouraging our children from a very young age to share what they see and ask what they wonder, quietly and privately first, are building blocks in this work.
  4. Talk about feelings. Developing strong foundations for empathy begins with identifying emotions in ourselves and in others. This holds true for “three-nagers” as well as actual teenagers.
  5. Repetition! Our children’s brain development is influenced not only by internal genetic make-up, but also by external factors. Everyone’s brain fuels the formation of synapses (how information gets learned/remembered), but the environment refines it. So the more often you see or talk about things with your kids, the stronger the connections are that they can make.

Is it working?

The world around us constantly seeks to measure success; we are a data-driven, analysis-based, results-oriented society. Parenting requires a long game strategy, and successes can be hard to measure, especially when you’re in the throes of toddler tantrums or tween drama. If our goal is to help our children develop into their best possible selves, then we should be celebrating all the accomplishments along the way.

Lending a helping hand to a friend, participating in community service projects, or standing up to a bully are all really big “wins” along the journey. We should notice everything our children do as kind, helpful, empathetic humans, and say out loud why we are proud of them for making those choices. And we should also hold up a mirror to ourselves, because we are indeed our children’s most important role models and teachers.

The way we live our own lives; the choices we make; the ways we interact with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers; if we vote; how we stand up even when it is hard to do—all these speak to our own evolving social consciousness. Our children are watching, and the development of their moral compass depends deeply on how we use our own.

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Mara Braunfeld is the Director of the Wasserman Center for Family Life and Director of Programs for Infants + Young Children at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

Together with its community, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan creates opportunities for people to connect, grow, and learn within an ever-changing Jewish landscape. Located on 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, the JCC is a vibrant non-profit community center on the Upper West Side. The cornerstone of progressive programming in Manhattan, the JCC serves over 55,000 people annually through 1,200 programs each season that educate, inspire, and transform participants’ minds, bodies, and spirits. Since its inception, the JCC has been committed to serving the community by offering programs, classes, and events that reach beyond neighborhood boundaries, reaching people at all stages of their lives. Learn more at

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