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6 Tricks to teach kids humility (and to understand it ourselves)

GRATITUDE
BobNoah | Shutterstock
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This virtue might be underrated, but it's actually a path to freedom, and we all want that.

We live in a culture that places a high value on traits like confidence and uniqueness. We encourage our children to stand out, and often we are willing to hire private coaches and instructors to ensure that they do. We value excellence, drive, and grit.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting our kids to be confident and to excel. And the virtues required to succeed (determination, fortitude, and discipline) are no doubt valuable ones. Still, if we fail to teach our children the virtue of humility, alongside the grittier virtues, we run the risk of raising a generation of entitled braggarts.
So, how do we teach humility while at the same time building our children’s confidence and encouraging their potential?
Start with a definition. When we think of a humble person, we often think of someone who lacks self-esteem, who awkwardly brushes off compliments and acts as if all praise were undeserved. However, C.S. Lewis defined humility as “… not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”
Children (and most adults) are naturally self-absorbed. Humility is the antidote to self-absorption. To be humble simply means to think more about others than ourselves, to not always need to be the center of attention.
  • Teach gratitude. Perhaps the best way to teach the virtue of humility is to foster in our children a deep sense of gratitude, first to God for all His blessings, but also to the people (parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches) who help cultivate the gifts He has given us. A sense of gratitude for even the little things, in fact for all things — including difficultly as a channel of grace — is a sure path to humility.
  • Teach kids to know themselves. Sometimes as parents we think it is our job to tell our children they can do anything they want to do and be anything they want to be. But St. Augustine described humility as knowing the truth about oneself. This doesn’t mean squashing our kids’ dreams our discouraging their goals. But it does mean helping them to take a realistic look at where their gifts and talents lie, where they need to put in extra work, and even where they might be wasting their time. It also means gently helping them recognize, not only their own limitations, but also their flaws and faults — not so they can give up, but so that they can work to improve and to grow in whatever habits or virtues they need to develop.
  • Reject the cockiness culture. Not only is humility a virtue, but pride is actually considered one of the seven deadly sins (the sins that lead to all others). Yet, walk through any middle school in America, and unless the kids are required to wear a uniform, many of them will likely be wearing t-shirts boldly proclaiming their own greatness with sayings like You Can’t Spell AWESOME Without ME; Not Braggin’ Just Swaggin’; and THIS Is What a Winner Looks Like. These trendy tees might be fun and seem harmless enough, but could they be promoting a culture of cockiness that is further reinforced by many of our kids’ favorite athletes and celebrities? It isn’t easy to teach kids humility in a world that has made a virtue of in-your-face bragging, but like many of the virtues parents strive to instill in our kids, humility goes against the grain of what is hip and trendy.

  • Be willing to go unnoticed. This is a tough one. No one likes to go unnoticed for an achievement. Maybe we can start by teaching our kids that it’s okay to go unnoticed in a conversation. They don’t always have to tell a funnier joke, one-up a friend’s really cool story, or have the last word in an argument. It’s okay sometimes to just listen. It’s also okay to go unnoticed for doing the right thing or for helping out around the house.
  • Look for the gifts of others. One of the best ways to think of yourself less is to think about others more — to think about what is good in them. Luckily, we can easily model this for our children. Sometimes as parents we get so caught up in telling our kids how awesome they are, we fail to help them see the awesomeness of others. Start by talking about what you appreciate and admire in your own friends, and encourage your kids to look for what is noteworthy and admirable about their friends too.
  • Pray. There’s an old joke that it is a bad idea to pray for humility because the last thing you want is to be humbled by God. There may be some truth in that, but often life has a way of humbling us whether we’ve prayed for it or not. It is far better for any of us to be humbled by our Loving Father than by our peers, or worse, our enemies. Praying a prayer for humility is a beautiful way to help every family member grow in this all-important virtue.

Erma Bombeck once said, “There is so much to teach, and the time goes so fast.” With each passing year, parents know with greater certainty the truth of these words. Yet, teaching our kids the virtue of humility will serve them, and the people they love, long after our time with them is over.
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