It's a real issue. With the loss of community in the past two
generations (now "the village it takes to raise a child" looks more like
a ghost town), an increasingly "look out for yourself" economy, and a
vulgar and self-absorbed culture penetrating every corner of our lives -
including children's television and advertisements - yes, we really have
to wonder these days about how best to encourage good character in our
From our professional perspectives - and our lessons and mistakes in
raising our own children - we offer these keys.
Support Your Own Health and Well-Being
As the saying goes, you know the tree by its fruits. Our children
consider the choices we ask them to make - many of which involve
delaying or saying no to certain pleasures - and they naturally wonder
what the rewards will be to offset those costs. Kids are concrete, and
if they see their parents being happy, successful, and fulfilled in
their own lives, they're more likely to conclude that good character is
worth the effort.
You don't want to get into the position - especially with teenagers - of
preaching various virtues to them, and then have them say (or think)
essentially that: "You're unhappy in your work and grumpy and blue at
home, you drink too much, and you seem irritated most of the time with
your spouse . . . . so why in the world should I walk down the same
road you have??!"
Be a Good Role Model
Children observe and act like their parents, so we need to walk our own
talk. Consider the virtues, restraints, and aspirations that you would
do well to increase in your own life, and perhaps you and your partner
could talk with each other about this.
Be Nurturing and Intimate
At the end of the day, the greatest influence we have on our children,
especially as they get older, is based their sense of connection with
us. By being loving and patient ourselves, we draw them to us and
minimize the anger and scolding that pushes them away.
Help the Child Succeed
Children have temperaments, illnesses, personal frustrations and
disappointments and moods, an uneven intellectual profile, and
occasional health problems. All of these increase the odds of child
misbehavior. By paying attention to these sorts of factors, and by
trying to prevent problems before they start, you can make it easier for
your child to act like a good person . . . and thus feel like one . . .
and thus be motivated to keep on the path of good character.
For example, be realistic about preschoolers in restaurants; sure, maybe
you can punish that child intensely enough to get him to sit still for
an hour, but is the collateral damage worth it? Or consider whether a
tightly-controlled and buttoned-down type of school is really the best
place for a child with a spirited temperament. Think about the nagging,
sub-clinical health problems that seem so common these days, especially
among boys, such as food sensitivities. Consider whether you've got a
child who gets flooded and discombobulated by incoming sensory stimuli,
and would be served by quieter environments and perhaps a formal
assessment by an occupational therapist.
In sum, step back and consider, perhaps with your mate, what sort of
measures you could take to set your child up with the best chances of
SUCCEEDING at sticking with virtues and good values.
It's a fundamental human ability to sense what it's like to be another
person. In fact, neuroscientists have recently discovered a special
class of "mirror neurons" that light up in sympathetic response to
others, so we experience ourselves a glimmer of what the other person is
Caring about what others feel in general, and about our impacts on them
in particular, depends a lot on sensing what their experience actually
is. Consequently, we serve our children by drawing their attention to
the inner world of others. For example, attuned to the age of your
child, ask what he or she thinks a character in a story or TV show might
be feeling, or wanting, or thinking about doing. Or a person in real
life, from the nice old lady the child just helped to another child in
school the child just insulted.
As appropriate, try to convey the notion that people usually have
several feelings or desires at once, often pulling in different
directions. And that softer feelings or more vulnerable desires are
under the surface, like the way hurt and fear often underlie anger, or
the way that a longing to feel of worth lies beneath a hyper-competitive
desire to win a game. You can do this by sharing your own inner
experience when that would be useful, by naming what might be going on
inside your child, and by pointing it out in others.
Speak the Language of Virtue and Values
Let's say a preschooler gets really mad and tries to hit you. You might
say something like: "Don't do that! It hurts me, and makes me feel bad."
Or you might say: "Don't do that! Hitting is a bad thing to do. People
should use their words when they're angry."
Both are good, and a combination is probably best. But notice that the
first message, if it stands alone, bases moral conduct on how the child
FEELS about the other person; it's individual and emotional, rather than
a general, principled adherence to an abstract principle like
non-violence or kindness.
Without shaming the child unduly, there's a place for clearly naming
misbehaviors and virtuous conduct, adjusting your words to the age and
nature of your child. Like: "It's plain wrong to hit your little
sister." "Taking what's not yours is stealing, and that's a bad thing."
"It's good to tell the truth." "People who try hard and don't give up
are admired and respected." "It's right to be generous."
Help the Child Tolerate "the Healthy Wince"
In order to learn from our experiences, we have to be able to tolerate
the feeling of being less than perfect, of erring, of messing up. That
feeling is a healthy wince, a small sense of "oops, messed up," or "my
bad," or "sorry" -- and sometimes a thoroughgoing and honorable sense of
remorse (hopefully in proportion to what actually happened).
But if that feeling is intolerable - perhaps because it triggers too
much guilt, or shame, or sense of inadequacy - then we defend against it
. . . by avoiding the knowledge that we have something important to
learn. And that totally flattens our learning curve since it makes us
less open to the world and the lessons it holds.
What helps a child (or adult) tolerate that healthy wince?
- Relax the body, through whatever means works: big breaths, consciously
releasing tension, stretching, imagining being at the beach, etc.
- Remember or think about things that create a feeling of being liked,
wanted, included, prized, or loved. Like story time in bed with dad, or
Christmas morning, or doing something fun with friends, or being
appreciated by teammates for the winning goal.
- Remember or think about things that create a feeling of
accomplishment, success, and personal worth. Such as learning to ride a
tricycle, getting a good grade on a hard test, or helping in a real way
at synagogue or church.
- Put the lesson in perspective. Tell yourself that it's a minute or
less of feeling bad and it will pass. Or just this evening that you'll
be in the doghouse. Or just a rebuke about a small part of your
performance in sports or at school. The negative feedback is just one
tile in the mosaic that every person is, with dozens - actually,
hundreds - of lovely and wonderful other tiles.
Arrange for Lessons from Others
Coaches, teachers, relatives, (well-selected) older kids, and employers
are often the best sources of character education. Also consider books
and movies, such as the Little House on the Prairie series, stories of
journeys (e.g., The Hobbit, Watership Down, Down the Long Hills), or
classics like the Narnia books. And for many children (and adults) the
central source of moral education and good character will be religious
Use Rewards and Penalties Skillfully
Consequences have gotten a bit of a bad rap because they've been
over-used. But the world is full of consequences - like raises for good
work, tickets for speeding, invitations to parties that grow out of
friendship, pink slips for coming late to work, or getting voted out of
office for incompetence - and these natural effects of causes teach
great lessons that help focus us on doing the virtuous thing. As someone
once said, karma is hitting golf balls in a tiled shower.
The same is true for children. Reasonable, potent rewards and penalties
- and like most professionals, we discourage corporal punishment - focus
the child's attention and become a basis for values to be internalized
about what's right and what's wrong. Give consequences calmly, explain
the reason why, be compassionate but firm, and typically remind the
child of the underlying moral principle or value that's at stake.
Take the Long View
Keep in mind the developmental age of the child; often we really do ask
too much of our children. It is natural for preschoolers -- and
teenagers, too, alas -- to be shockingly self-centered. A certain amount
of parenting is just getting through things, one day at a time. Most
kids, even the wildest and most oppositional, eventually turn into
responsible, kind-hearted adults -- who still love and appreciate their
mom an dad.