Parenting for Character
‘Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good….habits of mind, habits of heart, and habits of action.’ – Dr Thomas Lickona
Build good habits if you want your child to be happy
Character equals good habits. If you are systematic and persevering in sculpting good habits of thinking and acting in your child, you will have a happy child and a happy adult.
Parenting is the art of preparing a young person for happiness in adult life. Ensuring that your child has a deep, loving respect for others is the living rock on which these habits will thrive. And with such habits your child will take control of his or her own life and connect with others in lifelong relationships. Never forget that you are sculpting for life. This is the essence of parenting for character.
Provided food, shelter and family love are not lacking, happiness in adult life is largely determined by the good habits we have in our character – habits of optimism, generosity, honesty, loyalty, self-control and clear-headed problem-solving. It is upon our own habitual behaviours and attitudes that the relationships we form will flourish or flounder.
Happiness does not depend on feelings, or on what others do or do not do, so do your best to raise your children so that they are not tossed around by impulsive reactions – outbursts, overeating, putting things off, dominating fears, grudges that destroy – based on passions and emotions working to their detriment. Raise them so that their good intentions are not thwarted by ingrained habits of laziness. Raise them from their youngest, most formative years with a sure sense of what will enrich them as human beings, and with the gumption to walk away from anything that will diminish them or lead to use others for their own gain.
My experience is that parents who keep their focus on these priorities, patiently and lovingly, give their children something of incalculable worth. The Talmud, a type of ancient Jewish guidebook for life, sums it all up: ‘The one great requisite is character’. Plutarch, the famous Greek historian writing in Roman times, knew how to cut to essentials: ‘Character’, he wrote, ‘is simply strongly established habit’.
Habits for happiness
A child needs:
habits of sound judgement
guided by a confident and accurate understanding of what is right and wrong, what enriches a human being and what degrades a human being
a deep sense of responsibility to others and well-tried habits of generosity if he or she is to be capable of forming and maintaining permanent relationships
self-possession and habitual self-control, conferring a relative freedom from internal weaknesses and bad habits resilience and habitual toughness in the face of difficulties or difficult people
gumption and courage to resist external pressures from the media or peer group
an understanding of how to raise his or her own children effectively.
Get the behaviours and the underlying motivations right
It is not difficult to make children happy – just take them to McDonalds, or put them on PlayStation. That will make them happy – now. But that is not the end point of parenting. It is much more important to equip the young people in our care to find happiness as adults.
There are two simple ingredients in this process of equipping children for adult life. They are universal principles. The great writings of the East, classical literature, the great books of the religions, all emphasise these perennial co-constituents of good parenting:
Children need a clear understanding of what is right, founded on clear reasoning and deep respect for others – values, or conscience, if you prefer that word.
These values, in turn, are the foundation for well-grooved habits of responsible behaviour.
On these co-principles parents have successfully raised children since Adam and Eve got it right with Abel. The happiness of children, and let’s not forget it – of parents themselves has hinged through every culture and age on having strong habits driven by loving motivation. Habits need good values. Habits alone are insufficient. Stalin and Genghis Khan had well-developed habits of action, but little conscience…the results were horrific.
Nor are good intentions enough. Think of the times you have hit the snooze button, fibbed to get out of a fix, left the sink untidy, eaten too much. Our values gnawingly remind us what was best for us; when we fail in behaviour, we lose our peace of soul, and our happiness. Don’t confuse values with good habits. They are not the same. Character education will not be achieved through sugary bedtime stories or by videos of rainforests. In your own family, a parental focus on building good habits will equip your son or daughter not only with wisdom and peace in their hearts but the capacity to act as they really wish to.
Your aim as a parent is to consolidate in your child these life-skills – virtues, to use a word that now labours under excess baggage – in the deepest sense.