Raising Children of Character : 11 Things Parents Can Do

Parenting is inherently hard work. What are practical principles of parenting that can guide us in the demanding but rewarding work of raising children of character?

A mother whose daughter attends a private high school recounted a conversation she had with another mother whose daughter attends a different private school. The second mother said, “We’re so relieved about the prom. The dance is at the hotel, the parties afterwards are at the hotel, and the kids all have rooms at the hotel for the night.”

The first mother swallowed hard and said, “But don’t you realize the signal that sends to kids—what it gives them permission to do?”

The second mother sighed and said, “Well, at least they’re not drinking and driving.”

In reporting this exchange the first mother commented: “We draw a line, and then we cross that. We draw another line, and then we cross that. Pretty soon we’ve compromised our standards to the point of disappearing.”

Parenting, including the moral standards we teach and uphold, has a profound impact on our children’s moral development and behavior. When we do not set high standards, we abandon our kids to their immature desires and the negative pressures of the peer group and culture.

Our parenting affects every area of our children’s growth, including their ability to learn and to do the disciplined work of school. In their 1992 book America’s Smallest School: The Family, educators Paul Barton and Richard Coley predicted the failure of school reform if it ignored a basic fact: The family is the cradle of learning. They pointed out that student achievement improves when there are two parents in the home; when children are well cared for and feel secure; when the family environment is intellectually stimulating; when parents encourage self-regulation and perseverance; and when they limit TV, monitor homework, and ensure regular school attendance.

In these vital areas, however, growing numbers of families are not meeting children’s needs. In general, children today arrive at school less ready to learn. The psychologist Robert Evans observes that at the very time teachers face mounting pressures to increase student achievement, they have to cope with the decline of things they used to take for granted: students’ attention, respect for authority, rudimentary social skills, and willingness to work.

In all kinds of families, including affluent and intact families, parents are spending less time with their children, providing less guidance, and setting fewer limits. Despite the fact that heavy television viewing increases children’s aggression and lowers academic performance, parents allow their children to devote more time to television than to school and homework combined. Three-quarters of 6th-graders have TVs in their bedrooms.

Even the most competent and conscientious parents often struggle to get through the week and are beset by feelings of failure. Parenting is inherently hard work. We get our training on the job. The job is harder than ever because the family has fewer allies (such as the extended family and cohesive neighborhoods) and more enemies (such as a toxic media culture, other parents who are permissive, and an economy that doesn’t pay a living wage). Because families are more stressed than ever, and because there are many more negative forces in our children’s lives, parents need to be more intentional than in past generations about creating a family life and more vigilant about raising a moral child. Good character will not be absorbed from our current moral environment.

What are practical principles of parenting that can guide us in the demanding but rewarding work of raising children of character?

Foster Spiritual Development

One night, at the end of the graduate course I teach on character education, a student stayed to talk. He said he lifted weights competitively but that it was increasingly difficult to compete because so many people in the sport use steroids. I asked how athletes could continue to use steroids when everything you read says that steroids can make you sterile, cause cancer, and do other terrible things to your body.

He said, “People know all that, but they don’t care.” The professor in one of his physical education courses had recently shown a videotape which reported the results of a survey of amateur weight-lifters, collegiate and post-collegiate. The survey posed this question: “If you could take a drug that would guarantee you’d win every competition for five years, but at the end of five years the drug would be certain to kill you, would you take that drug?” A majority of the weight-lifters said yes.

If we ask ourselves, “How is it that a significant number of young people in our society would trade their very lives for five years of drug-dependent success?”, the answer comes back: They are spiritually adrift. As one mother said, upon hearing the results of that survey: “Those young men don’t know why they’re here.”

Historically, religion has, for most people, offered a vision of life that tells us why we’re here and where we’re going. Religion can be a controversial subject. It is certainly possible to be an ethical person without being religious, and having religious faith by no means guarantees that a person will be good. But for a great many persons, religion gives life a higher meaning and an ultimate reason for leading a moral life: God expects it.

For young people who do not have faith in God, there is, I believe, a greater temptation especially in today’s culture to make a god of something else: money, sexual pleasure, power, prestige, or, as in the case of the weight-lifters, success at any price.

Research shows that young people who frequently attend religious services, who say that religion is important to them, and who belong to religious denominations that explicitly prohibit drug use are more likely to avoid drug involvement than their less religiously engaged peers. Likewise for teen sexual activity, single parenthood, and delinquent behavior; those teens who most often attend church have the lowest rates of these problems. One of the ways religion deters adolescents’ involvement in self-injurious or anti-social behaviors is by influencing them to choose friends who do not engage in those activities.

Studies of adults produce similar findings. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, points out in his book Authentic Happiness: “Religious Americans are clearly less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, divorce, and kill themselves. They are also physically healthier and live longer . . . . Religions instill hope for the future and create meaning in life.”

What do religious parents do to try to foster faith—the kind of faith that is not just professed but lived out in everyday life? A Catholic mother comments: If you see God as the center of things, it affects everything. There is a standard of behavior. It comes partly from people who have tried to discern the mind of God over the ages. We also have our own hearts to listen to. There is someone who has created us to behave in a certain way, so much so that if we don’t behave in that way, we are unhappy. We are called to goodness, to live our lives according to a very high standard.

The psychologist Edward Hoffman describes the strong family life experienced by Lubavitcher Jews and their children’s remarkable freedom from the drugs, sex, and violence that plague other urban children. Religious rituals such as the weekly lighting of Sabbath candles on Friday evening are a focal point for the whole family. After every meal, all family members take part in singing the traditional thanksgiving prayers. Lubavitcher children are expected to make a small contribution every Friday to the “charity box” displayed in the home. Says one Hasidic rabbi: “It’s not so much that children ‘take orders’ from parents as that all family members ‘take orders from God.'”

Such practices ground morality in a meaning system, a view and experience of life in which being a good person is a central moral imperative.

In the spiritual domain, as in all areas, our personal example makes a difference. Mary, a young mother who is devout in her own faith, recalls her father: Dad always closes his letters with, “Work hard and pray a lot.” This never sounds phony because it’s what he does. He has worked hard all his life. He built the two homes we lived in and did all the repairs. And he prays throughout the day. My most powerful image of my father is of catching him kneeling at the foot of his bed, late at night before he retired, saying his personal prayers.

A caveat: Even parents who do all the right things—make character development a high priority, love their children, set a good example, discipline wisely, foster spiritual development—will still find raising children the toughest job on earth. Our children will make mistakes growing up, just as we did.

When our sons were teenagers, I took them to see a live performance of Bill Cosby at the Landmark Theater in nearby Syracuse, New York. In one routine, Cosby acted out the scene in Genesis in which God gives his first children, Adam and Eve, just one rule—”Don’t eat the apples on that tree”—and they promptly disobey it. “All you parents out there,” Cosby said with a chuckle, “if you have trouble getting your kids to obey, don’t get discouraged—remember that God had a hard time, too.”

That said, it’s our job as parents to make the most of the many opportunities we have to help our children grow to be strong and good people. For the process of developing character begins, like everything else, in the home.

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