You’ve heard it said by your grandparents, or someone else’s – kids today just don’t have any respect for authority.
They lack character. They’re drifters, independent, only thinking of themselves. And perhaps your reaction waivers between defensiveness and agreement. At times those things are true, but what’s a parent to do?
Davidson County Juvenile Court Referee Carlton Lewis works with families on a daily basis. He says, “I think most parents want their children to have strong character, but we can never assume that our children will do what they’ve been taught.”
According to Michelle Borba, Ed. D., mother and author of Building Moral Intelligence, the parents who can most confidently withstand this kind of doubt are those who have recognized that good parenting does not come about by accident. We plan for vacations, dental work, grocery shopping and retirement, why not have a plan for how we’ll raise our children?
Character = Moral Intelligence
In Building Moral Intelligence, Borba defines character and stresses its importance. “Moral intelligence is the capacity to understand right from wrong; it means to have strong ethical convictions and to act on them so that one behaves in the right and honorable way,” she says, emphasizing that moral intelligence, or character, is learned and that it is the responsibility of parents to begin teaching it as early as possible.
Borba cites the latest research on babies 6 months old reflecting a capacity for empathy, yet points out that most parents don’t begin cultivating their children’s moral capabilities until the ‘age of reason,’ peaking around age 7. She cautions that delaying may allow children to be molded by negative influences and form habits, making change difficult.
“So much of a child’s character has been formed by the time a child reaches school age,” says Kate Camplese, elementary music specialist for Granberry Elementary in Brentwood. “We can only do so much in the schools. The children who do really well are the ones who have the benefit of strong family involvement and have been taught responsibility and conflict resolution at home.”
In Building Moral Intelligence, Borba outlines seven elements — or essential virtues — that she believes all children should have: empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance and fairness. She says the first three are foundational, the others are necessary and that a child of mature character will cultivate even higher virtues.
The goal, Borba says, is to teach a child not only to internalize these virtues, but to become less and less dependent on parents’ moral guidance by incorporating them into daily life. As she points out, in the words of Aristotle, “We are what we consistently do.”
PARENTS Must Lead by Example
If your response is “What parenting plan?,” take heart! According to Sam and Geri Laing, parents of four and co-authors of Raising Awesome Kids in Troubled Times, even a late start on instilling character in your children is better than no start at all. The Laings say that parents should and still can be the most important influence in their children’s lives, but recognize that parents who address character-building in later years may face greater challenges initially.
The Laings say there’s a direct correlation between children’s character development and the measure of character their parents possess. In other words, if you feel your children lack character, take a fresh look at yourself. And hypocrisy or double standards between parents and children, they say, may produce the exact opposite of a desired character trait.
The Laings also include real-life examples of their own character changes leading to some pivotal character-developing moments for each of their children, in addition to practicals for parents on how to make essential changes themselves.
Building and cultivating strong character in children takes hard work, patience and a plan, with specific character traits or virtues as the goal. Still working on those New Year’s resolutions? Why not ask your kids what they think you need to change? The answers may provide a surprising and challenging start to a new parenting plan that builds character in both of you.
Barbara Dorris is a freelance writer and mother of two.
All You Need is Love!
What is character, and how do you go about instilling it in your children? Encourage them to respect and care for others, says Mary Katherine Morn, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville. Character, she says, “is the ability to make a judgement – a decision about what you’re going to do – that reflects the worth of other people.”
Modeling a concern for the well-being of others is one substantial way parents can help their children develop empathy and conscience. Just as important as modeling good values is providing children with a community that supports those beliefs.
“Families need the support of a community,” says Morn. “Even if a child witnesses strong moral character in the family, it’s important to reinforce that in the context of a community that holds up the same values.” Religious or otherwise, communities that support a family’s values can do much to help counter the negative messages children may get from peers and the media.
The most important thing parents can do to combat these negative messages, says Morn, is “to be in relationship with your children and reflect together on what’s going on. If your child watches TV, watch it together. Maintain an open relationship so that when your children bring things home from school, they’ll be willing to bring them up with you.” In that way, she says, parents can not only share their own perspective, but they can help shape their children’s ability to make decisions. “There has to be room built in for them to become decision makers,” she says.
So is there a guiding principle parents can use to help children develop good character? “For me,” says Morn, “it’s about the divine spark, the fact that we’re all children of God, whatever language we use. If children are taught that we are all part of a family, that we’re all related to each other, their ability to make good judgements will follow.” – ashley r. crownover