“Even though “character education” has become fashionable only in the past few year, I have had the privilege of spending the last twenty years of my life teaching, lecturing, and giving workshops to parents about the challenges of raising children who are steeped in values and whose daily behavior is a reflection of good character. During all those years in community after community, I have asked audiences the same series of questions, and the answers they have given me teach the most important lessons of all about the role of parents as the primary teachers of our children.
The first question that I always ask is, “Where do your values come from?” And 100% of the time, regardless of the community, regardless of the socioeconomic makeup of the crowd, regardless of their religious upbringing, they always answer in exactly the same way. The first response in every single case, is my parents. My parents! It seems so obvious and straightforward, that you may wonder why I even bring it up at all? You see we all know intuitively the right answers to how to raise children with values, ethics, morals and character – but as parents we have a deep-seated aversion to accepting the obvious and truly acting upon it in our own families.
The problem is that to really embrace the simply truth of the power we have as parents to teach character and values to our children demands that we let go of all the excuses we come up with to assign blame for our children’s actions on someone or something else. Sometimes I am convinced that the single biggest barrier to effective character education is the difficulty parents have in accepting total responsibility for how their children turn out.
Now I know that lots of parents can point to the fact that they raised two children in the same household, and they turned out in totally different ways. Obviously I don’t mean to imply that every child is simply a blank slate to be written upon as the parent chooses, or an empty vessel to be filled with whatever wisdom and knowledge the parent can find. The truth is much more complicated and complex than that.
However, our society as a whole suffers from a rampant case of what I like to call, “Victimitis.” It’s the unhealthy tendency we have to see ourselves as mere victims of forces larger than us – the media, the government, society as a whole, radio, television, movies, the influence of celebrities or whatever we think might somehow get us off the emotional hook. I believe the most important sign of personal maturity, is the willingness of an individual to accept total responsibility of his or her own life, own future, own success or failure and his or her impact on others.
This challenge extends to parenting as much as any other part of our lives. When parents can blame peers, or ineffective preaching from their clergy, or the power of television and movies, or the influence of rock stars for the behavior of their children, they simply ignore the most potent reality of the emotional life of every human being on earth – namely, that parents are always our most important teachers.
No matter how old we get, and even after our parents have died, most of us still search for ways to receive their approval for who we are and how we act. It is a powerful tool in the hands of every parent, and one not to be wasted. It was the great writer James Baldwin who once said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” It is in the imitation of our parents that the most effective character education takes place.
As a parent, everything you do teaches by example. How you talk to your spouse or partner, how you treat strangers on the street or in the market, what you say about your neighbors when they aren’t in the room, how you speak about your co-workers or employees, whether you show up at your children’s sports activities or dance recitals, how you talk about other drivers on the road, all is teaching every single minute that your kids are around you.
The parents’ job is to recognize and accept the responsibility for being the number one moral model for their children, and to act accordingly. Whatever you say and however you act is constantly demonstrating to your children your values, your goals, and your ethical standards, whether you want them to or not. That’s why the willingness to accept full responsibility for the ethical education of your children is so crucial, and why it is so important that you not merely react to your children’s behavior, but take the time to explain to them why you want them to act in certain ways.
One of the most important ways that you can nurture your child’s moral development, is by giving him or her the reasons for your rules and the reasons for the consequences that come as a result of breaking your rules. This helps children to make the crucial mental and emotional connection between their own behavior and the impact of that behavior on others and the world. Your job as a parent is to teach your children that what they say and do really matters. The only way you can do this is if they make the connections in their own minds between actions and consequences.
That is why parents are always the key to successful moral development in children. Every audience not only knows immediately that they learn their values primarily from their parents, they also always tell me that the way their parents taught them those values is by example. That is your greatest challenge – to live your life in such a way that if your children emulated your behavior, the world would be a better place for everyone.