I read this story in Reader’s Digest once about a guy who was camping in a national forest and in the morning as he stood in the communal bathroom washing up, the man next to him asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a Juvenile Rehabilitation Counselor,” he replied. At which point the other man shook his head and said, “Yep, I’m a parent too!”
What’s amazing, is that after tens of thousands of years of human experiences, literally billions of examples of parent-child relationships, there is still no job in the world harder, no occupation in the world with less agreement and clarity about what constitutes success and how to get there, than parenting.
Someone once said, “Deciding to have a child is choosing to have your heart walk around outside your body for the rest of your life.” Every time Didi says goodbye to our daughter, Gable, she tells her, “Take good care of my heart.”
And oh how times have changed – it used to be that parents had lots of kids, now kids have lots of parents. It used to be that kids would bring dates home to meet their parents, now parents bring dates home to meet their kids.
Perhaps the most disconcerting changes are these:
The top public school problems in 1940, were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in halls, cutting in line, dress code and loitering. By 1987 it had become drug abuse, alcohol, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.
And yet…here is parenting test number one. Who said the following, “Children today love luxury too much. They have detestable manners, flout authority and have no respect for their elders. They no longer rise when their parents and teachers enter the room. What kind of awful creatures will they be when they grow up?” Answer: Socrates, 399 BCE.
As the French are fond of saying, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – The more things change the more they stay the same. It certainly seems that way with parenting.
So how in this new world of 2010 that we start today can we raise ethical children, children with character, children with values that will see them through the unforeseen ups and downs of life, the unimaginable changes and transformations of our society that none of us can even predict?
Here are what I consider to be the “Ten Keys to Raising Ethical Children”:
1. Set ethical parenting goals
2. Be a moral model
3. Have age-appropriate expectations
4. Demonstrate unconditional love
5. Discipline with consequences not punishments
6. Look for teachable moments
7. Share moral aphorisms
8. Have the kind of friends you want your kids to have
9. Make ethical behavior a family affair
10. Teach your children that life has meaning
What does it mean to “set ethical parenting goals?” It means acting as a parent the same way you would if you were a teacher. In the famous words of Dr. Stephen Covey, “Start with the end in mind.” You ask yourself the question “What kind of person do I want my child to become? What are the most important values I want to pass on to my child? And then you identify the types of activities, experiences and opportunities you would need to create in your child’s life in order to naturally lead to the fulfillment of those goals.
For example, here are my top ten most important values that I wanted to teach my child:
1. What you say, what you do, and who you are really matters.
2. The most important word in the English language, is attitude.
3. Your most precious possession is your integrity.
4. Faith can see you through the darkest hour.
5. Perhaps the highest wisdom of all is kindness.
6. No challenge is so great that it can withstand relentless persistence.
7. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is feeling the fear and acting anyway.
8. The most powerful force in the world is love.
9. When in doubt ask, “If everyone acts as I am about to do, what kind of world will I have created.”
10. Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.
In truth the single most important key to raising ethical children is to be a moral model. It was James Baldwin who said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
If I had to boil down all the advice I have read and heard and taught about parenting over the years into one simple sentence, it would certainly be this: Be the kind of adult you want your children to become.
How do we pass on our values to our children? Let me ask you the same question. How did your parents pass on their values to you? Of course, it was example, example, example. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.” Perhaps a bit of a hyperbole, but fundamentally true.
I began my book Children of Character with two opposing stories of two very different mothers. The first was from an incident that took place in LA in 1992 during the riots – everyone who wasn’t in the midst of them seemed to be glued to our television sets, watching with horror at the visions of LA on fire and hearing the sounds of sirens throughout the city.
I will never forget the scene I watched as a camera man caught a group of people coming out of a broken store front loaded down with merchandised they had just liberated from the store. There in the midst of this mayhem was a mother, small child in one hand, a pile of loot in the other, grinning at the camera in triumph, and all I could think about was what lesson was this mother teaching her child about honesty, integrity, community, civic responsibility.
Mother story number two was about Pauline Nichter. It took place years later, but it too I caught as part of a television news broadcast. The scene took place at a police station in San Diego where Pauline Nichter and her husband Tom had arrived with their eleven-year-old son Jason, to return a wallet that they had found on the street. The wallet contained several hundred dollars in cash, credit cards, and a plane ticket out of the country. What made this story so extraordinary, and why it ended up on the news, was that Pauline and her husband and son were homeless at the time, living in their car.
They both had lost their jobs, had lived like so many others one pay check away from homelessness, and when that paycheck stopped coming, were evicted from their apartment and ended up sleeping in parking lots by night, searching for jobs by day.
I’ll never forget that scene either. The reporter asked Tom Nichter why he hadn’t simply kept the money, given their circumstances and he replied, “I kept thinking that what if this money was all that was keeping someone from being in the same situation that we are in and I couldn’t help but try and find it’s owner.” And Pauline just laughed, and said “It’s my mothers fault!” “I kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head over and over saying, “Pauline, do the right thing. Pauline, do the right thing” so that’s what we did.
And there standing next to them both was 11-year-old Jason, looking up at his parents and beaming with pride. And I thought, that is every parent’s dream – to be Pauline Nichter’s mother. Not the homeless part of course, but the internal parent, having your child grow up to hear your voice in her head reminding her to do the right thing, and helping her to make the difficult choices of life whenever they come.
Perhaps the best parenting advice I can give, is to remember the words of a renown American educator and author named Jonathan Kozol. Kozol was talking about teachers when he wrote this, but it is perfect advice to parents as well. He said, “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.”
Big enough to matter, small enough to win. That is the art of parenting, the art of raising ethical children, the art of looking for teachable moments in life and using them to teach our children what really matters and that they can make a difference.
It’s giving them unconditional love, not uncritical acceptance of all behavior. It is creating opportunities to make ethical behavior a family affair – taking your kids to the hospital to deliver gifts to lonely children on holidays, visiting old age homes to bring cheer to the aged, or Turning Point Shelter as a family to make and serve dinner to the homeless.
Ultimately it is to believe yourself and teach your children by what you say and what you do and who you are that life has meaning. It is remembering the Gallup poll that once asked graduating High School Seniors what they wanted most from their parents, and their answer that they wished their parents had loved them enough to require more of them.
And finally never underestimate the power of love and of sharing loving aphorisms with your children. My grandfather used to say, “Don’t wish for fish, fish for fish.” And I never forgot it. When President Gerald Ford died, at his funeral they said he used to quote all the time something his mother always used to say: “Work hard, tell the truth and come to dinner on time.”
Never underestimate the power of words, the power of your living example, the power of your love. When Abraham Lincoln’s mother was dying, she called her small son to her bedside and whispered, “Be somebody Abe, be somebody.”
So be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to become – for all you can do is the best you can do, and the best you can do is enough.