Most of us parents know how we would like our kids to turn out. They would care about others, generally have a warm heart, be socially accepted by peers, contribute to the greater good of others, treat siblings and family with compassion, be able to forgive, have a backbone and generally be a pleasure to hang out with.
Probably all of us want these qualities in our children and ourselves. Many kids — so called “good kids” — are really like this. They really are as good as they seem to be and they continue to be solid family members, reliable friends, and involved citizens throughout their lives. They are true blessings to our parental lives and society; they are also a blessing to themselves!
Unfortunately most of us parents don’t know how to bring this about. We lack a tribe of mentors to help us. Indeed the “how” is a complex and confusing process. We need support and help on how to bring about good kids, especially in this isolative and often less-than-moral culture. Parents are already smart on how to raise good kids, although we often get mislead in our materialistic society with its screwy social norms. The challenge of raising good kids is often bigger than ourselves. We deserve help.
I’ve worked for nearly 40 years in my private practice to help parents and individual clients have a good conscience — a true labor of love. It’s harder to do that with adults than it is with kids. I am convinced that children and parents have an inbuilt moral compass, sometimes hidden under several layers of hurt. Kids generally want to be a source of pride to their parents, care about others and be successful human beings. It’s just that their traumatic life experiences, hurtful family relationships, and genetic psycho-biology get in the way. That’s where parents come in; the sooner the better for our kids. We are not totally responsible on how our kids turn out, nor should we take complete credit for their successes, but we are their best bets on how to be decent human beings. That’s how we fully develop our own good character as well!
In fact the real moral development of our children begins and ends in our home in the parent/child relationship. No one else matters as much as we do to our kids, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. Our children wouldn’t have it any other way either.
It’s never too late to improve that relationship. It’s never too late for any of us to have good character. Let me briefly and hopefully not self-righteously comment on how this happens.
What is good moral character?
Moral character is the ability to bring about the greater good in others and lessen harm to self and others. It is the balancing act of choosing the better part of ourselves over the worse part of ourselves. We humans are primarily social creatures and how we relate to others organizes our cognitive, affective and social development. It is the single most important feature of our personality and ought to be at the top of the list of what we want for our children (and ourselves). It is primarily developed, however imperfectly, in the parent/child relationship.
Nevertheless, children themselves have free will independent of parents and to some extent choose the type of person they want to be. Good character, according to psychotherapist Lawrence Cohen (Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2015), involves learning appropriate behaviors and ethical principles over time, learning how to control unacceptable impulses, developing inner guidance on how we affect others, and having empathy and compassion for others to express intimate love and an not objectify others.
How does good moral character develop?
Good character develops in stages throughout our lifetime. Lawrence Kohlberg, a famous psychologist, in his long-term research on male infants found that we go through six developmental periods, essentially doing good things at first because we don’t want to be punished, because it follows the rules of society and finally because we do things for a greater good based on empathy for others and seeing the bigger picture. Actually we cycle throughout these stages in a continuing spiral. Often we learn to develop a greater moral sense through admitting and learning from our mistakes, making amends to those we’ve hurt and learning to forgive ourselves when we are properly mentored.
My uncle Mike story
Let me introduce you to my early mentor — my feared and beloved Uncle Mike. Raised by a single mother I needed a male guide to keep me in line. My mom’s brother did the job. Just to look at Mike inspired respect and warmth. He was a constant mentor and support for me for my mom. When I graduated high school at the top of my class, my extended Italian family threw a big party for me. My Uncle Mike didn’t make a big deal of me being the valedictorian, probably because I was already too full of myself. Instead he wrote me a check out for $99.90. That was a lot back in 1965! I very much appreciated it.
But I was puzzled by the check. Couldn’t he just have made out the check for an even $100? So I asked my Uncle why he did that. He said, “You already know why I did that!” I thought and thought and finally had to ask him again. Uncle Mike said, “Do you remember back 10 years ago when you asked to borrow a dime for a dime to buy a comic book? So remember. When you say you will pay someone back you better do so.” His gift was one of the most amazing gifts I ever received in my lifetime and its lesson resonates with me today. The fact that he didn’t brag about my class standing also taught me just how lucky I really was—that I didn’t need to be special to be loved.
How do parents get in the way of building good character?
Parents goof things up with their kids in a couple of ways. They fail to see that raising kids also rewinds the unconscious tape from their own childhood and that there is always great danger in confusing their child’s life with their own. Being oblivious to our own childhood wounds causes us to confuse our boundaries with our children’s real needs. When we cross boundaries with our kids their own lives get hijacked and they end up being sacrificial lambs used to caretake our emotional needs. Knowing where we leave off and our kids begin is crucial for healthy parent/child relationships. A good question to ask ourselves is: Whose good is being served by my parental action? Boundary confusion is quite common and not always disastrous in parent/child relationships but can do great harm.
Another way parents short-circuit kids’ good character is by being under involved or over involved with them. When we neglect their emotional lives, perhaps because we want to be seen in the good guy or friend role, we basically untether what gives kids safety and security. Our children do not need another friend, they need parents who often are on their case, assess real dangers in their lives and set limits with their behaviors. When parents micromanage their children’s lives they burden their children with their own emotional needs and they express a vote of “No confidence.”
The guilt and arrogance of parents to decide that their children will go to Harvard, even when they are only in kindergarten, is preposterous and self-serving. The social status of parents is way less important to the well being of their kids than parents telling their kids, “I have faith in you to be the director of your own life. Why not surprise me with what you can do. I’ll help you to some extent but you are responsible for your own life when you hit the streets.” The message I grew up with is even more relevant today in this overly indulgent world we live in. There is nothing wrong with kids going to trade school or community college and taking their own circuitous way in life. Teach children to know and trust themselves.
Does society matter when it comes to raising good kids?
Society is and is not important when it comes to your kid’s character. If your children and you have a respectful and personal long term relationship that includes your continuing but diminishing guidance, then nothing that society throws at your kids will harm them since your children carry your voice inside them 24-7. They will live in the cocoon of your love for life.
Society, however, also has a huge effect on the moral development of our kids. Read Character Matters by Thomas Lickona (Touchstone Book, 2004) to get an idea of this. The overuse of cell phones and electronic media have nearly taken the heart out of our families and weakened closeness with our kids.
Things have really changed in the last 30 years of our country. Let’s look back. Imagine a culture where character is more valued than income status or career accomplishment, where children received report cards on their deportment and ability to get along with others, where communities were socially involved and didn’t have to lock doors at night, where you could go over to your neighbor’s house and look through their refrigerator, where teachers and policemen were looked at as respected authority figures, where you could allow your kids to run around the neighborhood and come in at night, and where most people regularly attended church as a family. Do you think it would be easier to assert moral values to kids in that context? Clearly not everything about the good old days was in fact good old days. But I would readily trade what we have now for those times when it comes to raising kids.
If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: hold your children close, pause and just look into the eyes of your darlings. Notice how much they love and need you and how forgiving they are. This gaze is the window to their souls. And your own. It is the better part of us all.
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.