Editor’s note: In the last issue of The Phoenix Spirit, John Driggs lent his more than 40 years of experience working with individuals, couples and families, to the topic of how to help foster moral character in children. Driggs aptly acknowledged that parents and other caregivers are not wholly responsible on how kids turn out, nor should they take complete credit for their successes. Caregivers do, however, play a major role, and Driggs believes that it’s never too late to improve our relationships and work on building good character. Following is part two of Driggs’ insightful article.
What can we do now to improve our kids’ good character?
There are many other excellent references for parents to read about raising kids with good character. They are: The Parents We Mean To Be by Richard Weissbourd (Mariner Books, 2009) and The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, Ph.D. (Harper Books, 2007). These books are well written, backed by research and practical. Other ideas include:
Relax about how your children are turning out. If you’re reading this article you’ve likely already done a great job. Unless your kids are showing the psychopathic triad — fire setting, torturing pets, and bedwetting—you and they are probably OK. Don’t freak out when your kids go through periods of insensitivity and oblivion to others. Many children have long and winding roads through life that often end in the most positive of places. They are just like us; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Keep chiseling away at a positive relationship with your darlings.
Intervene early and often when your children regularly seem to show signs of conduct, autistic or psychotic disorders. This means they are repeatedly cut off from feeling your love, have hallucinations and/or don’t respond to social cues like other kids. Get your child assessed by a school psychologist, pediatric medical doctor, or at a child guidance center (such as the Frasier Center in the Twin Cities or Ramsey County Child Mental Health Center). It’s best if your child sees a specialist trained in character or psychoneurological issues, not just any counselor. Such investments are significant, may go on for years but have good results in the long run. Beware of non-trained helpers who allow impaired children to run circles around them or blame the parents for odd child behaviors.
Avoid being an indulgent parent like it is the kiss of death. Some of the most narcissistic adults, psychopaths and wife abusers were started this way. Read How Much Is Too Much by Jean Illsley Clark, Ph.D. et alia, (Marlowe and Company, 2004). It’s much better for you to be a tough disciplinarian with an occasional kind heart towards your kids, than someone who is constantly worried how fragile your kids are or how they may not like you. Kids who are fragile can learn to toughen up so they can cope in the world. Your kids will like you even more if you act like an authority figure. It’s fine if your kids don’t like you. Then you know you are doing your job!
Allow your children to make mistakes. Children, afterall, are children. They need our guidance. Keep a sense of humor and perspective on your kid’s screwing up. What, you yourself haven’t screwed up?! Always see their mistakes as teachable moments that, with your help, they can repair and forgive themselves. Such instances are often the most sacred moments in the parent/child relationship. Let kids screw up a lot. The more the merrier! Learning to repair (and forgive) are major parts of moral development.
Get support for yourself as a parent. Childrearers need an extra set of eyes to help them see what they don’t see and to emotionally cushion parental stress. Often, this caring happens in an intimate marital relationship. However, even if you lack such help, there are plenty of places to find it. Tell yourself that you do need support, even if you are resisting doing so. You are worthy enough to get help from other non-professional people, like a caring extended family member, sibling, neighbor down the street, organized parental support organization (like Early Family Education Center in the Twin cities) or a family-oriented church down the street. You don’t have to be a believer to go to a church. Go for the social support and community. All the research says that families that go to church or another spiritual institution have very positive outcomes for their kids when it comes to moral development, suicide prevention, premature pregnancy prevention, less drug and alcohol use, and career achievement. It is OK to go to a church purely for the community and fellowship, even if you’re not into the Jesus thing.
Do things as a family to volunteer in your community with your kids. Have them learn empathy by asking them, “So what do you think these lovely folks and children feel when they are in a shelter? Have them see that sacrifice is necessary for love and what they get back in return is way worth it! Have kids continually visit older folks to expand their compassion horizon. Forget having them using volunteer activities to pad their resumes or college applications. Have them learn love for its own sake. It’s better if the people you are serving are non-related, so children can see that we are all in this boat together and it feels really good doing good for others. Have them do the same at their own school, perhaps tutoring other students with challenges. Discuss as a family what it means to care for others. Also do some volunteer work on your own, apart from your kids, so you can learn the immense joy of giving to others. Your kids will take notice.
Always take a “Monkey See, Monkey Do” attitude when it comes to making moral choices. Our children mostly learn morality from our actions, not our words. Such thinking is not only good for our kids, it is good for ourselves as parents. Remember way back, when you once said, “Oh good, I’m going to be a parent. I finally will learn to be mature.” Well now’s your chance.
If you embrace the messages in this article it’s highly unlikely your kids will ever have to come see someone like me and take decades to learn these lessons. I could easily go on about the many ways I have let my own kids down. But what good would that do? After all, who among us does not have any challenges in life from how we were parented? Imperfection is normal for 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).