December 13, 2013 —
All parents want their children to grow up to become decent human beings. But we don't often spend a lot of time thinking about what exactly that would look like. In the work world, we create mission and vision statements and we engage in long term strategic planning. This visioning of the future is just as important in raising children of character. What kind of adults do we want our children to become? In the daily grind, we often focus on their achieving success in school, extracurricular activities and eventually careers. While these are all important goals, ultimately it is our character that will determine our success in life. If we want our children to be kind, caring, honest and respectful individuals who have integrity and do the right thing, we need to actively focus on developing these skills.
Our homes are the laboratories for learning how to treat others and this is especially true with sibling relationships. We expect our children to treat each other with respect and look at things from their sibling's point of view. When we help our children to see their siblings as people with feelings and desires, they will learn empathy. And when we understand our children's temperaments and have age appropriate expectations, they will feel more understood and accepted.
As parents, we are role models for our children. I remember seeing my father offer the mail carrier a cold glass of water in the summer – I learned kindness through this simple action. We can teach so much more through our behavior than through our words alone. When we give someone the benefit of the doubt, we teach our kids to not be so quick to jump to conclusions. When we bring food to a sick neighbor, we teach empathy. When we give the cashier back money when we are given too much change, we teach honesty. Conversely, when we lie about a child's age to save money at the movies, we teach our children that being dishonest is acceptable.
If we want our children to be honest, we can't set them up to lie by asking questions that we already know the answer to. For example, when we know that our teen came home an hour past curfew because we heard the door open, asking them the next morning when they got home is just setting them up to lie. If we instead tell them that we noticed they were out an hour past curfew and explain that we were worried, we can have a discussion about our need to be able to trust that they will keep their commitments. There can still be natural consequences for inappropriate behavior, but our goal as parents is to help our children internalize what is right and wrong so they will do the right thing even when we are not watching.
Teenagers often know the right thing to do, but sometimes have a hard time doing it. Teens want to be accepted by their peers and are afraid to be seen as different. Other times, they seek short term pleasure and don’t think about the consequences. If teens feel that they are unconditionally loved by their parents and that they are held to high expectations to always do the right thing, they will be more likely to make positive choices. This can help teenagers withstand the pressures to experiment with alcohol or drugs, as they do not want to disappoint their parents or feel uncomfortable lying to them.
In our society, guilt is a dirty word. However, some of life’s most important lessons happen when we miss the mark and feel bad about ourselves. When we are not there for a friend in need or fail to keep a promise, we feel guilty. Instead of telling ourselves not to feel guilty, we should attempt to learn from the situation and commit to doing better next time. This is how we grow from our mistakes. We can model this learning for our children and, as they see us apologize and resolve to do better, they will do the same.
To sum up, family life is a working classroom for children and parents are the ultimate teachers. When parents emphasize character and values through their words and actions, they are laying the groundwork for good character in their children. Once values are established, parents can help their children listen to the "voice inside of them" and self-correct if they're not behaving or acting according to that voice. There are no guarantees, but this foundation can provide lifelong tools for living ethical, character-based and value-centered lives.
Susan Muszynski is Vice President of Training and Evaluation for Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation, a character-development education and training organization that empowers teens and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect.