Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, December 08, 2006

How to Build Character in your Kids

By 7:21 PM
I don't think I'd get much argument from parents on this point: Our children are the source of the greatest joys, most debilitating anxieties and deepest sorrows that we will ever experience. With some luck and good parenting, we'll have more joys than anything else. Of course there will be exceptions, but I think you'd agree that this is generally true. Why is this? Whether you believe in a divine Creator or the power of natural selection (or both), something put the instinct in us to procreate, to protect our offspring from harm, and to prepare them for success in life. We love them more than our own lives and would gladly suffer in their place if we could.

My wife and I have been blessed with 4 children: 2 boys, 2 girls. They bring us joy, and they cause us, by their very existence and our love for them, disquiet. I can recall without any trouble whatsoever my deep trepidation the first time each one, as they reached driving age, took our car out without me or my wife being with them. And the time one of my sons vanished (he had decided to walk home, at the age of 2!) from the park in the three seconds I was looking the other way. But I also remember the quiet bliss of my eldest's wedding day. In the Old Testament, Solomon says, "A wise son makes a glad father; but a foolish son is the sorrow of his mother." No truer words.

We want many good things for our children, but way, way up there (optimistically) at the top of the list is the hope that they will develop a good character. This is at the top of our list because we understand that a good character will make them prone to succeed, see them through life's challenges, and bring them as much happiness as possible. What follows is a list things that will help you accomplishing this.

1. Live it, Don't Just Say It.

This concept has given birth to so many cliches that it's tempting to give it less attention than it truly deserves. We've heard it before that our kids learn more from what we do than what we say. It's true! Don't you hate it when a hypocritical boss tells you not to surf the Internet at work but spends half the day doing it himself? You may curb your browsing, but it'll be because you'e afraid of getting caught, not because you actually respect your boss. You'll resent him or her, and you'll surf away when she's not around.

I was very fortunate to have two loving parents who lived (and continue to live) out good character. The impact on my life has been beyond my ability to measure. I never heard either of them use a curse word, or saw them steal, cheat, or make excuses. I never saw them be vindictive, or narcissistic, or lazy. They've always acted responsibly and with good intentions. (Before you say something snide, I know they have their faults, but they've always show me and my siblings good character.) Just remember that your actions will always speak louder than words. OK, I used one of the cliches. Couldn't help it.

2. Expect their Respect

This one can easily be misunderstood, which is why point 1 came before point 2. But you must also understand just how aggressively our culture teaches our kids to treat their parents with derision and condescension. Watch a couple of episodes of the sitcoms they're watching and you'll see what I mean. Our culture thinks it's hilarious when kids on TV make wisecracks and put down their parents, but when that disdain turns into other self-destructive behavior it's too late to do much about it.

Before we had kids, my wife and I read a little book called "Dare to Discipline." In it, the author points out that children need discipline in addition to love and affection. When a child learns that her parents, the first authority figures in her life, will allow her to be rude, sarcastic or disrespectful to them without consequence, the child assumes that this behavior will be equally acceptable to any and all authority, and the rules and boundaries set by society will be disregarded, to the child's detriment.

It's important to understand that anger on the part of the parent does not create respect in a child, but fear. But a parent who creates consequences for disrespect, without anger, will help their kids to attain to a healthy wisdom and good character.

3. Don't Shield them from Consequences

If kids experience a life where their bad choices have no unpleasant consequences (because we are in the habit of covering for them or making it all better), the day will come when we won't be able to solve their problems and they'll face some consequences that may just ruin their lives.
My wife is an 8th-grade math teacher. She runs into parents all the time who try to protect their kids from a detention or a bad grade that they have well and truly earned. (Thankfully she also deals with parents who actually work with her to help their child learn valuable lessons from facing the consequences of their bad choices.) A parent who argues that his child should get a good grade even when the child hasn't done any work is teaching that child that they can do nothing and be rewarded anyway. Guess what. That paradigm will not serve them well when they try it at work in the future. The fact is that life has consequences, and if our kids learn that as they're growing up, they'll be much better off.

4. Educate them in Empathy

One of the qualities that makes us human is our ability to care about how others feel. When we hurt for a friend who's lost a job, when we can shed tears with a neighbor who just learned that they have a serious illness, we are experiencing something that brings a sweetness to life. Not that feeling someone else's pain is pleasant, but it brings us together and means that we will have the support of others when we are suffering. But even more than this, empathy keeps us from acting out of pure self-interest when our actions may cause harm or pain to another. We can anticipate how our words and actions may affect other people, and this helps us curb what we say and do. It's obvious that not everyone has empathy. When someone talks loudly during a movie, apparently not considering that their behavior makes it impossible for people sitting nearby to enjoy the show, that's a lack of empathy. I could come up with countless examples of this, and so could you. Why are people like this? Perhaps their parents did not educate them in empathy. When our kids are young, a great question to ask them is this: How do you think what you did made that person feel? How would it have made you feel if someone had done that to you?
5. Admit it When You're Wrong

It takes a person strong in their self-esteem to admit when they're wrong. Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Rather than lowering others' trust, it enhances it. Any leader who seems incapable of admitting error or apologizing to their subordinates is a leader whom people will follow only reluctantly if at all. In order to teach this to our children, we must practice it ourselves. As parents we will make many mistakes, so there will be ample opportunity to show our kids how to admit it when we are wrong.

6. Teach them to Live with Tomorrow in Mind

How does this concept come into play? Saving some of what you earn rather than spending it all and more. Putting solid effort into your schoolwork in order to have a better future. Avoiding self-destructive behavior like substance abuse and promiscuous sex. These are all examples of living with tomorrow in mind. This doesn't come naturally to kids. It has to be learned. When our children face choices, will they consider how their selections will impact on their lives next week, next month, next year, next decade? It's up to us, as parents, help them link their choices to future outcomes. Cause and effect. That's how our universe works.

8. Don't Give Up!

It's easy to become discouraged as a parent, to feel that raising decent kids is a hopeless endeavor. Often parents check out, give up, and withdraw emotionally from their parenting responsibilities altogether, except for the basics of providing food, shelter and clothing. This can be an especially tempting option during adolescence, when it seems that our kids have gone insane. It's been my observation that it's usually only when parents quit fighting the good fight that the battle is truly lost. (This is certainly not universally true. There are parents who do everything possible and still cannot make the difference, simply because sometimes it's not up to them.) The point is, when you most feel like quitting the parenting game, when you most feel that it's a hopeless cause, that's when you need to regroup and get back into the fray. In most cases, our kids will end up making us proud. Remember the words of one famous politician: The only way to prevail is to persist.