There is a Dr. Seuss quote that I’m fond of that says, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” As the father of two children under the age of three (and one more on the way), I’ve had my fair share of complicated questions – “I forgot to buy diapers but both my kids need one, now what?” Or, “Why am I in a power struggle with my two year old, and what’s more, why is he winning?” And even though I don’t have teenagers of my own yet, I’ve spent the past thirteen years working with them, and at the end of the day, ninety-eight and three quarters percent of the time the simple solutions have been the most effective in solving problems. So, in keeping with this spirit of simplicity, I’d like to offer five general guidelines that are descriptive in nature and not prescriptive, and they are for any parent interested in learning more a about raising children with character.
Make forming your child’s character a priority. As a parent, the primary role in forming your child’s character belongs to you. Teachers, advisors and coaches are important figures in your child’s life, but they’re secondary to you. In the character-forming business, you’re the key, the vital cog, the irreplaceable influence. Just as important as providing for your child’s material needs or protecting him/her from danger is your responsibility to safeguard and nurture his/her moral and intellectual development. Taking this responsibility seriously early on is like putting money in the bank, only infinitely more valuable.
Get a compass and use it frequently. Haven’t you heard many a guru say when giving advice on starting a worthy endeavor, “Begin with the end first, and then work your way backwards from there”? Parenting is no different. To be successful, your vision needs to span 20 years in order to see the adult you hope your child will one day be. This isn’t so much a worthy endeavor as it is a work of art... better said, your masterpiece! It’s never too early to ask yourself questions like, “What kind of husband do I want my son to be? What kind of mother do I want my daughter to be? What kind of worker? What kind of friend?” Family, relationships, careers — these are the things that are at stake, and these are precisely the things you’re trying to protect and nurture through your efforts to form your child’s character in the here and now. Don’t panic! Yes, the stakes are high, but take comfort in what the experts say — you only have to be a good enough parent for your child to be all right, not a perfect one.
To aid you on your journey, take the time now to think about what virtues are important to have on your family’s moral compass. Sound judgment, perseverance, toughness, selflessness, self-control, responsibility, generosity, sacrificial love, greatness of heart, others-centeredness, and humility are just some of the guiding lights you should consider putting on there. Knowing exactly what’s on your compass and communicating that frequently to your child will make choosing a course of action easier when you find yourself in a parenting pickle, or you’re planning your next vacation, or you’re just reflecting on the day-to- day activities of family life. “How can I help my child better understand what it means to be selfless here?” Or, “What can I do in this moment to help my son power through this difficult task instead of me doing it for him?” Or, “Is this is a good time to let my daughter live with the consequences of her decision, even though her decision was neglect, to improve her judgment in the future?” Having a compass and referencing it frequently will help you ask the right questions and more often than not choose the “good enough” path to follow. In the end, it will all even out for the better.
Make your kid put some skin in the game. It’s been said that the family is the first school of virtue. It’s in the family that a child first learns what it means to live with others in community, what it means to put the needs of the group ahead of the wants of the individual, what it means to forgive and forgive and forgive, what it means to assume the best in people, what it means to truly give of one’s self for the good of somebody else. In addition to these lessons, your child should also learn what it means to be depended on. Your son or daughter needs opportunities to chip in around the house. Don’t do him the disservice of making life too easy for him. On the contrary, teach him to try and make life easier for the others! There are so many lessons to be learned from taking out the trash, or cutting the grass, or even cooking periodic meals for the family. Not only will chores like these help your child develop some of those important independent living skills she’ll need in college and beyond, but she’ll also learn that people are counting on her and she needs to reward their trust with follow-through, that she has a meaningful contribution to make to the world around her, and ultimately that responsibility means doing what we’re supposed to do so that others don’t get hurt.
Befriend your child. When your child is little, you’re his hero — enjoy it! When he hits the teenage years, he’ll naturally pull away from you. Your role, ideally, will gradually morph into something more akin to a mentor. In either case, without abdicating any of your authority as a parent, you need to show your child that you like her, that you trust her, that you’re interested in the things that she’s interested in, that you’re curious to learn about her viewpoints, that you’re optimistic about her and what she can do, that you want to spend time with her (and actually do), that you take her ideas and dreams seriously, that you’re there for her no matter what. This doesn’t mean you should agree with all of your child’s decisions, or greenlight anything he wants to do, or act like a child yourself (though there’s no shame in intentionally being silly from time to time), or not hold him accountable when necessary. Absolutely not! But ideally, your child should feel the confidence to be able to come and talk to you about anything because your love and affection for him are never in doubt. That’s friendship and, just like anything else that’s worth it, it takes time and effort.
Work to create a bright and cheerful home. Be intentional about cultivating a warm atmosphere in your house. Home is a child's refuge from the outside world where he’s routinely weathering storms. Don’t get me wrong, learning to take some hits and rolling with the punches are necessary for your child's development; it helps him “get in shape.” But so is having cozy and calm place to come home to. Here are a few ideas for you to consider...
- Eat family dinners regularly. There’s something sacred about breaking bread with the people you love. Make dinnertime a time for everyone to share about their day, family announcements, or the simple enjoyment of each other’s company. Don’t make it a time for criticism, following up on missed homework assignments, or expressing disappointment about a low test grade — those are instant buzz killers.
- Slow down. We live in such a fast-paced world where there’s always something that needs to get done, always an important deadline coming up, always... fill in the blank. When you’re at home, be a human being, not just a human doing. Playing board games, reading a book together after dinner, enjoying a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows by the fire, going on a hike, having a get-together with impromptu skits or piano recitals by family members, working on a home project together — these are just a handful of ideas that can go a long way toward fostering a lively spirit in your house where your child feels connected and safe.
- Smile more. The look on a parent’s face leaves a lasting impression on a boy, so you might as well make it a friendly face. Your children have no idea what hard knocks you take on a day-to-day basis, but don’t worry, in time they will! In the meantime, hang your troubles on a hook outside your door when you get home, put a smile on your face, and make the effort to enjoy the time that you have with your child while he’s there.