Bringing Up a Moral Child

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Is proper child rearing a lost cause? What pressures do parents face, and where can they find help in bringing up children with proper moral values?

When I grow up, I want to be just like my dad," the boy in the television commercial reassured us. The scene showed a proud father and son sitting together under a large oak tree. Each time the father moved, his son imitated him. The ad closed with the father reaching into his pocket for a cigarette and lighting it. The camera closed in on the little boy as he picked up a small twig, placed it between his fingers and raised it to his mouth just as his hero, his father, had done.

The voice-over finished the scene with, "When I grow up, I want to be just like my dad."

Our children are getting an education. But who-and what-is doing the educating? What good and bad influences are hard at work in the minds of our children, forming and shaping them? If you are a parent, are you the guiding force in shaping your child's thoughts and moral standards? If not, how can you become the primary influence in the life of your child?

Being a parent is a complex responsibility. In many families both parents hold down jobs, trying to keep up with the needs of family, house, car and so many other things. The pressures can be staggering. It's no wonder so many parents feel overwhelmed when they consider their child-rearing responsibilities-and the world our children are inheriting. Such is symptomatic of the moral malaise we face.

Just how bad is it? What are some of the problems parents face as we near the 21st century? What can we do about them?

Rise of the antiheroes

Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Davis, in a recent article titled "Naughty as They Wanna Be," asked: "Have we lost the capacity to be shocked by language?"

Davis wrote about the vulgarity of the times, using basketball star Dennis Rodman's often crass attitude as an example. "Chicago Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman stood up before 200,000 sports fans in Grant Park and millions more in the radio and television audience and blatantly drawled the dreaded four- lettered adjective," he wrote. "The sports fans gave him a wild ovation. What the heck is going on these days, anyway? Is nothing forbidden? When did smutty talk and dirty pictures turn up over the airwaves and bandwidths with impunity?"

Who gets hurt by such behavior? Civilization itself suffers. Our children do. We all do. Unfortunately, when shocking becomes common, it no longer startles anyone.

Is it too late to face the issues of morality and values head on? Some think we must assert ourselves in this critical area or we will be overcome by smut, filth and increasingly shocking behavior-that parents with high values will be swept overboard into a sea of amorality. What will become of our children then? What lies ahead for the new generation?

Values vs. amorality

Observers are divided on the issues, and chaos fills the vacuum. Some courageously stand up for right and worthy values, but many people simply don't appear to care whether good values and morals are practiced.

Then there are those who adamantly argue that no one has the right to determine the values or morals that should serve as a society's blueprint for living. "Who do you think you are?" is a common knee-jerk reaction by some.

Others take the question another step: "Who do you think you are? God?"

Let's briefly explore the latter question. Notice its implication. The question assumes there is someone who can determine human values and morals: the Supreme Being.

Literary editor David Klinghoffer agrees with this assumption. In his article The Road Back to God, he suggests that society has strayed from God and that, if society is to return to Him, at least one way leads back: talking about God in public.

"The most effective way to get other people to take God, and thus morality, seriously is to talk about Him seriously, and in public, yourself" ( National Review , July 15, 1996, pp. 49-50).

But how does talking about God fit with better child rearing?

Take God seriously

God sets concrete standards. We can know where God stands on the issues facing civilization itself. Some parents look beyond human reason to God's transcendent principles for parental guidance.

American television news commentator Ted Koppel, in an address to the graduating class of Duke University, made this observation: "What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time."

Mr. Koppel had a point. If God's values were merely to be regarded as 10 suggestions, then secularism and situation ethics rule the day. But, if they are based on eternal commands given by the eternal God, then we're dealing with transcendent values, applicable to all people for all time.

God made us and knows how we think (1 Samuel:16:7; Hebrews:4:12-13). He created us from the dust of the ground (Genesis:1:26-27; 2:7). He owns us (1 Corinthians:6:19-20). He intended mankind to choose between good and evil, to "choose life" by honoring God's values, which lead to eternal life (Deuteronomy:30:19-20; Matthew:19:16-17).

The human mind isn't automatically equipped with a moral compass (Jeremiah:10:23). God's Word is that moral compass, serving as the operating manual for human behavior. The Bible's laws serve as the moral compass for humanity; its morals and values transcend human thinking (Isaiah:55:6-9). Those laws are guides, signposts for human thought (Psalm:119:105).

God's values can help parents bring up happy, secure, successful children. Parents can have the knowledge and assurance to guide them in bringing up moral children. Right values can help inoculate children against the immorality and amorality poisoning civilization.

Breaking the cycle

Parents have a vital role in educating their children, not just by what they say, but by what they are .

What is most important in shaping a child's mind: words or example? A small boy who follows his father's lead to the point of mimicking smoking with a twig is following his dad's example. Good words help, but actions speak much more eloquently.

How do children think? Some researchers believe that a child's pattern of thinking is mostly set by the age of 3. Pressure from other people, including peers, affects even babies. Babies and other youngsters are especially susceptible to others' examples, therefore their thinking processes soon have the imprint of this world's ways, as someone might form letters on a soft clay tablet. Their little minds come equipped with the basic powers to recognize and learn, but are otherwise empty and ready to be filled with knowledge, both good and bad.

What an incredible responsibility this places on parents! Consider what you have seen in watching parents interact with their children. Sometimes this is pleasurable, especially when parents are so obviously interested in their children. At other times it's uncomfortable and discouraging, as when parents show little interest in their offspring and react to them with hostility. A parent's example is indelibly imprinted on his children.

We live in an era of parents speaking to their children with demeaning, self-destructive phrases: "You're stupid!" "You idiot!" These terms show frustration and selfishness on the part of parents. Why would adults use such language with their children? All too often it's because that's the way their parents talked to them. Society accumulates habits, attitudes and practices-particularly in family relationships.

"For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Exodus:20:5-6).

The Second Commandment, referred to here, points out that the perpetual breaking of God's life-giving laws-as well as the painful fruit of such choices-is handed down from generation to generation. God doesn't have to punish; punishment is self-inflicted when His way of life is rejected and the resulting attitude is passed from parents to children.

However, this biblical passage also hints that the cycle can be broken. Parents can break the rhythm of self-destructive habits and behavior by honoring and obeying God.

We can improve on the old saying, "Do as I say, don't do as I do." But it takes effort and hard work. It also takes vision, a perspective that values God's instructions to guide parents in effectively rearing their children. Moral children don't just happen.

Foundation for a moral child

The most important key to raising a moral child can be summarized in one word: example . The power of parental example knows no bounds.

When a father and mother consistently set the standard for their children, their offspring reap the enduring benefits, as will their sons and daughters after them. The values and morals instilled in children when they are young become their compass, the foundation for the decisions they will make.

God gives basic instructions for how to build a moral family structure. His instructions to parents are clear: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today [primarily the Ten Commandments, listed in the previous chapter, Deuteronomy:5:6-21] shall be in your heart.

"You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy:6:5-7). In short, the home is to be a values-driven, morals-oriented institution in which the father and mother are the teachers, instructing their children in God's way of life. No human effort can improve on God's model for moral teaching.

Knowing these guidelines is half the battle. Doing them is the rest. For parents to rear moral children, they must act from the heart, from clear and decisive convictions. External conformity or ceremony isn't enough. Sooner or later children will see through their parents' pretensions.

Parents who raise moral children realize how important their examples are. They also realize that to truly love their children they must live for their children, putting them high on their list of priorities.

Knowledge into practice

We live in a secular, selfish society. Self-sacrifice is out, self-gratification is in. Our children pick up on this; they are constantly exposed to it. To counteract this unfortunate circumstance, right values must be taught and lived in their presence.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself to see if you are effectively instilling proper values in your children:

Are you involved in your children's lives? Some children say they would rather give up a parent before they would be willing to give up watching television. This doesn't say much for parental involvement.

Studies show that children have greater intelligence when parents regularly spend time with them. Involvement comes when you talk with your children, take the time to put them to bed, pray with them, help them with homework, drive them to their activities.

Children need father and mother and a proper relationship with both. A friend said to me that he spent so much of his formative years with his mother that he considered his father just a long-term houseguest with spanking privileges.

Do you cheer their successes? It's natural for a father to support and identify with his son, but what about his daughter? A daughter, too, must emotionally understand her father's concern for her welfare and success in life. Parents can make a dramatic difference in positively shaping their children's future when they take the time to applaud and work toward their successes.

Can the children count on you? Do you keep your promises? Children take parents at their word. Kept promises mean a lot to them. We must sacrifice our time and resources to keep them, but the effort will be worth it.

Do you tune out your children? Children need their parents' attention, especially when around other people. If we fail to give them our attention, they may resort to other means, including acting, dressing or grooming themselves in outrageous ways.

Are you understanding in a conflict? Sometimes children want to do something to which their parents are opposed. In such cases parents should be honest and open with their children, explaining why they feel the time or situation is not right or why the action is inappropriate. Parents may feel the child is too young or that it is not safe for him or her. Explaining your reasons for refusing a request can strengthen a relationship with those you love.

Do you back each other? Parents need to agree on household rules and stick to them. If the children try to get either parent to break the rules, both parents should remember their agreement made to each other and refuse such a request. Children gain a sense of security from living with two adults who love and support each other.

William J. Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education, provides us with these words: "Moral education-the training of heart and mind toward the good-involves many things. It involves rules and precepts-the dos and don'ts of life with others. It involves explicit training in good habits. And it involves the example of adults who, through their daily behavior, show children they take morality seriously" ( The Children's Book of Virtues , Simon & Shuster, New York, 1995, p. 5).

By conscientiously striving to set the best example possible for your child, you can bring up a moral child in today's world. Perhaps the acid test of a good parent is to ask a simple question: Would you be happy if your children grew up to be like you? GN

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