Standards all around you may be slipping, but here are some principles to help you stay in charge of your child's moral upbringing.
It's 11 o'clock at night and Ted and Joyce know where their children are: safely in bed. At 11 o'clock in the morning they also know where their children are: underfoot.
Ted and Joyce, who both work at home, see plenty of their children. Sometimes they feel they see too much of Steve, 5, and Millie, 2, even though they can afford an efficient nanny to help look after them.
From Ted and Joyce to the single-parent groupings at the other end of the family spectrum, more and more parents are like one mother I know who said of her family's way of life: "We're so busy running here and there and taking the kids to different activities that we hardly ever have time to just sit and talk with each other."
Running out of time (and money)
A changing job market, increasing cost of living and rising tax burdens have resulted in parents spending more time earning a living and less time with their children. In just the past 20 years the average workweek jumped from 41 hours to 48. People with incomes of more than $50,000 work an average of 52 hours a week, while small-business owners are putting in more than 55 hours a week.
One result, according to various studies, is that parents in the 1990s spend 40 percent less time with their children than their parents did in the 1960s and 1970s.
"A lot of times both parents are working full time away from the home, in some instances working 50 to 60 hours a week on two different jobs just to get by financially," notes Dr. Frank Vitro, a professor at Texas Woman's University with a special interest in moral education. "Parents can become so overworked and stressed from problems at the office that they don't have any emotional energy left for their children when they come home at night."
Not only do children spend less time with their parents, they have less contact with other relatives. "We don't have the same sense of community that we used to have-partly because people are getting job transfers all over the country and moving to where they don't know anybody, but also because more families are splitting up and becoming separated geographically," says Dr. Marti Erickson, director of the Children's and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota.
"Grandparents, for example, have less chance to make an impact on their grandchildren's lives because they live hundreds of miles apart and rarely get to see each other."
Many of us live in large metropolitan areas where we don't know even the names of the people living in the apartment next door.
"When I was a child," a 72-year-old man told me, "everyone in the neighborhood was like a big family. If a neighbor saw me getting into mischief, not only would that person scold me, he'd also take me home and tell my parents what I did. But, if I took that kind of involvement today, I'd probably be told to mind my own business."
Consumerism also plays a bigger role in the 1990s. Says one father: "My kids insist they have to have Nintendos, the latest compact discs, more videotapes, designer-label clothes, their own phone, a computer.
"When I tell them they don't need more things, I have to look at my own example. We have boxes and boxes in the garage filled with gadgets and other needless stuff that we've moved from one home to the next without ever opening."
"Certainly computers, CD players, amusement parks, soccer fields and other things that weren't available a generation ago can be very rewarding for children," Dr. Vitro says, "but parents have to be careful. The message kids often get is materialism is more important than true values. That's why kids only care about getting that $10 allowance by the end of the week. It doesn't matter what they learned or how many good deeds they've done. Our society has moved away from feeling good about internal morality and ethical gains, and we're more focused on extrinsic, material satisfaction."
To make matters worse, children often spend several hours a day in front of the television set, soaking up values few parents want for their children.
"We are a shrinking world, and kids are becoming more aware of violence through the media," says Dr. Ned Gaylin, a family-studies professor at the University of Maryland. "And even if kids don't live with violence directly-and some of them do-they are aware of it via their television screens."
According to one study, by the time the average American child is 15 he or she will have seen up to 15,000 murders on television.
Is there any hope for children today? Of course, there is. Proverbs:22:6 tells us to "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."
Even in the best of circumstances child rearing has never been easy. It wasn't easy in King Solomon's time, and it certainly isn't easy now. But it can be done. Here are some suggestions for confronting modern-day child-raising obstacles and bringing up good children.
Wearing other people's shoes
Impress positive values on your children by frequent repetition and admonition. Directly teach children right from wrong and urge them to act in a moral manner. If they exhibit attitudes, actions or language that you don't approve of, seriously and firmly let your children know how you feel.
One of the most important moral values you should teach your children is concern for other people.
"From the earliest ages you need to talk about feelings, to remind your kids how it felt when they were treated the way they're now treating someone, and to use their imagination to put themselves in the other person's shoes," says Dr. Michael Schulman, author of Bringing Up a Moral Child . "Try to make sure your children treat others well, not just to stay out of trouble, but so that their lives are connected to others in a good way."
Other values you should steep your children in are honesty, justice, dependability, charity and tenacity. Be enthusiastic when explaining and discussing these values with your children. Let them know these are concerns you hold dear and why they are important. Give concrete reasons to show that certain behaviors are right and others wrong. For instance, rather than just say, "No cheating," include a reason: "If you cheat when you play a game, it gives you an unfair advantage over the other players."
Think of ways to illustrate moral lessons. As well as Abraham Lincoln or Florence Nightingale, talk about biblical heroes: Joseph's moral example when tempted and threatened by Potiphar's wife and David's modesty when God chose him as a leader. Discuss the results of their choices.
Compare them with Samson's immorality and Absalom's vanity and the results of their choices.
Clip magazine and newspaper articles that tell about ordinary people who do good deeds or overcome obstacles. Tell stories from your own childhood and about relatives who set good examples.
Point out lessons daily
Use your children's day-to-day experiences as a springboard for moral discussions. For example, your daughter may come home from school and say that a student she knows routinely cheats on tests at school.
As a parent, you can ask questions that stimulate your child's thinking along spiritual lines-helping him to realize that cheating is deception and a form of lying as well as taking something unearned and is thus a form of stealing.
You can further the conversation with questions like, "Do you think you should tell the teacher?" You can also lead discussions about the moral implications of events in the news, such as politicians accepting bribes, the strike at the local factory or international conflicts.
The key to having helpful discussions with youngsters is to listen. "A lot of times the minute children start to talk the parent jumps in, telling them what they ought to think before they're finished explaining," says Dr. Susan Mackey, director of postgraduate studies at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. "But if you do that your children will begin to shut you out."
Think about what your child says and make sure you properly understand it. You might say something like this: "If I understand you, here's what you're saying."
"See if you can validate at least part of what your child tells you," Dr. Mackey says. "You might not agree with everything your child says, but hopefully you can agree with some of it. By doing so you build a connection with your child. Everyone appreciates being understood and having their feelings validated."
Actions speak louder
Your example teaches youngsters how to treat other people even more so than your discussions with them. "Children learn by observing what their parents do, so it's important to be the kind of person you want your children to be," Dr. Vitro says.
Children learn to deal honestly when their parents deal with them truthfully. They learn the importance of keeping their word when their parents follow through on their promise to spend the afternoon with them. They learn how to be kind when they observe their parents taking a meal over to an ailing neighbor.
Routine events, such as a trip to the grocery store, show our children how to act around and interact with other people. For example, returning extra change if a cashier undercharges you sets an example of honesty for your children. Saying, "Isn't it a good thing we told the cashier she gave us too much change? Otherwise, her boss may have thought she took the money," reinforces a valuable moral lesson.
We teach values when we observe the speed limit and are patient when stuck in traffic. We teach values at social gatherings, in waiting rooms and at sporting events.
Keep in mind, however, that children also copy our not-so-praiseworthy behavior. "Children are very quick to pick up on inconsistencies," says Dr. Vitro. "They notice when parents say one thing and do another." Telling youngsters not to gripe about their teachers isn't going to have much effect if they hear their parents complaining about a decision their boss made.
Of course, none of us is perfect, so when we make mistakes we should admit them and talk to our youngsters about how we should have behaved differently.
Traditions build togetherness
A child with secure roots will be much more likely to adopt his family's values. One way to give your child strong family ties is through traditions. "Rituals are a regular way of saying that the family is important and that you can count on each other," says author Isabelle Fox. "Rituals and traditions help make up the glue that holds families together."
Anything can become a tradition if a family puts energy into making it important. For example, bedtime talk, when a parent and child share thoughts just before the child falls asleep, can serve as the day's closing ritual. Praying together, reading bedtime stories, going on evening walks together, a family camp-out every summer, making snowmen together after the first snowfall each winter, a pancake breakfast every Saturday morning-all can become cherished rituals.
One of the most important rituals is the family meal. "Families need to have a regular time to talk, and dinner is a nice way to reconnect after a day apart from each other," Dr. Mackey says. "But, if everybody is grabbing their own food and going off to four different televisions or a computer, then family members won't have that interaction and may start to grow apart."
If family members follow conflicting schedules during the dinner hour, consider getting together as a family for lunch, after-school snacks, late-night desserts or Sunday brunches.
Look for ways to associate your son or daughter with children of families that mirror and reinforce your values. "You can't choose your kids' friends for them, particularly as they get older, but you can make choices that will put them in situations where they'll be more likely to have a positive peer group," notes Dr. Erickson.
Encourage your children's involvement in scouting, boys' and girls' clubs, your church's youth group, classes at your community's recreation center-wherever they are likely to meet peers who do constructive things.
It's also helpful if your children can become friends with adults who can act as adopted aunts, uncles and grandparents, especially if your relatives live in another part of the country and you rarely get a chance to see them.
"Youngsters need adults in their lives other than just their parents," Dr. Erickson says. "Children are seeing lots of adults on television who are behaving badly. They need to see adults who are living according to true values."
Teens especially need other adults around whom they can talk to. "Adolescents typically get to a point where they start to pull away from their parents, and it's important at that stage of life that they have other adults whom they can feel comfortable talking to," says Dr. Erickson.
Some of the best mentors for your teens may be your own friends, neighbors or young married couples and college students at church who can remember what it was like to be a teenager.
Put TV in its place
Because television tends to pacify children while they gaze transfixed at the tube, parents often use it as a substitute for the hard work of establishing discipline.
"Watching television is easier than conversation, and it is certainly easier than confrontation, yet confrontation is sometimes what is called for in parenting," Dr. Vitro says. Instead of having to establish rules and limits and confronting children about problems, it's a lot easier to tell them to go watch television.
Being responsible parents means regulating the television, radio, CD player and other electronic intrusions. Habitual television viewing deprives family members of opportunities to visit with each other. Carefully evaluate which television programs are worth watching. Resist the temptation to plop children in front of the television set so that you can get things done, in effect using the TV as a baby-sitter.
On the other hand, make it a point, at least on occasion, to watch television with your children so you can see what they are seeing and discuss the programs afterwards. "Television violence, for example, is less harmful and can even be a learning opportunity if parents will sit down with their children and talk about the program so that you're not just accepting it at face value," Dr. Erickson says.
Redirect some of the hours normally spent in front of the television to reading together as a family. Family members can take turns reading aloud from the Bible, classic novels and other good books. Not only does reading create a sense of closeness between family members, it acts as a stimulus for conversation. Tell your children that reading, a key to developing comprehension and articulation, will make it easier for them to succeed in school and when they start work.
The strongest influence
In this light, something noteworthy is happening with Ted and Joyce. They recently decided to involve Steve and Millie more in their lives rather than finding ways to keep them out. One evening, instead of working as usual in their spare-bedroom and dining-room home offices, they took an hour off. They had dinner with Steve and Millie and read through one of their books with them.
Then, as they put the children to bed, Joyce and Ted took heart when they overheard Steve tell Millie: "That was nice. Mommy and Daddy stayed home tonight."
Regardless of how powerful outside influences are, parents are the earliest teachers and the biggest influences on their children. Suited as they are to teach them moral values, parents need to remain in charge of their children's upbringing. GN