Father: How Kids Learn Values
grapple with teaching morality
Sometimes a light-hearted Hollywood movie serves up some hard truths
along with the yucks. Take "Liar Liar." More than a few
parents nearly choked on their buttered popcorn during that one.
Jim Carey plays a sleazy attorney-dad who blows off commitments
at the last minute whether it's a business meeting or the Little
League game he's slated to referee. In an early scene, it's career
day at the kid's school and a hero policemen father has just wowed
the students with anecdotes and a chest full of medals. Then the
teacher polls the others. "What does your father do,"
she asks Carey's son who chirps, "Oh, he's a liar... I mean,
- So, the first lesson for parents wishing for good kids is that: 1) They are born with built in lie detectors. 2) You are their first and primary behavioral role models. How mom and dad measure up determines how your youngster's personal values develop.
Starting in the cradle, say authors Michael Schulman and Eva Mekler in "Bringing Up A Moral Child: Teaching Your Children to be Kind, Just and Responsible," kids survival depends on those who feed, bathe and comfort them. Which would be us-- the parents.
Early life lessons convince them that: 1) They can or can't trust adults to be caring nurturers. 2) That being lovingly cared for is a good thing. One they will want to emulate. "Children who are treated well choose to treat others well," the authors write, "and a moral child is simply a child who strives to be kind, fair and responsible." Schulman and Meckler sympathize with today's parents who have to do it without extended families to help with child rearing and role-modeling,
- who struggle as a nuclear unit in a world full of harsh, seductive and complex people and circumstances.
"The traditional sources of moral guidance--religion, schools, community and family customs--are not as influential as they once were," say these experts," and young people are confronted with serious moral issues, including sensationalism in the mass media, at younger and younger ages." But the book's bottom line provides inspiration. "Warm parents who give their children clear rules and affectionate approval for following them as well as firm correctives for transgressions tend to raise children with strong consciences."
- Another author (and father), Paul Loeb, likes to stress action over words. In his last two important books ("Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction In Cynical Times" and "Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy In Action On The American Campus,") Loeb says that tangible meaningful acts stands a far better chance of effecting positive change than moralizing. Old-fashioned fables, like George Washington and the cherry tree, and lectures threatening direct consequences for impure thoughts and behavior, take issues so far out of context that nothing registers in young minds. "The larger issues are where we can make these points," says Loeb "like living decently with other people."
- "There is a term called "The Teachable Moment," in parenting theory," Loeb told Dadmag. "This refers to the opportunities we have to show children what to do in a way that imbues our message with real meaning." In our conversation, Loeb continuously referred to first person experience. "My kids--like others who live in urban centers--see people sleeping on the street or digging food out of dumpsters--or begging--and it scares them. They have strong feelings and want to know more--like why people would be homeless and hungry. And the connection right away is--could this happen to me or my family!" In these invaluable, dramatic Teachable Moments, says Loeb, children want to learn and the lesson you can offer along with the explanations they need are empathy and compassion. "You let them know that they can help people in concrete ways. One of our friends took her daughter to the soup kitchen to work and the little girl was touched and moved to want to keep on helping.
- In addition, says Loeb, these are mini spiritual awakenings for children. "Kids get to see and feel who they are--their souls, in their essence when they comfort other people and make their lives better." Parents should feel fortunate that although the culture bombards children with vulgarity and hyper-sexualized rock stars in bizarre and disturbing contexts, even the littlest ones in these times are exposed to environmental issues--saving the whales, animal rights, fighting pollution. Loeb sees endless potential here for moral lessons and inspiring youngsters to positive action. He recalls his own small son wanting to pick up litter dropped on their street.
He got such a sense of power--self-confidence, really--and hope from collecting bottles and plastic bags," recalls Loeb. "There was this pretty little stream along the road with tadpoles and frogs and plants in it. He wanted to keep it clean and healthy. These are spontaneous ethical actions that build character and teach a sense of purpose to children.
- "We have to think about counteracting slick, violent heroes in video games, movies and other media," says Loeb. "They are everywhere for kids to see even if you try to restrict their exposure.." In this case, the Loeb parents suggest emphasizing heroic
- real people and exposing the children to their stories. "Our kids heard about Gandhi in kindergarten and we were really pleased. We tried to give them more information about his work. But we also stressed that while his principles are important, we can't all be Gandhi
- "My motto is whatever keeps them active and awake is moral education," says Loeb. "It would be easy for them to be distracted by negative media and get into trouble. Spinning wheels is the biggest danger with kids." In a community of concerned, involved adults, Loeb thinks children have an excellent chance to stay on a positive track. A parent's greatest failure, Loeb stressed, is passivity. "The most important thing is to let your kids know that WE CARE! There are actions we can take to change things. . ."
Paige Egan lives in upstate New York.
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