Experts also tell us one way kids learn character traits best is by watching others do things right. Just recall a few incidents your child has seen lately on national television. Here's a sampling: professional baseball players spitting in umpire's faces. Hockey players clubbing their competitors and not being held accountable. Absolute raunchiness on daytime talk shows. Unsavory business practices by large corporations. Elected government officials admitting to adultery, drug use, and bribery....The breakdown of appropriate role models is not the only reason character is declining, but it certainly is one. And when combined with the other socially toxic influences, it makes it all the more difficult to bring up decent kids.
That's not to say most kids aren't caring and moral. I'm convinced the majority of them are. My belief in children's basic goodness grows each time I watch them gently comforting others or read about students unselfishly volunteering or hear stories of kids putting their own needs aside to help others less fortunate. It's just that our kids don't hear as much as they should about the compassionate, humane gestures people do for others. Instead, too often they are exposed to images of hate, cruelty, violence, and plain vulgarity.
So can we overcome the forces perpetuating hateful, fearful, uncaring images and still raise kids with caring hearts and decent souls? It's the question I am asked the most frequently in my workshops by hundreds of parents and teachers each year, and I'm sure it has crossed your mind. And the answer I give them and now you is a resounding: Yes! Parents can make a difference on their kids moral lives--and it can be significant enough to have long-term effects.
Why am I so certain? Because years of research confirms that the traits of strong character such as caring, respect, self-control, sharing, empathy, tolerance, perseverance, giving, comforting, fairness, and conscience are all learned. And that means we can teach them to our children and in doing so nurture the qualities that enhance their moral growth.
What do parents have to do with all this? Plenty! After all, you are your child's first and most powerful moral teacher. Here are five tips from my book "Building Moral Intelligence" to use with your own child:
1. Expect moral behavior. If you want your child to act morally, then expect and demand moral behaviors from him or her.
2. Use teachable moments. Look for moral issues to talk about as they come up; your child can hear your moral beliefs, and you can assess your child's moral reasoning then gently stretch him to the next level.
3. Reinforce moral behavior. Catch your child acting morally and acknowledge her good behavior by describing what she did right and why you appreciate it.
4. Model moral behavior. Make sure that your words and actions reflect the values you want to teach your child--honesty, kindness, patience, and forgiveness, to name a few. Talk about what you did and why you did it.
5. Monitor media consumption. Take an active stand against influences toxic to your child's moral development, such as certain TV shows, movies, music, video games, and websites. Then plainly explain your concerns to your child, set stands, and then stick to them.
We can no longer sit back and hope our kids grow up to become caring, decent, human beings. We must deliberately and passionately teach and model the traits of strong character so they really can become the best people they can be.