Concerned about raising children to be moral and ethical people? This week, Beliefnet's ethics columnist begins a regular column devoted to solving the everyday ethical dilemmas faced by parents and kids.

Dear Joseph,
Last week, you highlighted two ethical New Year's resolutions for adults. Can you share any that specifically apply to parent-child relationships?
--Concerned Parent

Dear Concerned,
Here are two New Year's resolutions for parents that will aid children's self-esteem and moral development during the coming year.

  • Reserve your highest praise of your children for their acts of kindness. As a general rule, children receive the most praise for one of four things: academic accomplishments, athletic feats, cultural achievements, and, in the case of girls, their appearance. Such praise undoubtedly makes kids feel good, but the underlying message is that parental love may depend on their continuing to provide their parents with pleasure in these areas. Do we want our children to think that their grades, athletic achievements, or looks are what's most important about them?

    And what about the child who is not that athletic, talented, or good-looking? How does he or she get complimented? With a lukewarm, "Oh, but so-and-so is really a good kid." From which it is apparent that being a good person is not that big a deal.

    If children started receiving their highest praise when they performed kind acts, we would raise a generation of people who liked themselves most when they were being compassionate. I can't think of any better, more guaranteed way to improve the world--and your family.

  • Apologize to your children when you hurt their feelings. At workshops I do on character development, I often ask audiences: "How many of you grew up in households where your parents never apologized to you?" Quite a number of people raise their hands, and it is clear that even after the passage of many years, the pain still rankles.

    Some years ago, I was giving a speech in Denver when two of my daughters, then 6 and 4, insisted that they wanted to come hear me speak. I brought them to the speech, proudly introduced them to the audience, and then seated them in the front row. About 10 minutes into the talk, I asked the audience, "How many of you grew up in households where somebody's bad temper had a bad effect on the house?" To my immense embarrassment--and the audience's amusement--my 6-year-old raised her hand, and then my 4-year-old followed suit. It turned out, according to my wife, that while teaching my 6-year-old to read, I behaved in a fashion that was fairly typical for me: I am very patient the first time I explain something and equally patient the second time. However, by the third time, if I think the person should have understood what I was saying and he or she hasn't, I become testy. And that's how I'd been acting toward my little daughter.

    After the speech, I apologized to her: "I'm sorry I've snapped at you when you've made mistakes. You weren't doing anything bad, and it was wrong of me to get mad. Please forgive me." I added, "If I do it again, please say to me, 'Daddy, you're not supposed to get angry.'" The goal of this second statement was to empower her by giving her something to do when an adult, in this case her father, was unfairly snapping at her.

    Parents, of course, make children apologize when they do something wrong, and this is appropriate. But if parents never apologize to children, they give the message that only the weak have to apologize, never the strong--and that it is a sign of weakness to ask for forgiveness. Certainly, no moral parent would want to teach his or her child such a lesson.
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