“. . .[parents] are the primary influence in our children’s moral lives. The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles. . . .What I am acutely aware matters most is not whether my wife and I are ‘perfect’ role models or how much we talk about values, but the hundreds of ways--as living, breathing, imperfect human beings--we influence our children in the complex, messy relationships we have with them day to day.” -- Richard Weissbourd, The Parents We Mean to Be
At our recent Inspiring Learning Series session on February 27, local counselor Lynn Parsley kept a crowd of over 180 people riveted for more than an hour with her interpretation of Richard Weissbourd's book The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development. Most folks who cite Weissbourd’s book neglect to include the part of the title that comes after the colon. Lynn embraces it, offering thoughts on what parents should avoid and what parents can do to support children’s moral and emotional development.
Lynn framed the session with a metaphor: Every home is a greenhouse where you grow a healthy family. In this greenhouse, atmosphere is the key.
So, what principles and practices contribute to (or undermine) the quality of the greenhouse atmosphere?
The beginning of moral behavior is to be truly present to the person you are with. When you are fully present to others, you are able to hear them, know them, consider your impact on them and empathize with them.
Families are resilient if the greenhouse is maintained in the long run. Most parents aren’t ruining their children’s moral development, but they probably aren’t doing all they can to cultivate it.
To maintain a healthy atmosphere, a family greenhouse cannot include:
- Parents’ lack of a moral compass: You must start with your own belief that you are precious and worthy of love. Demonstrate love of yourself, love for nature, love of your spouse, children and the world. The essence of morality is a moral compass.
- Lack of parental authority: It is really destructive to want your child’s approval and friendship more than you want to be their parent.. Sometimes it is simply enough to say: “Because I said so.” Part of being a parent in a healthy family is to exercise authority over your child.
- Addiction: Untreated addiction of any kind pollutes the family greenhouse. Identify the addiction and treat it.
- Violence: Violence of any kind—physical, verbal, sexual, emotional—is toxic. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the principles of nonviolence--the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. This method of communication is described in depth on this website https://www.cnvc.org/. Many books and other resources are available.
- Humiliation: Many of us grew up in homes where we were disciplined by shaming and humiliation. We now know this undermines a healthy home. We need to be mindful not to send the message: “We’re only proud of you if . . .” As parents, we want to be sensitive to the uniqueness of each child’s interests.
- Regular criticism of self, spouse or children: Low self-esteem is often passed through generations of women in the home. Also, some of the things we don’t like about our children may, in fact, be things we loathe about ourselves. Beware of having unreasonable expectations for our children. Our teenagers’ level of maturity is often not as high as they’d like us to believe. A strong marriage is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.
- Lack of Empathy: This generation of parents takes it personally when their kids struggle (e.g., with grades, making the team, having friends). This represents a lack of parental empathy: It isn’t about you as parent.
- Over focus on your child’s every need and feeling: We need to remember that kids are resilient. When we helicopter, we’re really telling our kids: “I don’t have trust and confidence in you to handle this.” You can’t have a child who is both happy all of the time AND developing core values. At moments, discomfort and even suffering are catalysts to goodness. As parents, we need to be less invested in our children being happy and more invested in their being good. Avoid being a Doting Indulgent Modern Parent (DIMP). This can lead us to create children who are afraid to fail. Observation can be a remedy to overfocus. The film Babies is a documentary directed by Thomas. It follows four babies around the world. The babies live in Opuwa, Nambia, Tokyo, Japan, Bayanchandmani, Mongolia and San Francisco, California. The documentary is silent and was filmed spontaneously as the director simply followed each baby around. The silence brings power to the images and hilights the role observation can play in helping us to truly see our children. This movie can inspire parents to take a step back and observe, even for brief moments.
More info about the film. It is also availble here to download.
- Unreasonable Expectations: Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. It’s normal occasionally to be disillusioned with your children. Even in the face of this, assure them that you love them—and all that they are.
To maintain a healthy atmosphere, a family greenhouse should include:
- Peacefulness: Emotional "feng shui" http://fengshui.about.com/
- Appreciation: Deep knowing and valuing of family members and what is important to them.
- Respect: “Your are the kids. We are the parents.” Have clear boundaries—and swift consequences when disrespectful behavior arises.
- Courtesy: This includes teaching your children manners.
- Helpfulness and responsibility: Too often we fail to require the sacrifice of our children—expect them to extend themselves for the good of others, even (or especially) when they don’t want to.
- Altruism: Some things in life are worthy of our commitment beyond self-interest. You want your child to be proud of you (and herself) when you are altruistic.
- Knowing your child: Notice what they enjoy, what they’re good at, where their curiosities and passions lie.
- Modeling self-reflection, apology and love: Reflect honestly on your behavior in front of your children, acknowledging your flaws and, whenever possible, modeling appropriate expression of emotion. Demonstrate “love as a way of life” (Gary Chapman’s Love as a Way of Life)—7 virtues of love: kindness, patience, forgiveness, courtesy, humility, generosity, honesty.
- Family Time: Walk together, play board games, unplug, undertake random acts of kindness, watch movies that have meaning, listen to each other, be present, share joy.
- Dinner Table Conversation: Ask: What did you feel most proud of today? How did you make a difference? What would you change about your day, if you could? (You’re really asking: How did you live out your character today?)
Are we as invested in our children being good as we are in their being successful? If we want our children to develop a moral center, we must live “like the camera is on” us—revealing for all to see our choices and behaviors. Modeling this behavior instills and inspires courage in our children—the courage it takes to engage in love as a way of life and, always, to be living out our moral character.