The Parents We Mean to Be How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development

Richard Weissbourd

The topic of this book is the importance of morality in raising children. I cannot remember reading a book that caused me to stop reading to reflect so often. Richard Weissbourd is a Harvard professor, but while the book has research documentation, it is practical, not theoretical. Excerpts will dilute the feelings stimulated by the book but they present the author’s key concepts as briefly as is possible….

What I am acutely aware matters most as a parent 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. P. 2

What has clearly been hardest for my wife and me – and for every parent we know – is being vigilant about these things when we have been stressed or depleted or outright depressed. What is fundamentally being challenged at these times are our moral qualities and maturity – including our ability to manage our flaws – qualities that can’t be feigned. The reason many children in this country continually lack vital moral qualities is that we have failed to come to grips with the fundamental reality that we bring our selves to the project of raising a moral child. That makes being a parent or mentor a profound moral test, and learning to raise children well a profound moral achievement. Pp. 3 – 4I'll_Miss_You_Dad_by_Cecilio_M._Ricardo_Jr

gratitudeThe issue isn’t moral literacy; it’s moral motivation. There is one capacity in particular that is at the heart of such motivation – appreciation, the capacity to know and value others, including those different in background and perspective. Appreciation brakes destructive impulses. P. 6

Almost all great literature concerns moral questions, for morality cannot be extracted from that which moves us, from our emotions. Pp. 10 -11

While many different emotions can shape children’s moral development, there are two painful emotions that are especially troubling; shame, an acute feeling of unworthiness and embarrassment, and the fear of disapproval and isolation. P. 12shame

Guilt is the self-reproach we experience when we violate an inner standard – when we cheat on a spouse, undercut a colleague, fail to report a crime. When guilt is serious we feel the need to atone; until the wrong is set right the world can feel on hold and out of joint. A path to correct this state usually presents itself – guilt insists on and often reveals solutions. Shame, in these respects, is not so easy. One is usually not ashamed about a deed, about what one has done, but about who one is, and especially by the perception that our defects have been exposed and are seen by a real or imagined audience. P. 14shame-799094_640

Research shows that punishments are most effective when they are substantial but not severe. Severe punishments can focus children on the unfairness of the pusishment and the negative qualities of the adult administering it, distracting them from any moral message or information that the punishment contains. Pp. 29 – 30punishment

When parents are unwilling to withstand their children’s anger in the service of promoting a valued moral quality in their child, they fail to communicate many critical messages: that there are higher values than being well-liked; that their children are capable of withstanding their disapproval; and that they themselves, the people that their child is supposed to idealize and internalize are capable of withstanding anger and disdain. P. 31

Adults must engage teens in developing principles and moral commitments that are larger than the approval or disapproval of their peers and larger than themselves. This capacity is vital both to children’s morality and to their psychological health. Pp. 34 – 35

Children need adults who require them to be helpful, whether it’s caring for a younger sibling, getting groceries for a neighbor, or performing routine household chores. Requiring children to be helpful not only builds caring skills but makes attending to others reflexive. P. 39

Every generation of parents has a child-raising mission, and this generation’s is happiness. Many of us slip into habits in the name of promoting happiness – such as regularly monitoring and seeking to adjust our children’s moods, organizing our lives too much around our children, and praising them too frequently – that are likely to make children not only less moral, but ironically, less happy. Pp. 40 – 41

Part and parcel of this intense focus on happiness is another trend. In the last thirty years, Americans have become intoxicated with the power of self-esteem. P. 43selfesteem

Often we as parents don’t convey to our children that they have obligations to small communities like a sports team or a school choir or a dance troupe. P. 45

When parents place their children’s happiness above their awareness of others, children are cheated out of social and moral skills that are key to at least certain kinds of lasting well-being. These children are not being prepared for the other-centeredness that’s fundamental to long-term, healthy relationships, to being a good spouse, parent, friend, or mentor. “Those are only happy,” John Stuart Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” P. 46

When we get in the habit of doing small things to make our children’s lives easier we run the risk of making our children more fragile, entitled, and self-occupied. P. 50

There are qualities that are likely to promote enduring well-being and key moral qualities – qualities that tend to drift off our radar – that should be the main focus of our parenting. These qualities include the ability to balance and coordinate our needs with others, to be reflective and self-critical – to fairly and generously assess our behavior – to receive feedback constructively, and to change our behavior based on our own and other’s assessments. These qualities also include the ability to manage destructive feelings. It is these capacities that enable children and adults to appreciate others despite conflicts of interest and differences in perspective, to adhere to important principles and to engage in sturdy, meaningful relationships and endeavors which create self-worth. These are the ingredients of what we call maturity, and they reflect the strength and integrity of the self. It’s important to remember here that self-esteem and the strength or maturity of the self are quite different.

  1. The self becomes stronger and more mature less by being praised than by being known.
  2. Children come to be reflective and self-critical chiefly when we encourage their self-observations and when we model for them honest self-reflection.
  3. When we demonstrate a capacity to change a troubling behavior as a result of our self-reflections, or as a result of feedback, we model a vital aspect of maturity.
  4. Among the many ways that children learn to deal with difficult feelings such as frustration and anger is when we model the appropriate expression of these emotions and don’t let our own frustration and anger corrode our relationships with our children. pp. 57 -58

If we are concerned about our children’s morality, we ought to be thinking carefully about their humanity. I am speaking of the experience of deep vitality, meaning, and compassion generated by an awareness that we are distinct expressions of common roots across time and space, that we are intimately and intricately connected to other human beings, both living and dead. P. 59

As parents we always need to ask ourselves: What will the next generation of parents seek to embrace and change about our parenting? P. 96

As parents and mentors, it’s vital to see ourselves not as static role models but as imperfect human beings, continually developing, in our dynamic relationships with our children, our own moral and mentoring capacities. “There is nothing noble in being superior to someone else,” the civil rights leader Whitney Young said. “The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.” P. 102

Children ought to observe what our great dramatists have sought to teach since ancient times: that moral clarity is often painfully dug out of the mud of many conflicting interests and truths, that moral action is often a matter of doggedly wrestling with our flaws and demons. P. 114

The American public schools were conceived not solely as an engine of academic success. They were intended chiefly to cultivate in children a certain ideal of character. Public schools were charged with responsibility for taking waves of poor urban and immigrant children and molding them into responsible, upright citizens. P. 116

One of the most common complaints of my graduate students is that their courses greatly hone their ability to view critically – to trash – seemingly valuable initiatives, but do little to cultivate in them a sense of possibility. P. 168                 As parents and mentors we need to help young people work through their disillusionment as they come to learn more about the world in all its stubborn complexity, so that they don’t swing from wide-eyed idealism to dark pessimism. P. 172Polish_berry_pickers_color

American’s fears about rising waves of immigrant children (about one in five children now live in an immigrant family, and that percentage is rising at a rapid rate) run flat in the face of an astonishing fact. Even though large numbers of immigrants arrive impoverished, first-generation immigrant children, across almost every immigrant group, are, on average, faring better than their American-born counterparts on almost every school, health, mental health, and moral measure. P. 179 It would help many other families, for instance, to emphasize perseverance in the face of adversity, to praise less and to communicate instead that good behavior is to be expected, to emphasize group goals as well as individual achievements, to guide children in developing a more nuanced understanding about when to listen and comply and when to resist, to help children appreciate others despite their flaws, and to place a higher premium on respect for authority. P. 192