We all know how demanding parenting can be. We get so busy making it through our day-to-day routines that it can often be difficult to step back and think through some of the larger questions about how we hope to bring up our children.
Today, we are taking a moment to think about what kinds of kids we hope to raise. If asked to articulate what it is we want for our children, I think many of us would say that we hope they will grow up to be caring, kind, open-minded, strong, responsible, and resilient. In short, we want them to be good people.
Even now, I love to hear a teacher or fellow parent say about my child, "She's a good kid." In a world of numerous, complicated markers of development and achievement, "good kid" can sound like the best compliment of all. We don't need any more superlatives; we just want our children to be forces for good in the world.
This train of thought takes us into the territory of morals and values—two words that are strikingly absent from much parenting literature. We know a lot about encouraging our kids' literacy, creativity, social skills and physical abilities. But what do we know about how to develop their moral and emotional capacities?
If we feel out of our depth here, we are lucky to have found a guide in Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist at Harvard, and author of the important book, The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development.
The title is a bit alarmist for our taste, but Weissbourd's mission is to wake us up to the unintended consequences of certain common parenting practices. The focus on achievement above all else; parental over-involvement in sports; the desire to make our children constantly happy and to achieve a peer-like closeness to them—these are all pitfalls that spring from love. Weissbourd helps us reflect on how our own needs often drive these impulses and how they can be damaging to our kids.
But this is also a profoundly hopeful book, with so much to teach. The best news of all is that moral growth is a life-long process for all of us, and that parenting in itself is a huge opportunity for us to grow alongside our children. Indeed, Weissbourd calls parenting "a moral test." He argues convincingly that parents are "the primary influence on children's moral lives," and that it is in our day-to-day interactions with our children that their moral values are formed.
Talk of "values" is not, however, the point. Children very quickly pick up on what moral values they should espouse. The trouble is helping kids to live them out. To do so we need to help them deal with the emotions that often get in the way of doing the right thing. We need to help them develop what Weissbourd calls the "moral motivation" to commit to kindness and consideration through a deep appreciation of other people. Finally, there is the task of helping children develop a strong sense of self so they can hold fast in the face of challenges.
This, friends, is the big stuff. It's a different way of thinking about our kids and ourselves, a whole other lens through which to view each and every moment of our time with our families. If you take one parenting book on your vacation this summer, let this be it!
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