Six ordinary opportunities for raising good kids

By Tom McGrath| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Marriage and Family

The scary part of parenting is that you never know when you're making an indelible impression on your kids, nor what lesson your child is taking from it. Looking back warmly on efforts to foster couth and culture in his children, a father might be prone to cast about for a word of appreciation.

Do you remember when we took you to the library every Saturday morning for those Classics for Young Readers sessions?"

"Yeah, I learned a lot. That's where I met Larry, and he taught me how to burp on command."

"Ah, splendid."

Parents are told we're the first and foremost teachers of our children, and that "we should train up a child in the way he (or she) should grow." Most of the lessons we'll teach will be conveyed incrementally over the course of our living together: like how to handle panhandlers, how to tell a neighbor her outrageous new hairdo looks "fascinating," or when and how to redirect a potentially volatile political conversation with Uncle Wally toward the mysterious weather we've been having lately.

And yet we parents, in an effort to get our values across, are not completely at the mercy of random chance and circumstance. Family life provides many ordinary, but teachable, moments that we can use in the adventure of trying to raise good kids. I'm sure you could easily come up with your own hefty list of teachable moments, and I urge you to do so. The vocation of parenting deserves such reflection.

Based on my own experience as a son, a father, and as a writer for and about parents, I highlight six opportunities to achieve what every parent longs to do: teach your children well.

 Foster empathy

"How can you say you love God whom you cannot see while you despise your neighbor whom you can see?"-1 John 4:20

In his landmark book The Moral Child: Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth (Free Press, 1988), William Damon tells the story of a 2-year-old who, seeing another toddler crying, brought his mother over to soothe the sad child. Even though the crying child's mother was at hand, the compassionate kid wanted to offer a surefire remedy: his own mommy. This child may have to work on the details, but he was well on his way to developing a fine moral sense.

Empathy is the fundamental building block of the moral life. Jesus told the Pharisees that all of biblical morality can be captured in the saying, "Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself." There's no living out the second half of that commandment without a sense of connectivity and empathy for others. Don't hit. Don't steal. Why not? Possibly the first verbal moral lesson children receive is the gently posed question, "Well, how do you think you would like it if that were done to you?"

The key to navigating such basic, low-level moral issues requires a sense of compassion. And compassion means identifying, at least remotely, with those who would be hurt by our actions. It's only after mastering the fundamentals of empathy and compassion that our children will one day be able to master the more complex and difficult moral and ethical questions that will face them, questions about genetic engineering, global economic justice, and just what constitutes a legitimate deduction on their income tax.

But be careful. "How would you like it?" is a phrase that can be thrown in our kids' faces like a slap. Instead, use the question as an invitation to self-understanding and growth as a moral person in the world. If you make room for your own child's array of feelings (from the selfish to the selfless, the venal to the gloriously giving), your child will, over time, develop the capacity to imagine the plight and feelings of others with care and compassion.

How to foster empathy:

From early on, make it a clear expectation that sharing is part of living as a family as well as living in society. It may be tempting to try to avoid the minor conflicts that kids get into over whose turn it is to use a piece of sports equipment, a toy, or a bike. But this is valuable practice for later in life. When I was a camp counselor, I had the 16 kids from B Cabin come up with their own rules for how they would divvy up their 60 minutes each week on the trampoline. Though not without its challenges, this preparation exercise was possibly the most productive way to build a sense of fairness and mutual caring.

When reading books or watching TV with your children, stop and ask them to imagine themselves living as one of the characters in the story. Ask: "What would you do if you were there?"

When you see your child acting cruel or unkind, stop the action and review the situation together. It's easy for kids to be cruel to one another. They need our help to correct their "vision." They can only act cruelly if they don't see that we are all one, and that when one part of the Body of Christ is hurting, we all hurt.

Encourage your child to read biographies and lives of the saints. I remember my dad coming home from retreat with copies of Damien the Leper for us kids to read. I've still got my copy on my bookshelf at work. Here was a heroic story about a man who experienced the ultimate in compassion.

Talk about situations from your daily life that illustrate your own sense of empathy and compassion. Kids are all ears when you talk about the real stories of what goes on at work, in the neighborhood, in the extended family.

Review situations at your child's school that call for compassion. Talk about those times when a new kid arrives and feels lonely, when a kid "loses his lunch" in front of the whole class, when someone struggles with a school subject or is different from the other kids. Ask aloud, "I wonder what life is like for that kid right now?"

Recite the Prayer of Saint Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...") regularly at meals or bedtime. This prayer captures the essence of compassionate living. Give a copy of the prayer to your child.


 Foster responsibility

"The righteous will shine like the sun." -Matthew 13:43

The lady who cuts my hair is a tough-but-tender character. The other day she seemed down in the dumps.

"What's wrong, Vickie?"

"I gotta go to court next week. Some guy ran a red and plowed right into my car a few weeks back. To top it all off, after the crack-up, the driver-this young guy, no more than 17-hops out of his car and the first thing he says is, 'It wasn't my fault. I had an arrow.' Now, I got three other witnesses right there telling him he blew a red light but to this day I haven't heard one word about, 'I'm sorry' or 'Are you okay?' I hate to make this guy's life miserable, but I'm going to court so he learns he can't just bash into people without taking responsibility." She went on to tell me how the young man's mother arrived on the scene and, without even asking what happened or if anyone was hurt, started proclaiming it wasn't her son's fault.

"The apple don't fall far, right?" concluded Vickie.

No, the apple don't fall far. One of the best ways to help your children follow Jesus' example in life is to coach them in taking responsibility for their actions. Honesty with and about our own selves is at the heart of Christian life. Adam and Eve didn't just eat the forbidden fruit, they lied about it and tried to pass the blame. Jesus continually called people to own up to the choices they'd made. "Woman, you've had five husbands." "It is you who say I am a king." "Peter, you will deny me three times." And yet Jesus showed time and again he could heal any ailment, cure any affliction, forgive any sin-if only the person were open and honest. All we have to do is sincerely say, "Lord, I am not worthy..."

Unfortunately, many parents don't allow their children the benefit of experiencing "compunction," true sorrow for their sins. Compunction is not wallowing in guilt; it's an honest recognition that a wrong has been done and that I'm the one responsible for its consequences. Compunction means recognizing and accepting ourselves as sinners, and it's a necessary ingredient of becoming a whole person.

More important than punishment is the need to help kids see the ripple effects of their actions. Getting a satisfactory answer to "Do you understand why I'm angry?" is more important than grounding the child for weeks on end. The punishment only works if it results in a lesson learned, not just retribution meted out.

Hope enters into this approach when a parent has the wisdom, borne of experience, to point out that forgiveness is at hand and there's always a way out of this trouble. The way back begins with truth and travels through the mercy of God to reconciliation.

Helping your children deal with mistakes, failures, sins is simply acknowledging and facing the truth, and is therefore important. It's not meant to demean, but to truly recognize and accept the whole person. Parents must struggle to be more like God in this, accepting and forgiving not only our children, but ourselves as well.

How to foster responsibility when your child errs:

Create a climate at home where mistakes are viewed as a natural part of life, as events to be learned from. It's best when mistakes are neither brushed under the rug nor belabored. Don't sigh heavily when a child spills milk; don't fly into a rage when a child breaks a neighbor's window playing ball.

Before setting a punishment, concentrate on helping your child understand what was so wrong about their behavior. Ask: What do you think went wrong here? What was your part?

Teach your kids to say, "I'm sorry." In our litigious world, there is way too much of "I will neither confirm nor deny my involvement in that alleged behavior." What a refreshing change of pace to hear someone say, "Yes, I'm responsible, and I'm heartily sorry."

Admit your own mistakes and ask forgiveness. On surveys asking kids what quality they most appreciate about their parents, an answer that always ranks high is, "Admits his or her mistakes." If you really mishandle a situation with your child, apologize.

Help your child make amends. Brainstorm together about ways to set things right wherever possible: replacing a broken toy, inviting an excluded classmate to a party, or baking new cookies to replace the purloined ones.

Take advantage of church rituals that help us deal with sorrow for our failings. Mass begins with a penitential rite, which you can explain to your child. Churches often have penance services in Lent and Advent. Participate with your child in Ash Wednesday services, in which we acknowledge, as a community, that we all need forgiveness.

Read the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) with your child, stressing how eager the father in the story was to welcome his errant son home.


Table time

"The busier you are, the more valuable meal time is for your child." -Dr. Lee Salk

My older daughter, Judy, recently volunteered to oversee the painting of a mural at a local school. The school council wanted a mural that would illustrate the parents' role in the development and education of their children, and Judy was brainstorming what kind of scenes should be included.

"How about the family at dinner?" suggested my wife.

"Y'know, I thought of that first," said Judy, "but when I talked with the parents, that didn't seem to be such a big thing."

"No?" asked my wife, surprised.

"And at school I was surprised to find out most of my fellow students don't eat dinner regularly with their families," continued Judy.

"Did you find it annoying to have to be home each evening at 5:45?" asked my wife.

"Yeah, sometimes. But, looking back, I appreciate now how important that was and how much I now look forward to it."

Judy's final mural design included a family gathered around the table.

The family meal seems to be an endangered tradition, just when we as a society need it the most. Family-life expert Dolores Curran advises, "The family that wants to improve its level of communication should look closely at its attitudes toward the family table." She notes that the family table is a place where many kinds of sustenance are offered.

At the dinner table, kids have the opportunity to get centered, socialized, and feel connected rather than abandoned. They learn the value and skills of communicating. It's not mere coincidence that for centuries monks have treated their common mealtime as a main focus of their spiritual growth.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about a neat and glowing family like the Cleavers or Donna Reed's family sitting down to an elegant repast. The meals don't have to be a la Martha Stewart. Macaroni and cheese, people interrupting one another, joking and irreverence can abound. It doesn't matter. The connectivity and commitment to one another is what counts.

In addition to daily mealtimes, celebrating significant events and seasons throughout the year will help your children feel more grounded (in the positive sense!). The celebration of the sacraments-Baptisms, First Communions, weddings-is usually accompanied by feasts and festivities celebrated with the extended family and longtime family friends. As the family meal gives a sense of belonging in this nuclear group, bigger celebrations convey a sense that your child has a place in the world. We don't live simply for and by ourselves-we belong to a people who support us and need our support.

You can also create your own special occasions and traditions, such as having Grandpa's famous chili the evening of the first snowfall, or eating in the dining room on the good plates on Academy Awards night, or having a picnic dinner in the park the last night before school starts. Celebrations like these convey the sense that time has a sacred quality to it, and that by being aware and mindful, we can be in tune with the movement of the Spirit in the midst of our days.

How to celebrate mealtime:

Whether for a single night a week, breakfast each morning, or three out of seven suppertimes, commit to a certain number and a certain time for meals togetherand stick to it. Don't let soccer practice, drinks with co-workers, overtime, or church meetings interfere.

Make time and space for everyone: ask each person how his or her day was, give each person ample time to talk.

Say grace before each meal. You can keep it simple, and let everyone take a turn at leading. Remember others in your prayer-neighbors who are ill, family members getting ready for a big test, or people at work or school who are struggling in some way. It's also a good time to introduce a sense of social awareness by praying for people whose nation is at war, those who've suffered a disaster like an earthquake or tornado, and to remember all those who were responsible for getting this food to the table-the growers, the farmhands, the truckers, the grocers.

Turn off the TV. It's an insult to pay more attention to Vanna White or Pat Sajak than the people gathered around your table.

Use table time for family meetings on important topics. If you're planning a family vacation, deciding how to divvy up your contributions to charity, or renegotiating curfew, talk about it around the table.

Make the most of the Mass, which is the parish family's meal. Talk about the themes and readings as well as the homily. If your kids particularly liked one of the hymns at Mass you can sing that instead of saying grace. The more your kids can see the link between the family meal and the gathering at the altar, the more unified their lives will be.


 Introduce your children to grown-up life

"The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it." -John Ruskin

When I was a kid I thought the eighth sacrament at our church was setting up tables and chairs in the parish hall. My older brother and I often went with Dad to help the Holy Name members set up for pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, meetings, and dances. And we loved it. Working with the men of the parish, there was a sense that we were providing service, doing something that contributed to the good of all the people in our parish. As a kid, that's a great feeling.

Get your kids involved in worthwhile work. Let them know that they can contribute to the common good. It's hard to imagine drive-by shootings in a town where teens have just been pitching in, piling sandbags along the river trying to save their town from a flood. We do a horrible disservice to our youth when everything they need is provided for them, when we deprive them of the sense that they have something valuable and necessary to contribute. Everyone wants desperately to matter; and if kids don't find that to be true at home and in the community, they'll seek it elsewhere, often with tragic consequences.

We may think we're doing our kids a favor by keeping them from menial tasks or demanding chores. But those menial tasks are held in the highest esteem among spiritual masters. "Carry water, chop wood," when done mindfully, is one formula for spiritual enlightenment.

Kids are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult. If the most you show them is how to sip beer in front of the TV, that's what they'll do to show they're grown up. So, get involved in life and bring your kids with you.

How to foster an awareness of adult life:

Bring your kids to a soup kitchen to serve meals and talk with people who are down and out.

Bring your kids to a political rally or town-hall meeting and talk about the issues that energize you.

 Take your kids, one at a time, to your job and tell them why you believe what you do makes a difference in the world.

Bring them to church where you worship with a community of other adults (and kids) who believe there's a larger purpose to this world than ease, comfort, and good times (the message they get from popular media).

Give your children an important role to play in the family. Starting from early on, be sure to describe the child's family chores in terms of how they help the family function well and contribute to the good of all. Thank them for their contributions.

Explore with your kids their own interests. Work with them to figure out ways they can use their unique talents to contribute to the good of their community.


 Foster understanding of self and others

"Getting to know you, getting to know all about you." -Anna (from The King and I)

It's easy for family members to misunderstand one another. I remember years ago when I was having a bad parenting day and my preschool-age daughters were feeling giddy and feisty. I had put them to bed, hoping to find a bit of peace and quiet at the end of the day, but the girls were wound up and couldn't contain their laughter. I shouted out a few stern warnings about settling down, but that only seemed to get them laughing all the harder. Exasperated, I marched to their room, stood in the doorway, and bellowed, "If you two don't settle down I'm going to have to separate you."

Immediately, my older daughter shook with panic. She hid under her covers, shouting, "No, no, no!" I couldn't imagine why this rather mild threat of putting the girls in separate bedrooms would cause such a volatile reaction. After a few minutes of soothing Judy I asked her why she was so upset. Her explanation is one we laugh about to this day. When I threatened to separate the two of them, all she could think of was me, earlier in the day, preparing for a barbecue by chopping up and "separating" a whole chicken into pieces that could be put on the grill. Having achieved understanding, the girls settled down and I felt a new ease. After a bedtime story, the two angels drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Stephen Covey says that at the heart of most family pain is misunderstanding. As one of his Seven Secrets of Highly Effective Families, Covey adapts a line from the Prayer of Saint Francis: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." In families-as in all human relationships-misunderstanding comes easy; understanding takes work. Probably the most powerful action a parent can take on behalf of a child is to come to know their son or daughter and to convey true appreciation for who that child really is. Simply, "I see who you are, and I love what I see."

Of course this role of the parent competes with other roles we parents are called upon to play. We need to correct them, make judgments about their behavior and their choices, give advice and direction, and set limits. But first and foremost we need to develop and maintain an underlying relationship of loving understanding in order for these other formational practices to work.

When kids are younger there can be comical misunderstandings-such as the boy whose father kept reprimanding him for wandering off around the corner, until, after his third or fourth punishment, he tearfully asks, "Dad, what's a corner?"

Seeking first to understand can save a lot of trials and tribulations between parent and child. Often, young children's misbehavior is an early symptom of the flu, an earache, or teething. Later, it may be an unconscious response to being snubbed by the cute guy in class, being cut from a team, or simply being confused by the changes in one's body and emotions.

Taking the time to unearth these deeper issues-and to honor the feelings that accompany them-allows you to help kids through their difficulties rather than adding to them.

Not only is it easy to misunderstand others, we're often a mystery to ourselves. It's a lifelong challenge to come to a clear understanding of who we really are. Think back to those growth stages when you felt completely confused about life and your place in it: the first day of school, trying out for a team, having a fight with your best friend, falling in love. As a parent you can help your child by seeing events in life as opportunities to learn-about ourself and others.

It's also important to realize that your child gets the first good look at his or her self in the mirror of your eyes. Those first views of self are crucial in establishing a solid sense of self as a good and worthy person, as someone who belongs in this world.

Stop and observe. Do you look at your children when you talk with them? For little ones, do you stoop down and talk eye-to-eye? For older children, do you put down the newspaper when they want to tell you good news or ask you a question? Do you take the time to really see your child with fresh eyes occasionally?

  How to foster understanding:

When your child does something that you disapprove of or that is out of character, begin with the assumption that there's a good reason for the behavior. Stop for a minute to find out why. There's always time to tend to discipline after gathering the facts.

Hold back on the advice. When you're asking your child to explain what they're feeling, don't correct, coerce, or try to solve the problem. Just listen in order to understand.

Know thyself. It takes two to tango. If you end up in a fight with your kid every time you try to have a discussion, take time out to understand what buttons of yours are getting pushed. Is it fear, pride, shame, the need to feel in control? You deserve understanding, too-give yourself that gift.

Don't label your children: "He's the smart one" or "She's an airhead" or "This one's trouble." Kids change and grow, and our labels are liable to get stuck long after they're even remotely useful-if they ever were.

Ask your child outright, "Is there anything troubling you? Anything you don't understand?" I've done this from time to time when my kids were small and discovered I'd always elicit an interesting question or comment.

Without crowding your child, be attuned to his or her interests. Support their task of self-discovery by welcoming their interests, even when these don't fit your preconceived notion of what the child ought to be interested in. The one you've got pegged as a football star may truly want to play Hamlet instead. And the one you think should be a concert violinist might have her heart set on being a forest ranger.


Foster limits

"If you don't stand for something, your kids will fall for anything." -Anonymous

I was having breakfast with Greg, a friend of mine, and as usual our talk turned to the perils and joys of being a dad. He told me a story that had him proud and angry and confused all at once. A bunch of 10-year-old girls were at a sleepover, and Greg's daughter Abby was thrilled to be invited. She was new to the school, and this was a chance to feel part of the group. Things went well until it was time to see a video. The video was Scream II, an R-rated, very scary, violent, adult-themed movie. The kids were all excited to see this video that was being touted on TV commercials, but Abby said she couldn't watch. Her parents didn't let her see R-rated films. Despite the fear of jeers and taunting, Abby excused herself and waited in another room until the film was over. Somewhere into the film another of the girls joined her, and they played games for the duration.

Greg was pleased. He was delighted that his daughter paid attention to her parents' rules even outside the home. "Abby had been hounding us to let her cross a busy street to go to a shopping mall. When we heard how mature and responsible she had acted away from us, we gave her that permission."

Perhaps the parental responsibility that my generation has had the most trouble with is setting reasonable limits for our children. We Baby Boomers are hardly known for our "Just Say No" approach to life and opportunities. Coming out of the staid '50s, we felt the pinch of rules that were probably too stringent at times, and we don't want to be seen imposing such rules on our own kids. Hypocrisy became a cardinal sin in the '60s and '70s, and many parents who grew up in that era struggle with trying to establish rules they were unwilling or unable to follow themselves. Beyond that, many parents today-no matter what generational group they belong to-have fallen prey to the modern credo that says, "Limits may be fine for most people, but they sure don't apply to me or mine."

Whatever the cause, kids suffer when no one establishes reasonable behavioral boundaries for them. Psychologically, kids need to have a secure sense of their place in life. They need the security that comes from knowing where they can safely wander and what's off limits for them. Given clear, consistent, and reasonable limits, our kids will develop the maturity and experience to understand not just the rules, but the principles behind them-so they can then learn to set their own boundaries based on their own true beliefs. If they never say no to anything, can they really say yes with meaning and conviction?

To raise great kids, you need to establish a range of age-appropriate guidelines. Consider, for example, your rules for what your kids can eat and when. Your instructions probably range from general expectations (within the course of a day we try to get most of the important food groups ingested), to guidelines (normally we don't eat candy just before meals, but when we're at Grandma's we can), to hard-and-fast rules (never eat meat that's blue around the edges).

When thinking of house rules, don't limit yourself to thinking only about the ordinary do's and don'ts-like no running with knives, lights out at 9, no swearing at the dinner table. Rules not only tell what we're trying to avoid (injury, illness, bad manners) but they can also point to what we want to gain. The family that limits TV watching to one hour a night, for instance, is taking a stand in favor of the value of time. The family that says no to products that are made by exploited workers is taking a stand in favor of the value of workers. The family that doesn't allow racist or demeaning jokes or language is taking a stand in favor of the value of all people.

Think of the myriad decisions you make in a day. You don't want to turn every one of these into a major statement about the world's ills. So determine which issues matter to you, and establish some house rules that support your values.

How to foster limits:

Be clear about why you believe an action is right or wrong. Talk principles, not persons. It's not that "You're a bad boy" or "Nice girls don't do that." Rather, say, "It's wrong to hit other people." Or "Taking all the cookies deprives the others of their fair share."

Be willing to make countercultural choices. Remove or strongly limit TV viewing; don't let your kids see R-rated shows or buy exploitative music.

Have your kids come up with their own list of "house rules" that satisfy your need for health and order-or, arrive at them through a family meeting.

Guide your children into wise choices about eating well and getting enough rest. Children's behavior is greatly affected by their feelings of wellness. They'll behave better if they're sufficiently rested and well- nourished. Such choices transfer easily to moral and spiritual habits, too.

Model good behavior by making wise choices about your own life. Many parents today feel overworked. To model a balanced life for our children, we must do what we can to exercise as much control as possible on the demands that our jobs and outside commitments make. We parents need limits, too, and since we're the adults, it's up to us to administer them in our own lives as well.


Take help where you find it

There's one last thing that's common to families who raise great kids: they're willing to get help when it's needed. Parenting is not a contest to see who can appear the most "together" every step of the way. It's a process of launching children into the world with the best preparation we can give them. Every kid is going to go through rough spells, times when their own adjustments and growth spurts leave them confused, out of sorts, perhaps even heading down a wrong path.

When my wife and I are troubled by something going on in one of our children's lives we've done our best when we stopped wondering what we did wrong, how this is going to look to the neighbors and extended family, and just loved that child through this particular rough patch. That loving sometimes takes the form of tough love, and it sometimes means setting limits, demanding respect, or seeking outside help, including the help that comes through prayer.

Not every moment of your parenting will be a golden moment, but you're bound to have your share. Nor is every moment a "teachable moment." But I've come to believe that in every moment of my life as a dad, the love of God is possible-and sometimes it's revealed when and where I least expect it. That's usually when the one who needs to be taught is me.