As parents, we all want to move our children into a more evolved and refined moral universe. A place where decisions about right and wrong are executed with compassion and assurance, leaving our children confident about their place in the world and among the many. However, many parents feel beset and beleaguered by, what they view as, destructive peer influences, a cynical and parasitic media, and a pervasive popular culture that routinely rewards bad behavior as sensational and noteworthy.
Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, sees the practice of blaming peers and popular culture as a convenient way of letting adults off the hook. According to Weissbourd, “It dodges a fundamental truth that is supported by a mountain of research. Children’s moral development is decided by many factors, including not only media and peer influences but their genetic endowment, birth order, gender, and how these different factors interact.” Weissbourd, with a pointed opinion that is certain to infuriate and annoy some parents, suggests that parents, with the best intentions, hold the key influence and ability to undermine their child’s moral development.
One key component of Weissbourd’s theory is seeing our effectiveness as moral mentors as contingent on whether we have earned our children’s respect and trust by, among many things, admitting our errors and explaining our decisions to them in ways that they see as fair.
By the age of five or six, most children (providing they have grown up in a relatively nurturing and stable environment) know the core moral values and the distinct difference between right and wrong. Considering this development, Weissbourd seems to be suggesting that maybe the focus should not be so focused on right or wrong, or moral literacy, as much as it should be upon the deeper issue of moral identity, which is nurtured by reinforcement and example, not by rote recitation of “the rules.”
An attempt to cover or synopsize all of Weissbourd’s positions and arguments in this brief post would be cheapening the wisdom and complexity of his argument (I suggest you pick up a copy for a compelling read). However, I was intrigued by what little I read of his book, and was left wondering about the many thorny aspects of effective parenting, including excessive praise, fostering an environment of emotional dependency, and the sometimes conflicting realities of what we say (as parents) and what we do (as people).
Have you found yourself imparting moral lessons to your children in a way that is contradictory or in conflict with your own moral practice? Are we, as parents, just passing the buck when we blame the moral disintegration of our society (and children) on elements beyond our influence? Do you have particular stories you would like to share about times when your child surprised you with his/her lack of our abundance of moral conviction?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.
Parenting at the Crossroads