The Road to a Hellion Child is Paved with Good Intentions

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 Appťtit among other publications.

Parenting at the Crossroads


Robert O.
Robert O5 years ago

Thanks Eric.

Mary R.
Mary R8 years ago

I agree with the comments that I have read thus far. There are far too many parents that have decided (too late) that they "too" deserve to have a social life and leave their job of parenting up to everyone else but themselves. Being their childs friend instead of parent; condoning unwanted, intolerable behavior; unwillingness to provide direction and discipline; and refusing to be role models for their children. And then everyone wonders...why has the moral fabric of our society unraveled? I have had some of the worst delinquents of our society come to my home and, believe me, when the rules are put down in no uncertain terms, they are followed to the 'T' when the consequences are known and followed through upon. When a child is made to respect not only their peers but the adults they come into contact with; are held accountable for their actions yet, given unconditional love, they can learn to find their own self worth. In the end...children will live what they learn.

Jody Koets
Jody K8 years ago

I have two sons who have always enjoyed swirling and twirling my hair, from the early days of nursing and still now, at the ages of 3 and 5. If we are cuddling, tying shoes, buttoning jackets, any situation where they can reach my hair, undoubtedly someone is touching it. Unfortunately, it often ends with me in pain as a gentle touch can easily become a painful pull.
A few months ago, my husband warned our then 2.5 year old that if he continued to pull my hair, I would be returning the favour by tugging on his hair. We had hoped the thought would curb his desire. However, it happened again and as promised, I tugged (gently, but enough for him to understand how it felt) back. He began to cry and I started my longwinded (in one ear and out the other) explanation of why it's not ok to pull hair and that's how I feel when he does it to me. Well, my 5 year old was upset to see this entire event unfold and that's when he said "Mom, you're the one who said two wrongs don't make a right"!!!! I was shocked that he a) remembered and b) understood my lesson so well that he applied it to this situation!

Carol H.
Past Member 8 years ago

We were taught from very young right from wrong and that was a big part of parenting when I was growing up.
I agree with Meredith D I was a teacher in my home and the children would come into my home with they were taught at home and I would tell me I don't have the same rules. So it would take them a while for them to learn mine for them to settle down.
They would cry for no reason other than me telling them what they can do or not to and if they won't settle down I would tell them I have diapers just for them and if they don't stop crying I will be forced to put them on you I really didn't have the diapers but they didn't know but they would settle down right away.
Another thing I had a big problem with were the fibbing I just couldn't take it and the best part before class even began that was my biggest rule no fibbing but they didn't get it until I would grade them for fibbing of which they hated and it was a zero for the day. They would beg me to change the grade and I wouldn't so they stopped fibbing.
The parents would always ask me "How did I stop the child from fibbing" and I would show them I graded them with a zero and they stopped. If they were tell me more fibs I would grade them a double zero for the day. When they realized I had absolute rule they really learned a lot more and much faster.
Parents have to learn they are the parent and not the buddy of their children!!!

Meredith D.
Meredith D8 years ago

As a teacher I'm sick to death of people expecting me to instill values in their children and miraculously give them the love of learning that so obviously wasn't taught at home.

Parents: you are responsible for how your child acts. If you lie, so will they. If you sit on your rear and watch TV all day, so will your kids. If you show no respect for knowledge and learning, neither will your children. I am a good person because I have a fabulous mother, not because of anything they told me at school.

So please, don't tell your child not to practice their trumpet because you're watching Judge Judy. Unless of course you want your child to be uneducated and on welfare. But I guess some parents think that if it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for the kids too. No wonder we have so many young unwed mothers, so many gangbangers and drug dealers.

It's sad. These kids deserve better parenting than they're getting.

Pat Tobin
Pat Tobin8 years ago

Children also need the opportunity and the elbow room to think through situations that are not clear cut. In order to feel comfortable with the process they should be aware that the adults in their lives are not infallible and sometimes have to think long and hard to read their own moral compass.

Cana Yun
Cana Yun8 years ago

Yes, the good intention is the key to be a good parent. The good intention motivates us to learn and continuously improve.

Cana Y.
Cana Yun8 years ago

Yes, the good intention is the key to be a good parent. The good intention motivates us to learn and continuously improve.

Isabel Mosseler
Isabel Mosseler8 years ago

All morality, all virtues, are based on truthfulness. Truthfulness is the foundation of everything which has moral light. Practice this in your life, and add the seasonings of courtesy and tact and kindness and forgiveness for mistakes, but always hone in on truthfulness. If a person can't be truthful, then silence is the option. If a person can't take truth, then they need some self reflection. Truthfulness is liberating, and develops conscience. This is what is lacking in so many lives of desperation. Also when children react, they are reacting to the lack of truthfulness around them, hypocrisy and lies. Children have a very keen sense of justice. Children don't rebel because of genes or age. They rebel because they perceive injustice. Being truthful is a lifelong commitment and endeavour, and very difficult in an age which promotes the "lie", "white lie", "big lie", "cheating lie" as the way to "advancement" (another lie). the issue is not advancement, it is happiness, and it is much easier to be happy when your conscience is clear and your consciousness developed, even when one is surrounded by sorrow, one's truthful eye see beauty everywhere.

Sylvia B.
Sylvia B8 years ago

As far as teaching morals, say what you mean and mean what you say. The Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do model has repeatedly shown that it does not work. I don't have kids myself, but my 13-year-old niece has picked up on the double-talk and lying that her parents and grand-parents do. Yet, these bozos act SO SURPRISED that OMG, she lied again. Look in the mirror, boys and girls. If your moral behavior is that shaky, you have no business raising kids, period. The jails and mental hospitals are filled to capacity, and there is room for no more.