Raising kids of solid character

Jan 4, 2009 at 8:28 p.m. ET

You are your child's first and most powerful moral teacher, so make sure the moral behaviors your kids are picking up from you are ones that you want your child to copy. Michele Borba, EdD, author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, offers some advice.

Child watching violent cartoon

These are troubling times to raise good kids

We don't need researchers to share fancy statistics to prove it to us; we all know it. There are many reasons but here's the simplest one: our kids are being literally bombarded with an unremitting assault of immoral messages and from sources such as media, television, movies, the Internet, music and peers and it's taking a toll on their moral growth.

quotation mark open The breakdown of appropriate role models is not the only reason character is declining, but it certainly is one. And when combined with the other socially toxic influences, it makes it all the more difficult to bring up decent kids. quotation mark close

Experts also tell us one way kids learn character traits best is by watching others do things right. Just recall a few incidents your child has seen lately on national television. Here's a sampling: professional baseball players spitting in umpire's faces or hockey players clubbing their competitors and not being held accountable, a champion boxer biting a chunk off his opponent's ear, absolute raunchiness on daytime talk shows, elected government officers admitting to adultery, drug use and bribery (and more!) and even the President of the United States impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The breakdown of appropriate role models is not the only reason character is declining, but it certainly is one. And when combined with the other socially toxic influences, it makes it all the more difficult to bring up decent kids. That's not to say most kids aren't caring, and moral. I'm convinced the majority of them are and I'm sure are too.

My belief in children's basic goodness grows each time I watch them gently comforting others or read about students unselfishly volunteering or hear stories of kids putting their own needs aside to help others less fortunate. It's just that our kids don't hear as much as they should about the compassionate, humane gestures people do for others. Instead, too often they are exposed to images of hate, cruelty, violence and plain vulgarity.

You make a difference

So can we overcome the outside forces perpetuating hateful, fearful, uncaring images and still raise kids with caring hearts and decent souls? It's the question I am asked the most frequently in my workshops by hundreds of parents and teachers each year and I'm sure it has crossed your mind. And the answer I tell them and now you is a resounding: "Yes! Parents can make a difference on their kids moral lives -- and it can be significant enough to have long term effects on our children's lives!"

And why am I so certain? Because scores of research confirm that the traits of strong character such as caring, respect, self-control, sharing, empathy, tolerance, perseverance, giving, comforting, fairness and conscience are all learned. And that means we can teach them to our children and in doing so will nurture the qualities that enhance their moral growth.

What do parents have to do with all this? Plenty! After all, your are your child's first and most powerful moral teacher.

Here are four tips to use in building your child's moral intelligence:

1Expect moral behavior.

If you want your child to act moral, then expect and demand moral behaviors from her.

2Use teachable moments.

Look for moral issues to talk about as they come up; your child can hear your moral beliefs, and you can assess your child's moral reasoning then gently stretch him to the next level.

3Reinforce moral behavior.

Catch your child acting morally and acknowledge her good behavior by describing what she did right and why you appreciate it.

4Monitor media consumption.

Take an active stand against influences toxic to your child's moral development, such as certain TV shows, movies, music, video games and Internet websites. Then plainly explain your concerns to your child, set stands, and then stick to them.

We can no longer sit back and hope our kids grow to become caring, decent, human beings. We must deliberately and passionately teach and model the traits of strong character in our kids so they really can become the best they can be. And we haven't a moment to waste!

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