Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Good Parents; Bad Kids

William recently turned six! He’s not a baby anymore—something he constantly impresses on my more sentimental instincts. It’s because I long for him daily. There is a searing, almost constantly panicked sense of missing out. But still, we are now faced with the daunting task of making him understand that temper tantrums won’t work because adults still run the world!

It seems that a lot of good homes, dare I say “Christian homes” do not produce particularly good children. Why? There are people who blame TV violence, video games, rap music, divorce, the absence of fathers, bad schools, and poverty. But what about parents? What are parents doing wrong—especially well-educated parents in intact homes, with no financial worries? So, based on my own experience and thinking, here are some suggestions why good homes and parents sometimes produce bad children.

1) Goodness is Not Put First.
Most parents want their children to be good people; they just don’t make their child’s goodness a top concern. Parents are more concerned with their child’s being a brilliant student, a good athlete, or a successful professional. Would you rather have a kind child with average intelligence, or a brilliant child who isn’t kind? How much time to you devote to developing ethics in your child relative to developing other qualities? Do you monitor very closely how your child treats other people? What would your child say if someone were to ask them, “What do your parents want the most? For you to be happy, smart, successful, or good?” Most parents simply assume THEIR kids are good. Bad kids belong to other people. It is hard to raise a good student, but it is much harder to raise a good person. It is relentless, and requires attention to details. Why do I say this? Because the widely held belief that people are born basically good, and learn to be bad is not only wrong, it is dangerous. We are born morally neutral (innocent), but with tendencies towards both good and bad. Since we live in a fallen world, doing wrong comes easy. Goodness has to be cultivated. It takes as much time and effort as learning to master the violin, yet more parents give their children music lessons than goodness lessons. One more thing: there is a difference between goodness and following the rules. Turning your child into a morally blind automaton is not cultivating goodness!

2) Feelings Are Overemphasized.
I have observed parents give way more attention to how their child feels, rather than how they behave. If your child is a bully, don’t ask them, “What’s troubling you?” What your child FEELS may be important to you and the child, but the only thing that matters to the other 6 billion people on earth is how they ACT. We have to make our children understand that right actions trump good feelings, and that being upset doesn’t give them license to hurt other people. This runs counter to the almost religiously held belief that self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of making a responsible person. This is laughable. Children are born with nothing but self-esteem. They think the world revolves around their needs and wants – day and night! To be a good person, self-control is more important than self-esteem. Self-esteem has to be tied to good behavior, and it’s never too early to impress this on your child. If not, they grow up to be immature adults who throw tantrums whenever they feel uncomfortable or offended.

3) Parents Yearn to be Liked Rather Than Respected.
This one is hard for me. I feel like a complete hypocrite saying this. I’m Mr. “words of affirmation.” But my brain says that in the same way you cannot be an effective leader if you are afraid of being disliked, you cannot be an effective parent if you fear being disliked. This is especially hard for single parents (both men and women). It takes superhuman strength to be both mom and dad. It’s doubly hard to be both mom and dad in a disciplinary sense and still have your kids like you.

4) An Overemphasis on Micro-Goodness.
We have odd ways of defining what it means to be good, particularly in evangelical Christian circles. Goodness is very often expressed as trite moralisms. For Jesus this was like taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, while you have a plank protruding out of your own eye. It’s self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus also accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel. We tend to blend into the culture in so many ways, so in order to be different, attention is focused on the trivial. We teach our kids that it’s okay to be captive to mass consumerism, as long as we don’t watch R-rated movies; it’s acceptable to pursue cozy affluence, as long as we don’t mow our lawn on a Sunday; it’s fine to be indifferent to systematic starvation around the world, as long as we don’t ever drink a beer. My point is that we need to teach our children that there are bigger issues of justice and morality in the world than counting "bad words" in a damn movie!! Of course, this is a judgment call every parent has to wrestle with, I'm just saying that good people understand that the world is bigger than their likes and dislikes and specific cultural expressions of morality.

5) The Belief in “Quality Time.”
This is a term we use to rationalize being gone from our kids a lot. I know. I use the term. When it comes to time with children I don’t think quality can be separated from quantity. Do we really think that parents who spend very little time with their kids can bond in an hour? Children open up to adults when they want to, which is usually only after a LOT of “non-quality time.” I know that most families are under enormous stresses and time constraints, so I hope this doesn’t sound too judgmental, but life is full of trade-offs. If you make good money working 60 hours a week, you may be able to buy your kids nice things, but you can only give them so much of yourself.

6) NEVER humiliate your child. There are obvious ways to humiliate a child—ignoring them, telling them to be quiet, laughing at their mistakes, yelling at them in the grocery store, not taking their ideas seriously, and never apologizing when you are wrong. Some parents, out of a sense of pride, tend to treat their children like owned commodities rather than autonomous human beings. This too, is a form of humiliation.