My wife and I are blessed with 2 wonderful boys, Alex and Ryan, who are 11 and eight respectively. The catalyst for this article occurred Wednesday night when we all went to dinner to celebrate my birthday. We went to a nicer restaurant than usual because of the occasion, which also served to elevate the anxiety we felt about the boys showing good manners. Our dinner was delicious, but we were a little worn out after continually saying “put your napkin in your lap”, “no elbows on the table”, “say thank you to the waiter” and “say excuse me before you reach over my plate to get something!” I am certain most parents can relate to this scene.
Our sons’ future has been weighing heavily on me lately and this dinner served to clarify for me that our children need us in their lives. Being good parents is not just about “showing up”- it is about being truly present and engaged. They need love, time, guidance, discipline and boundaries. They need to learn about values, virtues and the importance of a strong work ethic. The kids need to understand what’s really important in life and how to be responsible. We want them to be kind, generous, selfless and a good friend to others. They need to learn manners, courtesy and how to be gentlemen. They need to be taught about God, the importance of prayer, to value all life and to love attending church. Our children must learn all of these important lessons from us and our example-not from the government, school, friends or the Internet.
Our boys are smart and they are listening to what we say, but also watching what we do. If we “walk the walk and talk the talk” they are more likely to do the same. With the stresses and challenges of today’s world, it is impossible for any parent to be perfect and goodness knows we all make mistakes. But, we have to do our best, even when we find it difficult. We don’t get any “do-overs” with raising our kids and every day with them is a gift and an opportunity to help them on their journey to becoming quality adults who embody all the wonderful traits and characteristics I listed in the second paragraph. As I write this, I am both nervous and excited about the incredible parenting responsibility that was first laid at our door 11 years ago when our first son was born. Cast your thoughts back to when your children were first placed in your arms just minutes after their arrival into this world and you may feel the same way.
Now, it has been my intention thus far to stir up some warm feelings and a clear understanding of the responsibilities we have as parents. It is that responsibility which I hope will serve as a wake-up call for parents. We are locked in a never ending battle with the world and today’s culture to keep their negative influences away from our kids. Turn on the television, surf the internet, open a magazine or listen to what their peers at school are saying and you will see what I mean.
Author and Developmental Psychologist Thomas Lickona wrote in his book, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and other Essential Virtues: “The sexual corruption of children is arguably the most insidious attack on their innocence and character, but the media culture warps their values in other ways as well. Many parents are distressed by how materialistic their children are, never content with what they have. Increasingly, youth seek their self-esteem and identity in clothes or cars.”
Our sons are not ready to be adults, not yet ready to lose their innocence and certainly not ready to be fully exposed to the evils of sex, drugs, violence and materialism that kids face today. It is obvious that the world in which we live appears to value children less and less with each passing year.
Sound harsh? Think about your own childhood. Life was simpler back then and we didn’t face nearly as many pressures as our children do today. We can all see the obvious pressures our children face and the great news is we can fight back…if we show courage and resolve. Our kids, as the saying goes, are the future and we need to take the very best care of this important investment.
Much of what I am about to recommend is potentially unpopular, even old-fashioned, but ask yourself if gambling on today’s culture being a better parent than you is a safe bet or a recipe for disaster? As author and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said, “Society needs to affirm once again the message that having a child is the most important thing a person will do in life, and that act entails certain obligations. Some may argue otherwise, but there is simply no substitute for parental and moral guidance: logging lots of time, doing chores and errands together, playing together, reading together, and patiently explaining the way the world works and the way people ought to live.”
My wife and I don’t come close to having all the answers and we are clearly not degreed experts with decades of expertise. But, maybe that is a good thing. I am not so sure all of the so called experts have the answers either. All I know is we love our children very much, we have had over 11 years of hands on experience, we truly want what is best for them and we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for their well being. Trusting our instincts and intuitively knowing we are trying to do the right thing counts for something as well.
I want to share with you six simple actions that we are trying very hard to pursue in raising our children. We often fall short, but we keep trying because shirking our parenting responsibilities or delegating the job to others is not an option. For your consideration:
• Teach your children to have faith and to love God. Your children will love God and have strong faith only if you do. They will only pray…if you do. They will only be joyful about attending church…if you are. My wife and I are devout Catholics and for us, the greatest vocation is our family and raising our children to love and serve Christ and follow our Faith. The white paper Religious Involvement and Children’s Well-Being by Lisa Bridges and Kristin Moore (www.childtrends.org) reports that young people who frequently attend religious services and say their faith is important to them exhibit higher levels of altruism and lower levels of drug and alcohol use and sexual activity than those of little or no faith.
• Love, love, love! Showing your children you love them and more importantly telling them you love them is incredibly important. We hug our kids and tell them every chance we get. But, love is also caring enough to be tough, candid and providing limits. It is also about loving each other. Want to give the kids a good example to follow? Show your spouse affection in words and deeds as often as possible. “Smile at each other, smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other — it doesn’t matter who it is — and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.” –Mother Teresa of Calcutta
• Teach them Manners and to Respect others. These are words that don’t often get discussed anymore, but they are so critical to our children’s development. Teaching please, thank you, you are welcome and to open the door for ladies and senior citizens are important for our children to learn and can’t be considered antiquated. Teaching kids to respect themselves, you and your spouse and others is also very important.
• Teach them Morality and Virtue. Morality is one of our biggest concerns and we spend a great deal of time discussing right and wrong with our sons. Think long and hard about the moral decay around us and you will double your efforts to teach your children this important lesson. Lastly, consider the merits of teaching virtue to your children as these vital concepts are rarely discussed. The Cardinal Virtues of Prudence (Wisdom), Justice, Fortitude (Courage) and Temperance (Moderation) and the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are the guiding principles by which we all should live.
• Time-Our children need our time. Put down the Blackberry, turn off the television, cancel the golf outing and let’s spend more time with our kids! Quality time is the key-actively engaged in talking or doing something with them is what they need…not reading a magazine while they watch Sponge Bob. Also, dinner time must be sacred. There is tremendous value in coming together for a family meal at least once a day.
• Teach them Responsibility and Stewardship. Helping our children learn responsibility at a young age and teaching them to have a good work ethic is a great foundation for them to build upon as adults. Teaching them to serve and give back will help them be better human beings. This isn’t classroom stuff-they will only learn from our example.
Every family dynamic is different. Some of you do not have children yet, but want them. Some of you are raising children alone. Many of you have lost your jobs in this recession and face enormous financial pressures. Our oldest son Alex has high-functioning autism and giving him what he needs to navigate through life is a daily struggle. But, I hope we can all agree that children are a wonderful blessing from God. They are deserving of our love and desperately need us to actively teach and guide them through a world that will never care for them as much as we do.
I know there are wonderful examples of good parents everywhere and I am blessed to know many of them in my own circle. I also believe inside every parent there is a GREAT parent waiting to come out! Being GREAT parents is a worthy aspiration for all of us which requires dedication, vigilance, selflessness, commitment and courage. You may find that the closer you get to this goal, the more you detach yourself from the world. Your own children may not appreciate what you are doing and will often resist your well intended parenting efforts. But, if they are like me (and probably you), they will find themselves with kids of their own one day and realize how grateful they are to have had parents like us. Our kids need us to rise to the challenge-their future, and ours, depends on it.
Imagine the impact families could make on our communities if we simply focused on building their faith, showing them love, investing in their moral virtue and then sent them into the world to do the same. How would our world be different? We as parents hold the keys.