Raising your children to be good people

helping old lady cross the streetMy parents raised me to be academically successful.  They came from a European milieu that valued intellectual elitism above all other things.  That was my value too, and one I applied to the people with whom I chose to surround myself.

As the years went by, though, I realized that intellectual elites often aren’t very nice people or even very smart people.  All too often, they armor themselves with degrees and disdain.  Some are nice, some aren’t, just like all other people.  When it comes to the ones who aren’t nice, though, what’s so interesting about the intellectual elite is how easily they rationalize away their meanness.  Their knowledge doesn’t lead to morality, it leads to a moral narcissism that sees them as the ultimate arbiters of what’s “good.

Having concluded that my parents’ European elitist values didn’t lead me to the people and places that would have worked best for my life, I’ve tried extremely hard to raise my children to be “nice.”  To me, that word contains within it such  notions as kind, honest, moral, helpful, and loyal.  You don’t have to be the top student or the best athlete, but you’d better not be the kid picking on the unattractive girl or the dorky boy. And when someone asks for help, you give it.

For the children’s entire lives, I’ve operated on the principle that, when it comes to them, I have to “catch them being good” — and that means catching them when they’ve been kind to another person or done the right thing.  I never let such incidents go without saying.

In other words, I agree with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin:

But here’s something depressing: It didn’t work. For their entire lives, I’ve been doing the right things — modeling good behavior (sometimes with great effort, since I’m not an innately nice person) and catching my children (and their friends) when they were behaving well — but it didn’t work. The hardest thing about the last several weeks hasn’t been the inconvenience of crutches, it’s been the fact that my children have been completely unwilling to step up and help out. I have been beyond disappointed. Despite all my efforts, I was unable to counter other influences in their lives, influences that revolve around grades, money, and self-fulfillment through selfishness.

My only hope now is that, once they’re on their own and life has its way with them, my children will discover the same life lesson that I learned: that at the end of the day, the behaviors that you will value most in yourself and in others are the ones that are rooted, not in money or prestige or transitory pleasures, but in innate decency and goodness.

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  1. SADIE says

    Expectations vs reality – yours as opposed to theirs.  
    The chasm between generations is immense and growing. The old adage, “Be nice to your children because they’ll chose your nursing home” is no longer applicable – they’ll expect you to make those arrangements.

  2. Gringo says

    The hardest thing about the last several weeks hasn’t been the inconvenience of crutches, it’s been the fact that my children have been completely unwilling to step up and help out. I have been beyond disappointed.
    Part of the unwillingness to help out when you are in crutches is that this situation turns around the parent-child relationship which they have been accustomed to all their lives: the parent helps, the child receives help. That change can be difficult to accept.
    When I was in my 30s I  cleaned  the bed that my ill mother had soiled. As it was necessary, I did it, but I was uncomfortable with the change of roles this entailed.
    Another way of looking at it is that while adolescents long to be free of the strictures of  the parent-“ruled” household, they are are generally less willing to assume the responsibilities that go with being an adult- such as helping out those who are physically unable to help themselves.
    Sippican Cottage has a good posting here on his adolescent son helping out

  3. says

    Dear Book,  I want to reassure you.  Your children are still young.  Gringo is right about the “role reversal”:  the younger the child, the harder it is for them to accept (and they more uncomfortable they are with the idea) that they might have to care for their parents.  And as they do get older, they begin to pay more attention when you need help and to offer it. 

  4. says

    I hope all of you are right.  When I was a child, things were different.  When I was five, my mother broke her hip.  I helped out (as best as a 5-year-old could, of course.)  When I was seven, Mom had pneumonia.  I helped out.  When I was 12/13, my dad was hospitalized for 16 weeks.  I helped out.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me that not helping out was an option.  My sister, who was resistant to any form of house work, helped as well.  It didn’t occur to her either that we could put up a fight and whine and complain and, ultimately, do nothing.

    I have wondered, though, whether the fact that my parents had come somewhat scathed through WWII left both my sister and me with a sense that they shouldn’t have to do it all on their own.

  5. Tara S says

    I think that the process of coming to understand that one’s parents are human comes in two stages.

    The first is the realization that they’re fallible — that they misjudge sometimes, that they can be unreasonable and set in their ways and just downright wrong. This stage, I think, happens fairly early, depending on the family, and it’s the one that largely drives teenage rebellion. “What makes you think you know any better than me? You screw up all the time!”

    The second, and more important, one is when you learn to see the more admirable and vulnerable parts of your parents — the squishy bits, as it were. This is different from when you were very young and saw them as the baseline for understanding everything that’s good and normal about the world, because this is when you learn to relate to them on a personal level. You realize that they feel confusion, and worry, and love, and frustration, and happiness, and so on, just the way that you do, and you realize that there are REASONS for their occasional misjudgments and wrongness, just like there are for yours. You realize that they need support, love, and forgiveness sometimes, just like you always received from them. The eureka moments don’t come all at once, but once they start, the parent-child relationship begins to roll along a bit more smoothly.

    (I believe this second stage tends to happen when kids grow up enough to have to deal with some of the same things that parents do on a day-to-day basis. Get a nine-to-five job for the summer, and you’ll probably come to see why your father was sometimes cranky when he got home from a long day at the office — and HE didn’t have the luxury of knowing that the job would end when school started back up, or of knowing that he didn’t really need the money.)

    I don’t know. I’m not any sort of a psychologist; I don’t even have kids. This is all just conjecture, based on what I’ve seen and what I can remember of learning to see my parents as… well, not peers, but equals, perhaps. It takes time to realize that a healthy family is composed of give-and-take relationships.

  6. says

    I’ve been fussing about this issue for a long time, and should have shared it with you guys some weeks ago.  Your insights are very comforting.  I know my children love me, but it was still a shock to realize that they are so immature or selfish or whatever that providing me with basic aid is simply beyond them.

  7. says

    One conditioning process for children rests upon gender and duty roles.
    Older siblings are sometimes conditioned to be the protector, to look out for and defend the younger siblings, brothers or sisters, against external or internal stress. This allows a sort of pseudo adulthood where responsibility is taken in minor doses.
    A boy, for example, would be expected to care for his little sister, and in return the little sister will support and obey her older brother. This is a miniature model of economics, politics, and power. It, as with all things in life, starts with one cell, at the bottom. Not the complicated top of adulthood, but the bottom.
    In your household, Book, I suspect that there is no expectation that the boy is to be a man at the age of 13, that he should take care of or protect his sister or family, or that the boy will ever be the man and protector of the household. There is no conceptual expectation that the 13 years a boy is alive on Earth, has only been for the purpose of becoming stronger and using those resources for the benefit of family and self.
    There is no replacement for conditioning, except other conditioning. What can transcend conditioning is independent judgment, but I doubt children even expect such a thing let alone achieve it with hard work.
    “Despite all my efforts, I was unable to counter other influences in their lives, influences that revolve around grades, money, and self-fulfillment through selfishness.”
    Conditioning only works on a limited basis, having to do with the conditioned stimuli. If you have not trained them to think for themselves, absent your authority, or if you have not conditioned them to help you specifically, then the conditioning does not activate because it does not exist. Being good is synonymous to Obedience. When the authority is not there, Good then does not exist. The other definition of good is independent judgment, such as a warrior that decides who needs to die and whether killing in this situation is right or wrong, irregardless of what other people, including what society, nations, and kings, say is right.
    There is no substitute for independent judgment. Independent judgment does not evolve from obeying your parents. Obeying your parents is merely a conditioning prerequisite, what tends to happen naturally before growth. A person, in order to achieve self mastery or independence, can not obey. That is the contradiction. A person that obeys laws because they are laws and to avoid punishment, will then disobey laws when the punishment is gone. That is different from a person following their own internal laws and ethics.
    Independent individuals acquire independence through habits. In what fashion has your son or daughter generated independent, self started, businesses, clubs, activities, client-leader organizations? If the answer is, “no, they just go along and do what they are told because that’s Good”, then independence is not being fostered very quickly. Do the kids in school start up waitress jobs in their class and provide a meal and service to the entire school, while raking in the profit? Do they lead clubs or networks of individual manpower resources to achieve a common goal, such as sports or cultural clubs? What is it that drives them at heart? What is it that drives anyone at heart, what are they willing to die for and kill for.
    Until they answer those questions for you, Book, they are not “complete”. And judgments should be pre rendered before full analysis is complete.

  8. jj says

    Say rather that your parents valued intellectual accomplishment and attainment than intellectual elitism.  I suspect your teacher father  recognized and was not prey to elitism, though he may well have been a striver after accomplishment.

  9. says

    Some of what you’re seeing may be individual temperament — they’re not ALL you, as you know.
    Your post didn’t cover the other item I’m thinking of, and I don’t remember reading about it on the blog in the past….and that’s your regular practice with them.  As I was growing up, there was no chance of not helping – my Mom didn’t allow it.  We all had weekly chores to do – free labor, if you will – and after meals we assisted Mom with the cleanup.  My job was to clear the table, passing dishes and leftovers through into the kitchen, where my  sister was rinsing dishes and putting them into the dishwasher.  I remember complaining to Mom that Dad wasn’t helping, and her reply was “I didn’t raise your father.”  We also helped her on the weekly shopping, ran errands to the nearby corner store, etc. etc. etc.
    “Helping” was ingrained in me to the point that it’s never gone away, but in part it must have been temperament, too.   My younger brother is a lot like my Dad, and I don’t think that Mom treated him and my baby sister much different than she did we two older kids.   So I’m thinking about both temperament and training, and have no idea which might have a stronger influence here….but they’re both at play.

  10. says

    As I mentioned some odd years ago, the time to go full court press on the conditioning is before puberty. After puberty the authority of parents still exist, but it is in competition with hormones, internal identity formation, and peer pressure.
    So instead of utilizing yang and overwhelming force, parents are forced by necessity to use yin or accommodating force for teenagers. That means a mix of deals concerning punishment and rewards. As in all negotiations, not everyone wants the same thing or values the same thing equally.
    I would normally utilize an extensive conditioning set for those 11 and under kids. But more freedom and responsibility during puberty. Other cultures often reverse the system, freedom for kids because they don’t know better, but adulthood and social training for teenagers. Teenagers Obey Authority more than any other demographic, other than welfare slaves.
    What people don’t understand about authority is just what it is and how to construct it. That’s natural, since they missed the LEft’s authority for so many years.

  11. jj says

    I think Earl has a point.  I imagine he’ll think I take it too far, but we had the same sort of system: not being helpful or filling in where needed wasn’t an option.  It just didn’t come up: you saw a need, it was within your ability to fill it, you filled it.  It was practically a reflex.  My father was not in the least afraid of being rather direct with his kids.  (We were after all his kids, and it was his job to present us to the world as a housebroken finished product.)  In a situation such as the one currently in your house, if my brother and I had gone more than the first few minutes or so being rather unhelpful, he wouldn’t have been at all above saying something like: ‘have you two noticed your mother’s on crutches?’   (And it might well have been: ‘have you two little %^$#@s’ –  not just ‘you two.’)  And it would have been said without a trace of humor, conveying a clear message we would have instantly understood: help out.  There’ll be a consequence if you don’t.
    But you can’t have never laid the groundwork for that, and then switch it on and expect it to work.  I know this is anathema to parents today, but the groundwork is not laid through modeling, earnest conversation, hopeful good examples, or even constant prayer.  It’s laid by action.  They have to know about the consequences.  I regret to say that training young children is not fundamentally different from training puppies, and now and then you have to go to work with the rolled-up newspaper to indicate that when you say something it should be regarded as having some weight.  If done correctly, by the time it’s 13, 14 years old, the kid has manners, and is capable of recognizing the right and useful thing to do.  If not done before that age, by that age it’s too late.
    Kids by nature are a lot closer to the Lord of the Flies end of the scale than they are the Little Lord Fauntleroy end.  Concepts like ‘fair,’ ‘helpful,’ civilized,’ etc. have to be planted, they aren’t built in.  You really can’t talk about it, and expect that to be meaningful all by itself.  Like the puppy, when the parent says ‘no’ the kid needs to know, generally by experience – it’s how we learn – that the word means something.  Otherwise it’s just noise.

  12. says

    My children do not help out much around the house.  My husband tends to live out his 13-year-old fantasies through the children and, when I ask them for help or tell them to do chores, he often steps in to defend them against Mom’s “nagging.”

    • says

      If you’re wondering why the kids don’t obey your authority now, look no further than that example you just wrote now.
      There have been clear treatises written concerning when two parents aren’t united and can be played against each other by wily kiddies. The problem with the Left is that it corrupts all it touches. That cannot be underestimated in the context. Rather, it should not be.
      The Left was created to subvert and corrupt conditioning processes from traditional culture. That’s why I don’t favor conditioning or social obedience as a counter to Leftist popular corruption. One must cultivate individual warriors and deciders, above all else, for they can resist everything and anything, even including Leftist evil. They do not need to be Told What to Do. But the cultivation of mastery is difficult and at a certain point, hands off must be taken from the stick for the other pilot to learn what to do.

      • Tara S says

        It kind of sounds like the specific issue here is not so much an unwillingness to obey authority as it is a lack of empathy.
        Which is a bit more finicky, because it can’t be solved by saying “Do what I tell you or else”; you’d have to say something like, “Please do what I tell you, and do it gladly and readily, without complaining, because it’s the right thing to do and because how would you feel if you were in this situation?”, and that’s unlikely to work. A child’s thought processes are their own — especially when they’re teenagers — and you can’t influence them as much as you can their actions.

        • says

          The kids are being ordered to disobey Book by Book’s husband. That is not the result of empathy or lack of it on the kids part. If you are told to kill your superior officer and your superior officer tells you to kill your unit leader, eventually you will figure out what to do based upon authority levels, closeness, stress, but only after unfreezing.
          For teenagers that consider themselves kids and not adults in training, they go with the flow, the path of least resistance. Which is to avoid additional “help” they don’t feel competent doing. I’ve seen shat loads of so called adults do the exact same thing when shirking initiative and anything that needed competence beyond their job training. They always talk about lacking the confidence to do anything because they didn’t get the training and don’t know what to do.

  13. Charles Martel says

    Miss Manners once said that the secret to raising, as jj puts it, “housebroken finished products,” is 18 years and 2,000 repetitions: “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” x 200.

  14. Charles Martel says

    Book, you can always go on strike. Your kids (husband included) know that your penchant for neatness is why you do all the heavy lifting when it comes to housework. I say put on a tattered robe and some scuffed-up old slippers, and hang out in front of the TV. When your kids (husband included) start whining that things are getting dirty and messy, tell them to “quit nagging me.”

    • Gringo says

      Good suggestion. My cousin told me that when her children began complaining about her cooking, her response was to stop cooking and have them eat cold cereal for supper. The complaints diminished considerably after that. If my cousin were a bad cook, her children might have been justified in their complaints, but she is a good cook.

    • says

      I second what Martel’s suggesting.
      The next time your husband undermines your authority in front of the kids, Book, just tell the kids that if they pick the father to obey, the father will have to drive them to their after school activities. Find a lever and PULL IT.
      I realize that Book doesn’t like making waves and is hesitant about confrontation, but if it makes you feel better, withdrawing your resources isn’t confrontation, yang, but non resistance, yin. If they won’t side with you, you have no reason to support them. They can WALK, TAKE THE BUS, or ride their bike to school. Or have the father, who is the “authority being obeyed” provide the support.

  15. Gringo says

    That is unfortunate- both Mr. Bookworm’s not supporting you in getting the kids to do chores, and their not doing chores. It also helps explain your kids’s response to your being on crutches.
    Which reminds me of how I my sister and I got corralled into the chore of  washing dishes. The summer I turned 8 and my sister was 10, my grandfather died. My mother went with my 4 year old brother to spend a month with my grandmother.
    My father did a good Tom Sawyer on my sister and me- convincing us that it would be fun to try washing dishes- just like the grownups do. Unfortunately, we found out that the fun continued after my mother and brother returned!

  16. says

    If I were in your shoes, Book, I probably wouldn’t tolerate such disrespect for my own personal resources and abilities.
    I would either go on strike, or I would get nasty, find something the rebels want, and either take it hostage, destroy it, or use it as leverage.
    Most things in life don’t bother me. But when something does, I am motivated by internal factors to do something about it.

  17. says

    The whole reason why Sarah Palin can have so many children, is not because her husband primarily provides support. It’s also because the kids provide support to each other. If you remember, the little girls are taking care of the baby, taking ownership. Thus this sets up a chain of command, not merely 2 bosses ordering a bunch of legs around that will shirk their duties if left unattended.
    This is done through training, as kids need to be trained in order for them to command their inferiors. The entire concept that a child of 8 years old is senior and in charge of the child that is 1 year old, must be conditioned deeply and early. If this is not done, then the system cannot run and you will have certain issues during the Teenage years.
    Society won’t do it for you. Some societies do, not this one. The Left won’t do it. Schools won’t do it. Jobs do it, sometimes, but kids rarely have jobs before their conditioning is set in.
    School clubs are a poor shadow of what they could be in terms of training soldiers or warriors.

  18. says

    jj: I don’t find anything there to disagree with.  Our kids were welcomed guests in OUR home, and the rules of the home were set by US.  It’s how my folks ran my childhood home, and it worked well.  Starting early is ESSENTIAL, as you pointed out.
    I still remember feeding my son (which I did every night before giving him his bath, reading him a story and putting him to bed, so his mother could have some time to herself)…..I made “green mashed potatoes” because he refused to eat vegetables plain, plus a batch of “banana pudding” which was banana and peanut butter mashed up together.  He didn’t much like the vege/potatoes, and he LOVED the banana pudding.  I told him he had to eat his potatoes and then he’d get the pudding.
    I can still hear that little sucker (now almost 38 years old!):  “Daddy….!  Daddy….!  I have a deal…..I’ll eat a bite of potatoes and then a bite of banana pudding…..”  My first reaction (internal) was to insist on his doing it MY way….but a quick analysis convinced me that his way would maintain the principle, while allowing him some control.  So that’s how we did it from then on.  But the principle was in place – you eat the “good-for-you stuff”, not just the “good stuff”. 
    The difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting was a topic of discussion in our home….my parents had been authoritative, and that’s what we always strove for.  Sadly, if the two parents disagree, a mess can result.  I was blessed to be married to someone with whom I could come to an agreement – we both learned a LOT by this process.

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