For me, it was always about the birthday parties. Each year, I'd tell
my children they had a choice: Invite a few kids from school -- say six
or seven -- or include the entire class.
"If you have almost everyone, the kids who don't get an invitation will
feel left out," I'd say. It was attempt to instill compassion and
empathy in my children, qualities I'd been taught to hold dear.
I thought every parent viewed the guest-list quandary the same way.
My children came of age during the self-esteem movement. In a Herculean
effort to avoid wounding their psyches (not even a scratch would do),
parents of this era programmed their progeny to believe that every
child was wonderful, was rarely wrong and -- come to think of it --
what did "wrong" really mean, anyway?
These children were blessed with the ultimate unalienable rights, the
pursuit of happiness being foremost among them.
So when I tossed around my birthday party dogma, I encountered parents
who insisted, "It's their party. If they want to have everyone except
Justin or Julia, it's their decision."
In his book, The Moral Intelligence of Children, Harvard professor
Robert Coles writes, "We grow morally as a consequence of learning how
to be with others, how to behave in this world; a learning prompted by
taking to heart what we have seen and heard. The child is an ever
attentive witness of grownup morality."
What Coles is saying is this: Our children are watching us. And they
will develop their own lasting moral centers -- or not -- depending
largely upon the way we navigate sticky ethical dilemmas and how we
choose to live our lives.
They watch us when we challenge their teachers because of the way our
kids are behaving, performing or testing. They watch us when we
confront their coaches because of the way our kids are playing,
progressing or participating.
We've gone for the gold, enhancing and optimizing our sons' and
daughters' learning, emotional and athletic skills. But the concept of
moral intelligence rings quaint and old-world amid the megastar
escapades of Janet Jackson and Kobe Bryant. When kids witness
politicians and sports figures waffling, cheating and -- let's say it
-- lying, the Golden Rule goes the way of sacred Madonnas and fathers
who knew best.
Too often, today's parents fail to grasp the big picture. So
distributing blankets to the homeless -- an A-level opportunity to
shape character and promote values -- becomes another resume builder,
the requisite add-on to debate, soccer and Kaplan-prepped SATs.
Like most of us, I've known all kinds of parents -- from the ones who
call to make sure their son is where he said he'd be, to the
predictable "cool" moms and dads who offer up beer at parties, but feel
virtuous collecting car keys.
To me, though, the most unforgettable folks -- the ones who misused
textbook-perfect moral moments -- were the parents who told their kids
it's fine to back out of a prom date if someone they like better asks
them later. Or the father who taught his 9-year-old how to cheat a
friend while trading baseball cards. Or the parent-coach who was
content to leave an elementary-age child sitting on the bench all
season because winning, after all, is everything.
"How do we teach people to be good?" these same parents might wonder in some existential millisecond.
For starters, we need to examine our personal repertoire of principals
-- and model them. "Moral intelligence must be consciously nurtured,
and because you are your child's first and most important moral
instructor, there is no one better than you to inspire these essential
virtues," says Michele Borba in her book, Building Moral Intelligence.
What do we really value? Let's say it's qualities such as empathy,
tolerance and fairness. How can we raise children to embrace those
standards in an MTV-oriented cyber world that glorifies extreme
makeovers and Paris Hilton?
We can voice strong opinions on issues that matter. Teaching children
there's no such thing as right or wrong promotes moral relativism of
the worst kind. We know evil when we see it.
We can talk about bullying, about dishonesty, about respecting others
and about showing kindness -- and reinforce these conversations by
pointing to examples of each.
We can monitor our children's exposure to TV violence, Internet hate
sites and video games that -- yes, it's true -- desensitize kids to
aggression and normalize brutal behavior.
We can introduce our children to ethics we admire, whether through
religion, philosophy, children's literature (fairy tales work well) or
simple fuzzy sessions around the dinner table.
And we can insist our kids invite the whole class to their birthday
party without feeling guilty, because sometimes we do know best.
Linda Morgan is contributing editor of ParentMap.