How do you keep the hearts of your children when all around there is pressure to live selfishly? My children are ages 7 to 17.
Dear Concerned Father,
This is a question very close to my heart. My three children are all still younger than yours, but already I see the currents of culture pulling them. I don’t have a perfect answer, but I think there is a lot we, as parents, can do to help our children’s hearts grow to love truth and goodness more than self.
First, it is very important to remember that all of us—parents and children alike—are in a continuous process of changing, becoming, and refining ourselves. It’s perhaps obvious that children will change and grow, but we adults do as well, and we can do it more consciously. No matter what our age, we can refine ourselves—becoming more loving, kind, disciplined, and mentally free.
In order to parent well, we must reach into ourselves to find our best, and then, when inevitably this is still not enough, we expand ourselves to become better, stronger, calmer, and more capable. It’s from this striving to better ourselves that we gain the wisdom and authority to teach our children how to be better people.
One exercise that I’ve found beneficial is to challenge yourself to learn a new habit; it could be something simple like making your bed every day, or something more complex such as being kinder. It’s really not easy! But from our failures we learn to know ourselves better, and we grow in humility and patience, which are key virtues for raising children—and our striving makes a deep impression on our children.
One habit that is helping me be a better parent is keeping my house in better order. I’ve been working on the habit of putting things away as soon as I’ve finished. This may seem a bit trite, but it helps me stay calm, think more clearly, and as I’ve learned to discipline myself in this regard, I’m also able to require more discipline from my children in many areas.
As relates to selfishness, while a clean house is satisfying to me (which is somewhat selfish), I also do it for my husband because it helps him relax at the end of a busy day when he comes home to order and cleanliness. For our children, tidying the house before my husband comes home is also a way to show respect for him; I remind them as we clean that he has been working on our behalf all day.
Human Nature and SelfishnessLet us consider a bit further the role of selfishness in human nature. Understanding this is important if we are to help children overcome selfish impulses.
First of all, I take as a matter of fact that humans have an innately good and loving nature. Time spent with young children offers proof of this—they laugh and delight in the world around them, and earnestly seek our love and approval. The approval is important because the reaction of the parents is how a child first learns right from wrong.
Second, anyone who has spent time with a toddler knows that there’s a selfish side to human nature that emerges. In my mind, an important step from baby to toddler is when the child begins to show selfishness. About a month ago, I observed my 1-year-old actively trying to stop a friend from playing with toys, even ones he wasn’t playing with. When I saw this, I knew he was in a new phase of development, and so I needed to parent him differently, meaning I had to be very clear and consistent about what’s right and wrong and not allow him to do things that aren’t allowed (cute as they may be!).
TrainingLooking back at history, it seems all cultures were concerned with this question of how to raise children up so they didn’t fall prey to their selfish desires, because they recognized that the innocent desires of childhood can become vices in adulthood if a moral foundation and impulse control aren’t well-established.
However, modern culture now seems have the opposite pull—our great material abundance has created many avenues of indulgence for children to get lost in, and the zeitgeist of modern parenting seems to be that we should make our kids feel happy. We seem to have forgotten that it is only through hardship that we have the chance to become our best selves.
In generations past, parents were strict with their children, and if done in the right way, being strict is what allows children to overcome their selfish nature.
By “right way,” I mean we must always have a spirit of respect and love toward our children, and when we’re strict with them, we should not be angry, harsh, or demean them in any way. To me, the right way to be strict is to know that fundamentally your child is a good person working toward becoming better, but children lack self-discipline and self-control, so as parents, we need to be their voice of reason and discipline—at least until their own inner voice is developed well enough take over. As adults, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience that what our parents told us or thought of us when we were young becomes our own inner voice—for better or worse—and so we should be conscious of what we tell our children about themselves and how we teach them to handle difficulties.
If we can give children an inner voice that’s kind, rational, and requires high standards of behavior, then we will have done a good job.
With young children, action precedes thought, and so right action leads to right thought and ultimately a right feeling in the heart. So a big part of what we can do as parents to keep our children’s hearts is to insist on right action. This training is of course easier when children are young, but it’s also possible with teenagers.
In the book “The Collapse of Parenting,” Leonard Sax writes about the importance of good behavior: “In reality, behavior influences identity, and eventually becomes identity. ... Your actions will, over time change your character. Parents used to teach these moral fundamentals but many no longer do.”
While I’ve not read this book in its entirety, I do recommend what I have read as offering an important a piece of knowledge in the parenting puzzle, and he has more experience with teenagers than I have, including one anecdote about a father who, in order to stop his teenage boys from drinking in his house, started giving them breathalyzer tests and calling the parents of drunk ones to pick them up. There was a zero alcohol policy in the house, and while other parents took the position that “kids are going to drink no matter what, so I’d rather they drink in my house,” what this family found was that kids still wanted to come hang out—many were relieved not to have to face the pressure to drink.
Sax also writes: “You don’t teach virtue by preaching virtue. You teach virtue by requiring virtuous behavior, so that virtuous behavior becomes a habit.”
To go further, it sets up a foundation on which you can later build sound reasoning and a clearer understanding of right and wrong. This is because when children are acting virtuously, they feel in harmony, inner and outer, so they can rationally understand that these actions equate to goodness. Because ultimately, while virtue is hard to earn, it feels wonderful in the heart when you have it.
Sax, more succinctly than I have, also speaks directly to your question about how to keep a child’s heart:
“The child expects to look up to the parent, to be instructed by the parent, indeed to be commanded by the parent. If the parent instead serves the child, then that relationship falls out of its natural balance. You will not earn your child’s love at all—and the more you try, the more pathetically unsuccessful you may be. I have seen precisely this dynamic play out at least a hundred times in my own medical practice over the past quarter century. The parent who puts the child’s wishes first may earn only the child’s contempt, not their love.
“But if you are not primarily concerned about winning your child’s love and affection and focus instead on your duties as a parent—teaching your child right from wrong and communicating what it means to be a responsible man or woman, a gentleman or a lady, within the constraints of the culture you are trying to inculcate and to share—then you may find that your child loves and respects you. When you are not looking for it.”
Perils of Modern Culture and Social MediaIt’s also very important to note that today’s culture in America is not like in the past. We’re in a cultural revolution, and there are very dangerous ideas being disseminated to children in schools, and through social media and popular entertainment. So as parents, we must really be on our guard. The way I see social media, it’s a giant experiment with human nature, and in the same way some may decide to refuse experimental medicine, parents are justified in refusing to allow their children to participate in online forums, or only with very close supervision (i.e. you have their passwords and check periodically).
So two last suggestions for helping our children keep their hearts pure and good are, number one, to share with them the spiritual and religious wisdom that guides you, if you are spiritual or religious, and number two, read good literature.
In “Books That Build Character,” the authors cite a few reasons why we should be reading to our children:
“First, because stories can create an emotional attachment to goodness, a desire to do the right thing. Second, because stories provide a wealth of good examples—the kind of examples that are often missing from a child’s day-to-day environment. Third, because stories familiarize youngsters with the codes of conduct they need to know. Finally because stories help to make sense out of life, help us to cast our own lives as stories. And unless this sense of meaning is acquired at an early age and reinforced as we grow older, there simply is no moral growth.”
I disagree with the final statement as an absolute; I have heard of prison reading programs that greatly reduce recidivism by giving inmates the opportunity to read good literature. Morality can be awakened later in life, but I think we can all agree it’s much better to start our children on the right path.
Another great example of the power of literature is from Rod Dreher, the author of “Live Not By Lies,” which looks at how soft totalitarianism has been encroaching on the West.
In an interview on The Epoch Times’ “American Thought Leaders” program, Dreher recounts the story of Václav and Kamila Benda, Catholics and leading dissidents against communism in Czechoslovakia. They had five children, all of whom had to attend communist-run schools, and all of whom grew up to be Catholics and dissidents like their parents.
Dreher says that the Benda parents used stories and movies to teach their children. He recalls speaking with Mrs. Benda about how she raised her children:
“I said, ‘Kamila, what did you do for these kids to help prepare them to love truth, and to love God and to resist, find courage? She said, ‘Well, I would read to them for two or three hours every day.’
“I said, ‘Every day?’ Because she taught college, too. She said, ‘Yeah, every day.’ Even when her husband Václav was in prison—he was a political prisoner for four years—she said, ‘I would read to them.’ I said, ‘What would you read?’
“She said, ‘I would read myths. I would read the classics of Western literature. And I read to them a lot of Tolkien, ”Lord of the Rings.”’ I said, ‘Tolkien, why Tolkien?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Because we knew that Mordor was real.’
“And I realized as she was telling me this, what a genius thing this was for her to have done, because these children, they couldn’t understand scientific materialism. They couldn’t understand Marxism or any of that, but they could understand what the Fellowship of the Ring was, they could understand what Mordor was.
“And they came to understand the movement that their parents were involved in, this dissident movement, as being analogous to the Fellowship of the Ring. So what she was able to do was to build their moral imaginations up to love truth, to love goodness, to love virtue, especially the virtue of courage, so that when they got older and could participate in the movement, that they would naturally step into that. It helped me to understand how important it is to do this prep work.
“You might say of helping keep cultural memory alive, because this is what they did. All of the dissidents, they knew that if they lost, if they allowed the communists to take away memory of what it meant to be a Czech or a Pole or a Slovak, to take that away from them, which they did by taking away the history and the culture, that they were lost.”
I take very seriously what culture is currently doing to children. I don’t think it’s so different from what happens to children under totalitarian regimes, and I take a lot of inspiration from this anecdote. Besides the classics, my literature recommendation would be the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve been reading this with my eldest, and there are great examples both for children and parents to follow. (Spoiler alert: The parents are strict and kind, and the children love and respect them very much).
And as a final piece of advice, let us not forget the power of beauty in music and fine art as well, to help children retain goodness in their hearts.