The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Parents Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development

Posted on June 25, 2009 at 8:00 am

Many thanks to Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, for giving me permission to post this thoughtful conversation about parents, children, and what does and does not work in teaching integrity, judgment, and compassion. I especially appreciate his insights into the way that loving and devoted parents sometimes unintentionally send mixed signals that undermine the messages we most want to communicate.

NOTE: A portion of this interview appeared first on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s website.

Tell us about the title of your book. Why should we be concerned about the well-intentioned parents?

We often focus on the small number of parents who have clearly lost their moral compass. But the problem is much larger. Lots of us, in ways that we tend not to be aware of, can imperil our kids’ moral development. Our research uncovered, for example, that many parents are narrowly focused on their children’s happiness and believe that happiness and self-esteem are at the root of morality. We may be the first generation of parents in history who hold that belief. We think that a child who feels good–and who feels good about herself–is more likely to be good. Historically, parents have thought that suffering, burdens, and sacrifices were an important basis of morality–that through suffering children learned empathy. And in many day-to-day ways, we as parents place our children’s happiness above their caring about others. We are too quick to let our kids write off friends they find annoying. We fail to insist that they return phone calls from friends, or give credit to other children for their achievements, or reach out to friendless children at the playground. Or we fail to interrupt our children when they talk too much when they’re around other kids or adults.

You explore in your book how the pressure to achieve can damage moral development. How so?

We’ve all heard stories about out-of-control parents driving their children to achieve. We interviewed the parents of one high school junior in a school outside New York City who had set up a vocational school in South America so that their daughter could write in her college application that she had started a school in a developing country. But the bigger problem is more subtle. Many of us have unacknowledged fears about our children not achieving at a high level. And because of these unrecognized fears, many of us are quietly organizing our children’s lives around achievement and sending inconsistent and hypocritical messages to our kids. The kids we interviewed talked about these hypocrisies. Kids would point out, for instance, that their parents would tell them they don’t care how much they achieve and then pay jaw-dropping amounts of money for SAT-prep courses. When parents tell teenagers to achieve at a high level so they “can have options,” teenagers sniff out that their parents are talking only about certain options–it’s not really okay for them to be beauticians or firefighters, for example. These hypocrisies undermine us as moral mentors. We should make achievement for our children one theme in the larger composition of a life, and we need to understand our own feelings better so we can have more authentic conversations with our children about their achievements.

You write that parenting should be more public. What do you mean by “public parenting”?

When it comes to what is arguably the most important thing we do–raising moral children–American parents tend to be isolated and dangerously insulated from the feedback of people who may see their parenting most clearly: other parents. Parents are reluctant to interfere in the lives of other families, even when they suspect a neighbor of actually abusing a child. (And of course the wrong kind of feedback can simply anger and humiliate another parent.) But what to do when a friend or sibling is clearly spoiling a child, or making him or her miserable by being crazed about the child’s achievement? In some countries it is routine for parents to give each other feedback. The challenge is to change the culture of parenting so this kind of feedback is expected and the norm. One way to change the culture is for us as parents to invite this feedback. Every parent should, for example, create a kind of “contract” with at least one other trusted parent outside the family–a promise to provide feedback if they are concerned about a parenting practice that might be harmful.

You have a hopeful message about adults’ moral development. What’s that message based on?

In the United States we tend to think that our moral qualities and values are fully formed as adults. Yet the reality is that every stage of adult life can bring new moral strengths and weaknesses, and that these changes have profound consequences for children’s moral growth. “There is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else,” the civil rights leader Whitney Young said. “The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.” Parenting can spur either great moral growth or regression–think of the large number of fathers who abandon their children. We send a smug and false message to our children when we suggest that morality simply arrives with adulthood and that all they have to do is imitate our moral qualities and values. If we parents work at it, we can greatly increase our own capacity for fairness, caring, and idealism, and our developing morality will be deeply interwoven with our children’s developing morality.

You talk about the perils of parents’ being too close to their children. Why is this risky?

On the whole, I think it’s great that more parents want to be close to their kids. What concerns me is that some parents, based on their own needs, come to idealize their kids and their relationships with their kids. I have talked to parents who find in their relationships with young children exactly what they have always craved: another human being who gives them undivided attention, who overlooks or easily forgives their flaws, who is entirely reliable and trustworthy–and they come to worship and depend on their kids for emotional sustenance. But this kind of idealization makes it hard for parents to discipline their kids, and for kids to idealize their parents. Yet children idealizing parents is key to children adopting parents’ values. Such parents also have a great deal of trouble separating from their kids in adolescence and nurturing their children’s independence, with damaging consequences for children’s emotional and moral development.

You write that too many parents act like therapists. What does that mean?

Parents sometimes try to safeguard children’s well-being by closely monitoring feelings and moods. Some parents may repeatedly ask their children how they are feeling or remark on their moods: “You must be feeling tired,” “That must be frustrating for you,” “That must make you sad.” We rightly want our children to be able to understand and articulate their feelings. But this kind of constant monitoring can cause children to dramatize their feelings, and they often find it intrusive and alienating. It’s like pulling a bandage off a wound every five minutes to see if it is healing. Some parents also play the roles of parent and therapist at the same time. They tell their five-year-old child, for example, that it’s time to leave the playground, and then try to discuss the child’s angry feelings. But it’s confusing for children when a parent is being both a parent (a legitimate object of anger) and a therapist (someone who is “naming” or analyzing the feelings of anger), and it can prevent children from working through their anger toward us.

You write about the “morally mature” sports parent. Why do you think many parents are immature, and what can be done about it?

While a great deal of media attention has been trained on reckless parents and coaches at children’s sporting events, many of us as parents and coaches, if we are honest with ourselves, get far too wrapped up in these events and fail to model for children a basic respect and responsibility for others. I remember realizing that whether my child’s hit slipped by the shortstop or was caught might affect my mood for days, and being furious at a perfectly innocent eight-year-old child who kept striking out my son and his teammates. Sports consultant Greg Dale coaches parents to be alert to other classic signs of their overinvestment, such as saying “we” won or lost the game, regularly occupying dinner conversations with talk about children’s sports or planning family vacations around sports events. Some of us get bent out of shape at these games, of course, because we are looking to our kids to fulfill our fantasies, or because of our competitive feelings toward other parents. But there are many other reasons.

Children’s sports can stir up old childhood wounds and yank us back to old childhood battles–peer and sibling rivalries, difficulties with authority, painful experiences of unfairness and mistreatment, struggles with shyness and self-assertion. For some adults who experience their lives as monotonous, children’s sports can provide an eventful, compelling plot, with their own child as a central character.

You explore the moral strengths of black children and immigrant children. What are those strengths, and how do they differ from those of other children?

In the book I make two main points about race and ethnicity. First, there are great differences in parenting practices, as well as in the obstacles children face to becoming good people, across race, economic class, and culture. It’s vital to understand those differences, because for too long we have tried to apply the same solutions, the same generic prescriptions, to markedly different problems. The challenges to becoming a good person are not the same, for example, in the tony white suburbs of New York as they are in low-income black neighborhoods in Chicago or the Mexican barrios of Los Angeles. Second, popular images and stereotypes have obscured the strong or exemplary moral qualities of many poor children and of immigrant and African-American children across economic classes. Immigrant kids, in their first years in this country, are faring better than American-born kids on almost every moral and academic measure. Immigrant kids are not a threat to American culture, as many people argue. American culture is a threat to immigrant kids. Our research also suggests that African-American kids have moral strengths that have been obscured by the stereotypes. Many white children describe black children as more honest, less hypocritical, more independent-minded, more willing to assert their views, and as less concerned about popularity than about respect in comparison with their peers. Parents across race and class have a great deal to learn from each other about raising moral children.

So what should we do to raise moral children?

Morality is comprised of many attributes–courage, honesty, kindness, a sense of justice, moral reasoning, etc.–and there are many different ways that adults can promote these qualities. We can model appropriate moral behavior, help our children register kindness and unkindness in the world around them, define clearly their responsibilities toward others, listen responsively to their moral dilemmas and questions, hold them to high moral standards, and develop in them from an early age the habit of attending to and caring about others. We can do much more to emphasize kindness rather than happiness–rather than telling our kids all the time that the most important thing is that they’re happy, it wouldn’t hurt to tell them that the most important thing is that they’re kind.

But if I could give just one piece of advice to adults, it would be to focus not on children’s happiness or self-esteem but on their maturity. Maturity, including the ability to manage destructive feelings, to balance and coordinate our needs with those of others, to receive feedback constructively, to be reflective and self-critical–to fairly and generously assess our behavior– is the basis of both morality and lasting well-being. It is these capacities that enable children and adults to appreciate others despite conflicts of interest and differences in perspective, to adhere to important principles and to engage in sturdy, meaningful relationships and endeavors that create lasting self-worth.

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