Edwin J. and Alice B. Delattre, book excerpts
Our children deserve to learn important lessons from us and to acquire important habits with our help. They need help in learning what matters to us. We want our children to grow up to be responsible adults. We want them to learn to feel, think, and act with respect for themselves and for other people. We want them to pursue their own well-being, while also being considerate of the needs and feelings of others.
Many parents will also want to share with their children deeply held religious and moral convictions as a foundation for ethical behavior. This booklet discusses habits of fairness, respect, courage, honesty, and compassion that responsible people share, and it can be used by parents with different beliefs.
As parents, we can give our children the best in us by helping them acquire habits and character traits that they can rely on in their own lives. If we help them learn to take pleasure in thinking and behaving well, they will have the best chance to lead good lives as individuals and as citizens in the community. This will be true no matter what unpleasant situations or bad influences they come across.
What do we mean by responsibility?
None of us is born acting responsibly. A responsible character is formed over time. It is made up of our outlook and daily habits associated with feelings, thoughts, and actions. Responsible people act the way they should whether or not anyone is watching. They do so because they understand that it’s a fight and because they have the courage and self-control to act decently, even when tempted to do otherwise.
We want our children to appreciate the importance of being responsible. We also want them to develop the habits and strength to act this way in their everyday lives. Learning to be responsible includes learning to:
Respect and compassion for others
As part of being responsible, children need to respect and show concern for the well-being of other people. Respect ranges from using basic manners to having compassion for the suffering of others. Compassion is developed by trying to see things from the point of view of others, and learning that their feelings resemble our own.
Respect for others also includes the habit of treating people fairly as individuals, regardless of race, sex, or ethnic group. As we mature, respect includes realizing that not all our obligations to others, such as caring for a family member who is sick, are chosen freely. And it includes tolerance for people who do not share our beliefs or likes or dislikes, as long as they do not harm others.
These habits are especially important because many of the wrongs people commit result from indifference to the suffering they cause.
Honesty means telling the truth. It means not misleading others for our own benefit. It also means trying to make decisions, especially important ones, on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. Honesty includes dealing with other people and being honest with ourselves.
To understand the importance of being truthful to others, our children need to learn that living together depends on trust. Without honesty, trusting each other becomes impossible.
Honesty with ourselves involves faring up to our own mistakes and biases, even when we have to admit them to others. It includes self-criticism. The point is to learn from our errors and to do our best to correct them, not to dwell on them.
Courage is taking a position and doing what is right, even at the risk of some loss. It means being neither reckless nor cowardly, but faring up to our duties. It includes physical courage, intellectual courage to make decisions on the basis of evidence, and moral courage to stand up for our principles.
Courage does not mean never being afraid. It can involve trying to overcome our fears, such as a fear of the dark. But our children also need to learn that sometimes it is all right to be afraid.
Courage becomes especially important by the time children become teenagers. They often have to stand up against peer pressure to do the wrong thing, such as using drugs.
Self-control is the ability to resist inappropriate behavior in order to act responsibly. It relates to all of the different aspects of responsibility mentioned so far, including respect and compassion for others, honesty, and courage. It involves persistence and sticking to long-term commitments. It also includes dealing effectively with emotions, such as anger, and developing patience.
People with self-respect take satisfaction in appropriate behavior and hard-won accomplishments. They don’t need to put others down or have a lot of money in order to respect themselves. People who respect themselves also view selfishness, loss of self-control, recklessness, cowardice, and dishonesty as wrong and unworthy of them. As they mature, if they have learned the lessons of responsibility, they will develop a good conscience to guide them.
In addition, people who respect themselves respect their own health and safety. Similarly, they are unwilling to be manipulated by others. Patience or tolerance does not mean allowing others to mistreat us.
While we help children have high standards for themselves, we also need to let them know that failure is no embarrassment when we have done our best. For example, losing a game when we have played our best, and our opponents have simply played better, is no disgrace.
How Can Parents Encourage Responsible Behavior?
Especially when they are young, children learn best about responsibility in concrete situations. What they do and what they witness have lasting effects. Most of the activities described in this book are for you and your child.
We are always teaching our children something by our words and actions. They learn from seeing. They learn from hearing. They learn from overhearing. They learn from us, from each other, from other adults, and by themselves.
All of us acquire habits by doing things over and over again, whether in learning to play a musical instrument, to pick up after ourselves, to play games and sports, or to share with others. The best way to encourage our children to become responsible is to act as responsibly as we can in their presence. We must genuinely try to be the sort of people we hope they will try to become.
We can show them by our words and by our actions that we respect others. We can show them our compassion and concern when others are suffering. They need to see our own self-control, courage, and honesty. They need to learn that we treat ourselves, as well as others, with respect, and that we always try to do our best. As they grow older, they should have the chance to learn why we live as we do.
As our children watch us daily, as we talk to them, encouraging their questions and trying to answer them thoughtfully, they begin to understand us—and we begin to understand them. Understanding each other well is the best way to teach our children respect for our ideals of good character.
Using literature and stories
Children learn about responsibility through many activities, including reading stories. They learn by identifying with individual characters or because the message from a favorite story strikes a particular chord. Children can be touched deeply by good literature, and they may ask to have things read to them again and again.
Children can learn all sorts of lessons from stories. They might learn about courage by reading about David standing up to Goliath. Or they might learn the value of persistence and effort from The Little Engine That Could.
When they are older, reading can help prepare children for the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. It is usually better for children to read a good book about such things as war, oppression, suicide, or deadly disease before seeing these things up close.
Developing Judgment and Thoughtfulness
Judgment on ethical issues is a practical matter. Children develop their capacity for judging what is a responsible act, just as they come to appreciate the meaning of responsibility, through practice. Especially when they are young, children need to see moral questions in terms that are meaningful to them.
We can also help our children develop good judgment by talking through complicated situations with them. One way is to help them understand the long-term consequences of different choices. If they tell us about a story they have read, we might ask them to imagine what the result might have been if a favorite character had acted differently.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know the difference between acting bravely and acting recklessly or how to balance duties when they conflict. As parents, we can help by making it clear, through what we do as well as what we say, that it is important in such situations to think carefully and honestly about what should be done, as well as to keep in mind how others will be affected by what we do.
Your child’s ability to reason about different issues, including ethical ones, will improve as your child matures. Just as reasoning can lead to a more thoughtful understanding of responsibility, or what actions to take in complicated situations, it may also become easier to rationalize selfish or reckless behavior. But if you have helped your young child develop strong habits of considering the welfare of others, honesty, courage, and admiration for worthy accomplishments, your child will have a solid foundation on which to build.
Just remember one thing: teaching our children about responsibility doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh or that we have to be grim. Our children should see that we can be serious about our principles, while still being able to play and have fun.
Excerpted from Helping Your Child Learn Responsible Behavior. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement. 1993