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The Parents We Mean to Be

Rick WeissbourdLecturer Richard Weissbourd's latest book, released this week, will likely catch parents' attention. In The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development, Weissbourd examines how, despite parents' best efforts to do what's best for their children, something is still missing. When parents are spending a considerable amount of time and money focusing on their children's happiness, success, and well-being, can they potentially be causing more harm than good?

Q. Why should we be concerned about well-intentioned parents?
A: We often focus on the small number of parents who have clearly lost their moral compasses. 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.

Q. How can the pressure to achieve damage moral development?
A: 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.

Q: Why do you think it is risky for parents to be too close to their children?
A: 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.

Q: What should we do to raise moral children?
A: 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.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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