Raising Kids to be Decent in a Challenging World
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, June 2013
Our children are exposed to a range of attitudes and behaviors, some of which we hope they will absorb and emulate, and others we hope they will avoid like a plague. We can rise to the challenge and remind ourselves and our children that there are countless opportunities to behave decently in a world that sometimes "indecency." As a psychologist, educator, parent, grandparent, aunt, and friend to many children, we would be wise to begin with a basic realization: the most powerful examples of treating people and behaving decently are within our own families. Children learn by observing how the adults who are close to them behave, so it's important to be the kind of person you want your children to be.
To that end, we need to know our own values and live according to those values. When we do this, we are sending clear messages to our children about what is and is not appropriate. We are modeling our expectations of decent behavior as we consider the consequences on ourselves and others. This is particularly true when we demonstrate concern for others. Parental attempts to help children treat others well is invaluable so that our children's lives are connected to others in a positive way. Parents who are overly stressed and unavailable have a more difficult time reserving emotional energy for their children. Consequently they may be less patient or less available for their children which makes it more of a challenge for them to "behave decently."
It is helpful to reflect on and understand what "decent" means for you and your family and which behaviors convey decency. Among some of the words that come to mind may be respectful, compassionate, present, kind, charitable, supportive, patient, honest, and polite.
As parents, we can think about what happens within us when we make a conscious decision to behave decently and help our children as we share, in age appropriate ways, our "process" with them. When parents face a particularly challenging situation, maybe one that creates a moral dilemma, we can discuss both short and long term effects of behavior. This offers children options for problem-solving strategies when dealing with their own challenging situations.
Discussing the conduct of people you and your children read about in magazine and newspaper articles as well as the behavior of characters on TV, movies, or books, broadens your scope and offers opportunities that tell about ordinary people who do noble acts or overcome problems. And keep in mind that children love to hear stories about their parents' childhood and about relatives who set good examples.
Parents can also initiate discussions (mostly listening) about the ethical implications of news stories, such as politicians accepting bribes, celebrities' dubious behavior, or reports of mistreatment, or international clashes, as well as their own and their children's day-to-day experiences. Adults have a great opportunity to hear what children's perceptions are if we do not jump in to tell them what to think or do before hearing their perspectives of what they believe is going on and what they feel would be an appropriate way to handle the situation.
If we don't listen, they will likely stop talking to us. Even if we don't agree with what they say, keep in mind that to keep the conversation going, we need to validate at least some of what your child says. By doing this, you are keeping a bridge between you. Everyone appreciates being understood and having their feelings acknowledged.
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