Raising a Moral Child

In the era of the #metoo movement and rampant school shootings, the challenges of parenting can feel more complex than ever. Experts weigh in with advice on how to navigate these difficult times.

By Donna Bulseco

Just a few months into 2018, we have witnessed history: a march on our nation’s capital organized by the Parkland students, each one more determined than the next to enact change in the current gun laws. Others who came to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington D.C. spoke out with eloquence and authority as well, like Naomi Wadler from Virginia, there to represent African-American girls who were victims of gun violence. “My friends and I might be 11, but we know what’s right and wrong,” said Wadler, emphatically. That poise inspired us to listen attentively and applaud the call for change, and consider how we, as parents, can raise our children to care in this same principled and passionate way. Especially now, in our era of #metoo revelations and the gun debate, we seek strategies to teach our kids morality and kindness.

Writer Isabel Gonzalez-Whitaker has been wrestling with how to discuss the new normal with her son Beck, 5. Having just moved with her family from New York City to Memphis, “we now live in a state where there’s a different dialogue about guns,” says Gonzalez-Whitaker, a freelance journalist. She sorts out her concerns by talking it through with others and “cultivating a community of people who do parenting well,” an effective way, say psychologists, to understand your own motivations and feelings about raising children. These talks give her the emotional grounding to be “measured and specific” in her language when she speaks with Beck, saying, for example, “This [Nerf gun] is a toy, you play with it here, but if you see a gun, you never touch it and you find an adult.” She also does her due diligence before playdates, calling parents to ask frankly whether it’s a household with guns and if the guns are locked up. Her questions have been “received with understanding.”

Child psychologists agree that the fever pitch of our social climate is a lot to handle. “It is a real challenge for parents, when they themselves are afraid they cannot keep their children safe in school,” says Michael G. Thompson, who co-authored the groundbreaking book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Yet he and others believe that we, as parents, also hold the power to sort things out with our kids, and the way we go about it can have a positive impact on their moral development.

“Parents need to have conversations with their children and give them an age-appropriate description of how it might affect them,” says Vasco M. Lopes, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. That process starts with thinking about what to say. “Explanations should be brief and at the level of the child,” stresses Alan E. Kazdin, Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University. Too much explaining, he says, especially with young children, can cause stress.

We also need to take our own emotional temperature. “The most important thing parents can do is to calm their own fears, to not get overwhelmed with anxiety, and to convey to a child in a matter-of-fact way they are doing everything possible to keep the child safe,” says Thompson. Having a dialogue about these difficult issues is one of the strongest positive messages emerging in the wake of the Parkland shooting and the March for Our Lives demonstrations across the country.

This is also true, say parents, of the revelations of sexual misconduct in the #metoo movement: “[Current events] have been helpful in a strange way because they allow a dialogue to happen with my sons,” says Lindsay Marx, who is a co-producer with singer Sasha Lazard (also a parent of boys) of a series and podcast in development about teaching manners to young boys, entitled “Aunt Pearie’s Charm School.”

Current events also deepened their project about teaching manners and civility. “We started working on it before the shooting, before the election, before #metoo,” says Lazard. “But this need to instill values became really essential.” Manners, adds Marx, “are the portal for more meaningful things. You start with being respectful and making the effort—looking people in the eye, asking them how they are—and it reflects what you value—kindness, honesty and making a respectful connection with people.”

So how do we engender in our children that respectful relationship with others? For younger ones, Yale’s Alan Kazdin suggests a way of approaching difficult subjects through a kind of problem-solving that is proactive: You present situations to a child and then work through what the appropriate responses would be—and what might be inappropriate. “Then you agree on one response, and you get up out of your seat and you practice that—someone saying this and someone saying the correct response you want to develop,” says Kazdin. “That actually changes human behavior—and it’s a matter of practice, not talking about it.”

A different dialogue between parents and teenagers is crucial to moral development, stresses Kazdin. When the conversation turns to difficult topics, “you sit with them and you talk about compromise, negotiation, and problem-solving,” he says. “You say, ‘What do you think would be a good way to do this? Here’s my view, what’s yours?’” And as much as you’d like to instruct your children on how to act, it’s essential to sit there and really listen. “One of the weakest ways of changing behavior is explanations, information and reasoning,” says Kazdin. “Telling doesn’t work” with any child; it’s especially misguided when it comes to teenagers.

It’s also important to live and model the values you want your children to have. “When it comes to a child’s understanding of harassment, the message is most powerful when it comes from within the culture of the institutions they are a part of,” says Vasco Lopes. “Adults should model the importance of respecting one another, understanding what respectful and harassing interactions look like, and how to speak up when you or someone around you is being harassed.”

Being accountable, according to experts—knowing where your children are, making the hard calls to other parents, asking your children what they think and really listening to them—becomes a key for change.

“Parents who are just waiting to bring the commandments down from the mountain and tell their adolescents what they know will see a backlash,” says Kazdin. “Modeling, explanation and acting out situations that represent the right way to respond, done together, are a lot more constructive.”

Where to turn for more insightful parenting advice:

“Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing” is a free online course offered by Alan E. Kazdin on his informative website, which also lists other helpful resources as well as blogs on topics such as “Challenges of the Internet and Social Media for Parents” and “My Child Lies. What Can I Do About It?” alankazdin.com

One of the most popular podcasts is “Parenting Great Kids with Dr. Meg Meeker,” (megmeekermd.com/podcasts), whose website also includes online courses, challenges, books and tool kits that provide interactive ways to engage with lessons about raising children. megmeekermd.com

Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How To Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes is a book by University of Kentucky psychology professor Christia Spears Brown (drchristiabrown.com), who does an insightful similarly titled blogpost that addresses current events of interest to parents entitled “Beyond Pink and Blue: Raising Children With Science Instead of Stereotypes” on Psychology Today’s website. (psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-pink-and-blue)

Listen to the interview with psychologist Michael Thompson when he talks about “Teaching Young Men a Culture of Consent” on Radio Boston (wbur.org/radioboston/2016/06/08/men-culture-consent). Also useful: His “Advice” column on his website that serves as a Q&A on a variety of topics (michaelthompson-phd.com).

Many colleges and universities list local resources that can be helpful to parents. Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry’s website (childadolescentpsych.cumc.columbia.edu/families/clinics-doctors-programs/caring-columbia), for example, offers a referral line, guides to finding a doctor and information about support groups.

On manners: One of the classic books on etiquette, Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers by Walter Hoving is a good place to start (amazon.com/Tiffanys-Manners-Teenagers-Walter-Hoving/dp/0394828771); Sasha Lazard and Lindsay Marx recommend Princely Advice For a Happy Life, written by prince and photographer Alexi Lubomirski for his sons. (amazon.com/Princely-Advice-Happy-Prince-Lubomirski/dp/1449470807)