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Excerpt: 'The Parents We Mean To Be'


For many years, as a psychologist and a parent, I have kept my ear tuned to the latest wisdom parents receive about how to raise children who will become caring, strong, and responsible people. I have combed popular articles, tracked politicians' ideas, gathered advice from talk show experts.

The basic messages are predictable: single parenthood, peer pressure, and popular culture are destroying our children's moral foundations. Parents and other adults are failing as role models and neglecting to teach children basic moral values and standards. Kids need to know right from wrong. According to a major survey by the organization Public Agenda, more than six in ten American adults identified "as a very serious problem" young people's failure to learn fundamental moral values, including honesty, respect, and responsibility for others.

There is, to be sure, some truth in these explanations for children's moral troubles. I have seen the powerful influence of peer pressure on my own kids, and my wife and I certainly try to limit their exposure to aspects of popular culture that seem designed to obliterate every particle of their humanity. Children need constructive role models who teach right from wrong.

But for anyone who is willing to enter children's worlds and look hard at what shapes their development, there is much about these explanations that is mystifying, if not deeply unsettling. At best they miss the point; at worst they are a kind of massive cover-up and cop-out. Blaming peers and popular culture lets adults off the hook-- and dangerously so. It dodges a fundamental truth that is supported by a mountain of research. Children's moral development is decided by many factors, including not only media and peer influences but their genetic endowment, birth order, gender, and how these different factors interact. Yet we are the primary influence on children's moral lives. The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles.

While there's nothing wrong with exhorting adults to be better role models and to teach values, this by itself does nothing to help people actually be and do these things. I don't know any adult who became a better role model simply by being told to be one. Nor do these exhortations reach the heart of what it is to be a person who is an effective parent, a true moral mentor.

What I am acutely aware matters most as a parent is not whether my wife and I are "perfect" role models or how much we talk about values, but the hundreds of ways — as living, breathing, imperfect human beings-- we influence our children in the complex, messy relationships we have with them day to day.

This knowledge came to me gradually in the first years of my children's lives, but there was one specific afternoon when it struck me most sharply. Sunday afternoons were sacrosanct, reserved for family outings. My three kids are three years apart, and it was often hard to find something that was fun for every one.

One blustery, sunny Sunday, we went to a park near the ocean. My oldest son, then about seven years old, was withdrawn and seemed listless. The park was not his favorite place. My week had been stressful, and I'd been looking forward to this outing. I lashed out at him for sulking. We had done what he'd wanted to do the Sunday before, I reminded him, and I expected him to rally, to cheerfully participate. It also seemed to me that this was an opportunity to reinforce a basic notion of reciprocity.

My wife certainly agreed with me that our son should be expected to engage in activities for the sake of the family. But, she pointed out, he seemed more tired than unhappy, and she reminded me that I, too, could seem less than enthusiastic during family activities I didn't enjoy. She added, gently, that perhaps I should rethink whether the real issue in this case was teaching my son a moral standard. Instead, maybe I'd gotten angry because I'd been expecting this family event to pull me out of my own bad mood.

After some grumbling, I came to see that my wife was right. I apologized to my son and explained to him that I had had a rough week. But what dawned on me suddenly was that under the guise of teaching my son a principle, I had made it harder for him to care about how I thought or felt, more self-protective, and perhaps a little less willing to pitch in for the family. What also hit me was that while this single event wouldn't do lasting damage, many times a week we had interactions with our kids in which my wife and I succeeded-- or failed-- in disentangling and balancing our needs and theirs and in enabling them to take other perspectives, and that these interactions, cumulatively, defined their notion of what a relationship is and powerfully shaped their capacity for caring, respectful relationships. Our children's moral qualities were also shaped day to day by what we registered, or failed to acknowledge, in the world around us, and what we asked them to register-- whether we let them treat a store clerk as invisible, or commented when a child in a playground had been treated unfairly, or pointed out to them a neighbor's good deed. We were, too, constantly affecting their moral abilities by how we de fined their responsibilities for others, and by whether we insisted that those responsibilities be met. Our effectiveness as moral mentors has hinged, most basically, on whether we have earned our children's respect and trust by, among many things, admitting our errors and explaining our decisions to them in ways that they see as fair. It was these day- to- day details of our relationship with our children-- far more than our talk about values-- that formed their moral core.

What has clearly been hardest for my wife and me-- and for every parent we know-- is being vigilant about these things when we have been stressed or depleted or outright depressed. There are "strategies" that can help us with our children during these critical moments, to be sure. But what is fundamentally being challenged at these times are our moral qualities and maturity-- including our ability to manage our flaws-- qualities that can't be feigned. The reason many children in this country continually lack vital moral qualities is that we have failed to come to grips with the fundamental reality that we bring our selves to the project of raising a moral child. That makes being a parent or mentor a profound moral test, and learning to raise children well a profound moral achievement.

This book offers, then, a very different view of moral development than the ideas currently dominating the airwaves. It is a view gleaned over the past several years from my own experiences as a parent, from informal conversations with parents, observations of families, from interviews that I, along with my research team, have conducted with scores of children and adults-- parents, teachers, sports coaches-- as well as from a survey of about 200 children.

Much of what we found was heartening. Many parents care deeply about their children's moral qualities, and we uncovered a wide variety of effective parenting practices across race, ethnicity, and class. This book takes up key, illuminating variations in these practices.

Yet we also found much that is troubling. Some adults hold misguided beliefs about raising moral children, and some parents have little investment in their children's character. And the bigger problem is more subtle: a wide array of parents and other adults are unintentionally-- in largely unconscious ways-- undermining the development of critical moral qualities in children.

This book reveals this largely hidden psychological landscape-- the unexamined ways that parents, teachers, sports coaches, and other mentors truly shape moral and emotional development. It explores, for example, the subtle ways that adults can put their own happiness first or put their children's happiness above all else, imperiling both children's ability to care about others and, ironically, their happiness. It shows not only how achievement- obsessed parents can damage children, but also how many of us as parents have unacknowledged fears about our children's achievements that can erode our influence as moral mentors and diminish children's capacity to invest in others. It explores why a positive parent instinct that is suddenly widespread-- the desire to be closer to children-- can have great moral benefits to children in certain circumstances but can cause parents to confuse their needs with children's, jeopardizing children's moral growth. It reveals how the most intense, invested parents can end up subtly shaming their children and eroding their moral qualities, and it shows the hidden ways that parents and college mentors can undermine young people's idealism.

At the same time, this book describes inspiring parents, teachers, and coaches who avoid these pitfalls, as well as concrete strategies for raising moral and happy children. And it makes the case that parents and other adults have great potential for moral growth. Moral development is a lifelong project. Parenting can either cause us to regress or cultivate in us new, powerful capacities for caring, fairness, and idealism, with large consequences for our children. What is often exciting about parenting is not only the unveiling of our children's moral and emotional capacities, but the unveiling of our own.

Finally, this book seeks to shift attention away from our heavy focus on teaching values, toward other, more effective approaches. One problem with the values approach be comes instantly clear when talking to children as young as six years old: the great majority of children are quite articulate about values and standards and many see as patronizing the perception that they lack them. Research reveals that even children as young as three and four years old often know that stealing is wrong, even without being explicitly told by adults.

That's not to say-- and this can't be shouted loudly enough-- that children do not have a problem with values. But the problem is different: it is actually living by values, such as fairness, caring, and responsibility, day to day. Sixteen-year-old Bill Heron knows that he laughed too hard and too long when a friend put a fart machine under the desk of a new girl in class, but he didn't want to "spoil the joke" for every one. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Hamlin knows that she should reach out to a new kid at school, but she "gets too busy." Ten-year-old Juan Maltez knows that teasing can be hurtful, but he believes that if he stops teasing, he'll be tagged a loser: "I'll slide right into the sea of dorks." As a quite direct sixteen-year-old said to me: "I'm taking this class where they're trying to help us figure out how to determine what's right from wrong. But the kids at my school all know right from wrong. That's not the problem. The problem is that some kids just don't give a shit."

These children don't need us to define the goal. That's easy. The challenges for us are much harder and deeper. One of them is to help children deal with the emotions, such as the fear of being a pariah or a "loser," that cause them to transgress. Emotions are often the runaway bus; values, the driver desperately gripping the wheel.

A second critical challenge is to help children develop a deep, abiding commitment to these values, a commitment that can override other needs and goals. The issue isn't moral literacy; it's moral motivation. There is one capacity in particular that is at the heart of such motivation-- appreciation, the capacity to know and value others, including those different in background and perspective. Appreciation brakes destructive impulses-- there is no more powerful deterrent to lying, stealing, or tormenting those who are different-- and inspires caring, responsibility, and generosity. This book will provide a kind of map for parents for developing in children this vital quality.

A third challenge is to develop in children a strong sense of self-- so that they can withstand adversity in the ser vice of moral goals-- and to ingrain in children from early ages the habits of attending to and caring for others. The self-sacrificing acts of Europeans who rescued Jews from the Nazis in World War II, research by Samuel and Pearl Oliner suggests, were not matters of deliberation. They were acts that emerged from these individuals' basic self- concepts and dispositions. As one rescuer puts it: "I insist on saying that it was absolutely natural to have done this [rescuing]. You don't have to glorify yourself-- considering that we are all children of God and that it is impossible to distinguish between one human and another." It is possible to weave values such as responsibility into children's sense of self from an early age, to make caring for others as reflexive as breathing.

In all these ways, then, this book seeks to generate a new conversation about how to raise moral children. Especially as children become adolescents, it may seem impossible to shield them from crass media images or the strong pull of morally mindless peer groups. Yet in the end, if we are determined, self-reflective, and open to counsel from our loved ones, we can both create in our children a strong moral core early in childhood and be strong guides for them in navigating the troubles of adolescence and young adulthood. This book is about how.

What are the real sources of our children's morality? How, concretely, can we develop appreciation in children and shape the critical emotions underlying morality? How can we cultivate our own moral and mentoring abilities and better direct the many hidden currents that are shaping our children's moral and emotional lives?

Excerpted from THE PARENTS WE MEAN TO BE by Richard Weissbourd. Copyright (c) 2009 by Richard Weissbourd. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Richard Weissbourd