What Parents Can Do


If parents are really serious about loving their children (and having others love them), the sensible course of action is to bring up lovable children.

An acquaintance of mine, a well-educated man from another country, told me that the most shocking aspect of the culture shock involved in moving to America was to discover how badly behaved American children are. He said that this was also the reaction of the other transplanted parents he knows. Since this man had moved not to some gang-ridden region of the inner city but to a wealthy suburb with a reputation for having one of the nation's best public school systems, his observation merits some consideration. Moreover, since he happens to be a practicing psychiatrist with a thorough knowledge of child development, his judgment can hardly be dismissed as an example of outdated, Old World thinking.

His is not an uncommon experience. Even A. S. Neill, the founder of the English school Summerhill, and one of the world's foremost proponents of “natural education,” was appalled at the behavior countenanced by his American disciples. He particularly didn't like the fact that children were allowed to continually interrupt adult conversations. Neill concluded that Americans didn't really understand what he meant by freedom.

One would expect that unpleasant behavior on the part of children might eventually provoke a hostile reaction on the part of adults. And indeed, this seems to be the case. There are mounting indications that Americans don't like children — at least, not nearly as much as they once did. One leading indication was the response to an Ann Landers column in the mid-seventies. She asked readers: If you had to do it over again, would you have children? Seventy percent of the 10,000 respondents wrote that they would not. This revelation was followed by a number of books and articles devoted to the same theme. I remember one article with the title “Do Americans Like Kids?” The gist of these books and articles was that parents were too stressed to pay much attention to their children; either that, or they were too absorbed in the pursuit of their own individual fulfillment. According to these accounts, children were increasingly seen as an inconvenience. Some authors suggested that this antipathy was symbolically represented by a spate of Hollywood films that depicted children as demonic.

The situation seems no better now. The April 6, 1990, issue of the Wall Street Journal reported that on the average, American parents spend less than fifteen minutes a week in serious discussion with their children. For fathers the amount of intimate contact with their children is an average of seventeen seconds per day. And whereas strangers would once make favorable comments about children in the company of their parents, nowadays they are just as likely to glare unapprovingly or make disparaging remarks — at least, that is the testimony I have heard from a number of parents.

The simple explanation for this aversion is that children and adolescents are increasingly disrespectful and disobedient to adults. One reaction, especially toward older children, is the “to-hell-with-them” attitude expressed in the bumper sticker slogan “I'm spending my children's inheritance.” The other reaction is to shun the company of children. The increasing number of children in day care may be one manifestation of this shunning. For many, of course, day care is an economic necessity, but for many others there is another motivation. As Mary Pride, the author of a book on child rearing, points out, “One of the biggest reasons that mothers today are so anxious to get a job is simply in order to get away from the children. If I had a dime for every mother with a child in day-care who went to work 'to get out of the house,' I could buy Wyoming.” “Why are grown women incapable of bearing the society of their own children for more than a few hours a day?” asks Pride:

The reason, of course, is that the children are no fun to be around. Misbehaving, bothersome children would wear anyone down. The prospect of facing all that hooting and hullaballooing alone for eighteen years is frightening.

What's the point of making these observations? I mention them because I think they help to bring perspective not only to our discussion of moral education but also to the discussion of child rearing in general. Child-rearing experts never cease to remind us that love is the central ingredient in raising children. And of course, they are right. But what also needs to be acknowledged by the experts is something they rarely say: it's easier to love children who are lovable. And all things considered, better-behaved children are more lovable than badly behaved children. Of course, we still love our children when they are nasty, whiny, disobedient, disrespectful, and selfish. But if that becomes their habitual behavior, the love of even the best parents begins to wear thin. By contrast, children who are obedient, respectful, and considerate have our love not only because it is our duty to love them but because it is a delight.

If parents are really serious about loving their children (and having others love them), the sensible course of action is to bring up lovable children. One of the most important things parents can do in this regard is to help their children acquire character. To do so has mutual benefits: it makes life easier for parents, but it also makes life easier for children. Well-behaved children are happier children, and they grow into a happier adulthood. Aristotle, who had a very practical cast of mind, recommended virtue not because it was a duty but because it was the surest route to happiness (which he considered the chief good and purpose of life). Many of the arguments in his Nicomachean Ethics (named after his son, Nicomachus) and Politics build the case that happiness and virtue are inextricable, and that true happiness cannot exist without virtue. For Aristotle a happiness based on virtue can never be taken away, whereas happiness based on other things (money, health, love) is always subject to the whim of fate.

Most parents want their children to be honest, reliable, fair, self-controlled, and respectful. They know these virtues are good in themselves, and also good for their children. What prevents them from taking strong action to encourage the development of such traits?

Part of the answer lies in the influence of powerful myths, some old and some new, which dominate our thinking about child raising:

- The myth of the “good bad boy.” American literature and film loves to portray “bad” boys as essentially lovable and happy. Tom Sawyer and Buster Brown are examples from the past; the various lovable brats featured in film and television are contemporary examples. This strand in the American tradition has such a powerful hold on the imagination that the word “obedience” is very nearly a dirty word in the American vocabulary. The myth of the good bad boy is connected to . . .

- The myth of natural goodness. This is the Rousseauian idea that virtue will take care of itself if children are just allowed to grow in their own way. All that parents need to do is “love” their children — love, in this case, meaning noninterference.

- The myth of expert knowledge. In recent decades parents have deferred to professional authority in the matter of raising their children. Unfortunately, the vast majority of child-rearing experts subscribe to the myth of natural goodness mentioned above. So much emphasis has been placed on the unique, creative, and spontaneous nature of children that parents have come to feel that child rearing means adjusting themselves to their children, rather than having children learn to adjust to the requirements of family life.

- The myth that moral problems are psychological problems. This myth is connected to all of the above. In this view, behavior problems are seen as problems in self-esteem or as the result of unmet psychological needs. The old-fashioned idea that most behavior problems are the result of sheer “willfulness” on the part of children doesn't occur to the average child expert. If you look in the index of a typical child-rearing book, you will find that a great many pages are devoted to “self-esteem,” but you are not likely to find the word “character” anywhere. It is not part of the vocabulary of most child professionals. For some historical perspective, it's worth noting that a study of child-rearing articles in Ladies' Home Journal, Women's Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping for the years 1890, 1900, and 1910 found that one third of them were about character development.

- The myth that parents don't have the right to instill their values in their children. Once again, the standard dogma here is that children must create their own values. But of course, children have precious little chance to do that, since the rest of the culture has no qualms about imposing values. Does it make sense for parents to remain neutral bystanders when everyone else — from scriptwriters, to entertainers, to advertisers, to sex educators — insists on selling their values to children?

This is not to suggest that the problem is simply one of sweeping away myths and illusions. Character formation is a difficult task even when we have a clear picture of what it entails. In addition, our society has a special structural problem that makes the job even more difficult. The problem is divorce — up 700 percent in this century, with most of the rise occurring in recent decades. Obviously, the advice that parents should stay together comes too late for many, but it needs to be stated anyway: the best setting for raising good children is in a two-parent family. We now have an unmistakably clear picture of the effects on children of parental absence. Raising children out of wedlock is a formula for disaster. So, very often, is divorce. There now exists a vast body of research on divorce and parental absence, and it all points in the same direction: children from single-parent homes are more at risk than other children for drug use, delinquency, emotional problems, and unwanted pregnancies.

They also appear to be more confused about right and wrong. Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a California psychologist who has been studying children of divorce since 1971, notes: “Children felt that their conscience had been weakened by their disenchantment with the parents' behavior, and with the departure of the very parent who had more often than not acted as their moral authority.” Moreover, “the shaky family structure of the newly divorced family and the loosened discipline of the transition period combined with parental self-absorption or distress to diminish the available controls.” On a more profound level divorce seems to shake the child's confidence in the existence of a morally ordered, meaningful world. Some psychologists have even concluded that the pain of parental divorce is more difficult for a child to overcome than the death of a parent.

One of the surest routes for bringing morality back to this society is to bring back marriage. As Mae West said, in a somewhat different context, “A man in the home is worth two in the street.” He's worth a lot more than that in terms of raising disciplined and well-behaved children. His influence on his sons will be particularly marked. Boys whose fathers are present in the home are significantly less involved with drugs and delinquency, more self-controlled, more successful academically. Daughters too benefit when a father is present in the home. They have fewer emotional problems, are more immune to self-destructive behaviors, and are more likely to postpone sex. All this is widely documented. Also well documented is the fact that single mothers have extreme difficulty in controlling adolescent sons. This is not to detract from all that a mother does but to suggest how difficult it is to do the job alone.

However, just as the available research on the adverse effects of smoking was ignored for years, so was the large body of knowledge about the effects of single parenting. As Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi, Jr., observes, “We refuse to accept findings that demand a radical change in our lifestyle.” Even today one hears arguments that single-parent homes work as well as two-parent families. In a 1989 Time interview, Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, stated, “I don't think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family .... Two parents can't raise a child any more than one . . . . The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn't work. It doesn't work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging on to it, I don't know.”

It is possible, as Morrison says, for a woman to raise a family on her own and to do a good job of it. Many women do — although most do it out of necessity rather than conviction. But it is one thing to recognize that something can be done, and another thing to recommend it. Many people are capable of working two eight hour shifts each day, but it doesn't follow that this is a preferable alternative to holding one job. Women who are thinking of having children should think twice about Morrison's belief that “two parents can't raise a child any more than one.” A better course of action for our society, one suggested by James Dobson and Gary Bauer in their book Children at Risk, is to restore the idea of the “good family man,” the man who puts his family first and takes a hand in their moral education: “Fathers must be there to tame adolescent boys, to give a young son a sense of what it means to be a man, and to explain why honor and loyalty and fidelity are important. For daughters, a father is a source of love and comfort that can help her avoid surrendering her virtue in a fruitless search for love through premarital sex.” What Dobson and Bauer recommend does not have the fashionable ring of Morrison's statement. Even so, it is their assessment, not Morrison's, that most closely fits the hard data about homes without fathers. One startling statistic which gives the lie to the notion that any family formation is as good as any other is the repeated finding that children are five to six times more likely to be sexually abused by a stepparent or boyfriend of the mother than by the natural father. A Canadian study published in the Journal of Ethology and Sociobiology reports that a preschool child living with a stepparent is forty times more likely to be abused than a child living with his or her biological father.

No matter what their marital situation, however, parents need to be working toward the creation of what Louis Sullivan, the secretary of health and human services, calls a “culture of character.” As Sullivan says, “A new culture of character in America, nurtured by strengthened families and communities, would do much to alleviate the alienation, isolation and despair that fuel teen pregnancy, violence, drug and alcohol abuse and other social problems afflicting us.” Sullivan points out that “study after study has shown that children who are raised in an environment of strong values tend to thrive in every sense.”

But while working toward that goal, parents have to be realistic about the present situation. Parents cannot, as they once did, rely on the culture to reinforce home values. In fact, they can expect that many of the cultural forces influencing their children will be actively undermining those values. Sometimes, unfortunately, this even applies to the schools.

It doesn't make sense for parents to work at creating one type of moral environment at home, and then send their children to a school that teaches a different set of values. Families concerned to instruct their children in virtue and character cannot rely on schools to do likewise. As we have seen, many schools have adopted theories and methods that are inimical to family values. Indeed, some educational theorists seem to proceed on the assumption that parents and families hardly matter. John Dewey, still considered America's chief philosopher of education, conspicuously omitted any mention of home or family in his otherwise exhaustive Democracy and Education. Dewey's omission is now reflected in the classroom. Paul Vitz's 1983 study of elementary school textbooks concluded that “traditional family values have been systematically excluded from children's textbooks.” Philosopher Michael Levin of New York University goes further by describing current public school textbooks as having “a decided animus against motherhood and the family.” The attitude of many educators is that parents are hopelessly out of date. Thus Princeton sociologist Norman Ryder approvingly observes that “education of the junior generation is a subversive influence,” and identifies the public school as “the chief instrument for teaching citizenship, in a direct appeal to the children over the heads of their parents.

Enough has been said in previous chapters about public school sex education programs, “lifestyle” curriculums, and Values Clarification courses to suggest that they reflect a commitment to moral relativism and a rejection of traditional values. Some public schools have rid themselves of such programs, and others are now beginning to institute programs in character education. Nevertheless, parents who are not interested in having their children learn the lifestyle-of-the-month cannot assume that their concerns are shared by the average public school. They will need to make some inquiries.

Often a visit to the school will be sufficiently instructive. The behavior of students in the classrooms and corridors is a good indication of a school's basic philosophy. When a school values order, discipline, and learning and expects students to value these qualities, the results are tangible. One does not have to be a trained sociologist to get an accurate impression of the school ethos.

But clean corridors, smiling students, and enthusiastic teachers do not always tell the whole story. It is wise to check further. For example, it is legitimate for parents to ask about curriculums in values, in sex education, in social studies, in home economics (not what it used to be), and in health science (units of which may turn out to be neither scientific nor healthy for your child). It is legitimate to ask to see classroom materials. As a parent you should realize that teachers and administrators are busy people, and you should be willing to work around their schedules. However, if you do that and still meet nothing but resistance and evasion, it's a sign that something is amiss. Parents should also be prepared to translate educational jargon. Educational language is designed to give comfort and reassurance, and is almost always upbeat. But parents need to understand what the terms actually mean. The repeated use of such code words as “values,” “value-neutral,” “holistic,” “humanistic,” “decision making,” “awareness of their sexuality,” and “responsible sex” is a good indication that the school has no real commitment to character formation. (Parents can also observe how teachers and principals react to words such as “character,” “virtue,” and “abstinence.” ).

Parents who aren't satisfied with what they find have one of two options. They can combine with other parents in an attempt to influence the school in the direction of character education, or they can look for another school. The first option is feasible in some situations: very often school personnel have the same reservations as parents about certain programs, and they will welcome information about better approaches. Parents should familiarize themselves with successful programs and be ready to provide sample materials as well as data on program effectiveness. Statistics can be persuasive. For example, a survey of schools using materials developed by the American Institute for Character Education found that 77 percent reported a decline in discipline problems, 64 percent a decrease in vandalism, and 68 percent an increase in school attendance.

In the case of a school or school system with a strong ideological commitment to “humanistic” or rational utopian education, however, the first option entails a long, difficult struggle. The second option is one that an increasing number of parents are pursuing. An article in the December 9, 1991, U.S. News & World Report entitled “The Flight from Public Schools” claims that “the nation's faith in its public schools is fading fast.” Some families are abandoning public schools because they view them as educationally ineffective, some because they consider them dangerous, and some because they are seeking more traditional forms of moral or religious education.

What are the alternatives to public education?

- Private schools. The existence of private preparatory schools makes it possible for parents to choose a school with a philosophy and tradition in keeping with their own. In addition, some private schools offer another alternative which some parents may consider to be in the best interest of their children — the opportunity to attend a single-sex school. The private school option is, however, an expensive one and beyond the reach of most families.

- Religious schools. The number of private schools increased by nearly 30 percent during the 1980s, with most of the increase accounted for by Christian schools and academies. While many of these new schools are as yet untested, the results of Catholic religious education are well known. According to the US. News article, Catholic schools boast a rate of graduation of 95 percent versus 85 percent for public schools, and they send 83 percent of their graduates to college as opposed to 52 percent of public school graduates. What accounts for the success of Catholic schools? Paul Hill of the Rand Corporation explains it this way: “If a school says, `Here's what we are, what we stand for,' kids almost always respond to it by working hard. Catholic schools stand for something; public schools don't.”

- School choice. The idea of parental choice and voucher plans that would allow parents to pick among public schools or receive public funds for private or parochial schools has been gaining steam in recent years. Such plans are already being put into effect in some states. For parents in search of schools with a commitment to character education, the school choice movement offers cause for optimism.

- Home school. The number of students schooled at home jumped from 10,000 in 1970 to 300,000 in 1990. Home schoolers take seriously the adage that “parents are their children's first and most important teachers.” The advantage claimed by home schoolers is that parents can provide an education in keeping with their own religious and moral values, and at the same time supply more personal attention to their children's educational needs. Many good home school curriculums are currently on the market, but before getting started, parents should check with a local home school organization, since there are legal requirements for home schooling which vary from state to state.

- Up until recent decades, schools were considered to be acting in loco parentis — in the place of the parent (this principle even prevailed in many colleges in the recent past). The idea that the parent is the first and foremost teacher was taken seriously: teachers acted for the parents as trustees of children's education. The culture of the school and the culture of the home reinforced each other; both had similar goals and values. It was, in short, a very sensible arrangement. It meant that children were not exposed to sharply conflicting moralities before they learned basic morality. Instead, moral lessons were doubly reinforced. It is still possible to find or create this kind of moral continuity between home and school. It simply requires a great deal of work and determination.

What else can parents do? Perhaps the most important thing is to realize that families, even more than schools, need to create a moral ethos. “A family is a group of people,” according to the definition in one second-grade textbook cited in Professor Vitz's study of textbooks. But a family ought to be more than that. A family is part of the larger culture, but ideally, it is also a culture in itself. As the Puritan preacher William Gouge observed, “A family is a little church and a little commonwealth.” We might add that it is also a little school and, hopefully, a school of goodness. There are practical methods for promoting character formation, but the most practical is to create a culture of the home.

The word “culture” comes from the word “cultivation.” Both plants and people grow best when a good environment has been prepared for them. For the youngest and most tender plants the best environment is a greenhouse. It gives them a head start: upon being transplanted, such plants are larger, stronger, and more resilient to disease than other plants. Children need similar protection and nurturing for healthy moral development. “Then,” as it says in the Psalms, “our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants” (Psalms 144:12). The child brought up in a good home environment will be stronger, healthier, and more resistant to the various moral diseases circulating in the larger culture. This analogy, so plain to agricultural societies, is less obvious in industrial societies, where most people have little experience in growing things. We do, however, seem to retain some instinctive nostalgia for this “simpler” approach to child rearing. Perhaps this is the reason so many of our stories about wholesome family life are set on farms.

At a certain point, of course, the analogy between the gardener and the parent breaks down. The plant is passive; the child is active, a bundle of energy, intellect, and will. He needs to take an active role in his own development, and he needs to learn to set limits to his own behavior. Even so, children still need a lot of assistance; and the chief way for a parent to help is to encourage the development of good habits — habits that will someday turn into virtues.

The first way to develop good habits is through good discipline. When Jeane Westin, the author of The Coming Parent Revolution, asked parents of grown or nearly grown children what they would do differently, the most frequent response was “increased discipline.” These parents felt themselves victims of parenting advice that put a premium on “understanding” children and “relating” to them. As a result of such advice, many of these mothers and fathers had “understood” themselves into immobility. Unable to set limits, they found themselves accepting their children's most outrageous demands and behaviors. They were acting on the assumption that discipline must come from within the child. The problem, as Westin points out, is that children never learn to discipline themselves unless parents start them on that road.

As uncomfortable as it is for our psychologized generation, parents who wish to raise well-behaved children must say no to actions that are harmful to their children. And getting his way when he shouldn't is considerably more harmful for a child than occasional frustrations of his desires. Christopher Lasch, author of Haven in a Heartless World, writes: “Without struggling with the ambivalent emotions aroused by the union of love and discipline in his parents, the child never masters his inner rage or his fear of authority. It is for that reason that children need parents, not professional nurses and counselors.” This view is corroborated by research into family patterns conducted by Dr. Diana Baumrind of the University of California at Berkeley. She found that the best-adjusted and most self-possessed children had parents who were loving, but also demanding, authoritative, and consistent in their discipline. By contrast, permissive parents, no matter how loving, produced children who lacked self-control, initiative, and resilience.

Setting limits and enforcing habits of good behavior is not easy in the short run, but it is the best policy for the long run. One paradoxical benefit for the child is more freedom when he grows older. Psychologist William Coulson observes of several friends, accomplished musicians who were made to practice their instruments as youngsters, that they “are able to do what they want today because they weren't free to do what they wanted when they were young.” Some of this increased freedom will, of course, show up long before adulthood. A child who has learned discipline (the Latin root means “teaching” ) will, among other things, be much freer of the tyranny of the teenage peer group. Another paradoxical benefit is that good discipline improves the quality of the parent-child relationship. When authority is exercised with the proper combination of firmness and love, the effect is increased love and respect for the parent. Parents, in turn, find it easier to love well-behaved children. Finally, it should be noted that families are not the only beneficiaries of order and discipline. According to psychologist William Damon, respect for the parent who exercises proper authority leads to respect for legitimate social institutions, and to respect for law. In his book The Moral Child, Damon writes, “The child's respect for parental authority sets the direction for civilized participation in the social order when the child later begins assuming the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.” Damon calls this respect “the single most important moral legacy that comes out of the child's relations with the parent.”

Another good habit for children to acquire is helping with household chores. According to a Harvard study, which followed the lives of 465 boys into middle age, boys who were given jobs or household chores grew up to become happier adults, had higher-paying jobs and greater job satisfaction, had better marriages and better relationships with their children and friends, and were physically healthier than adults who had not assumed similar responsibilities as children. Psychiatrist George E. Vaillant, who directed the study, has a simple explanation: “Boys who worked in the home or community gained competence and came to feel they were worthwhile members of society. And because they felt good about themselves, others felt good about them.”

The point of chores is to give children a sense of contributing to the family. And this sense of contributing increases the sense of belonging. Moreover, by encouraging a child to help with the work of the household, parents develop the child's natural desire to imitate into a habit that will serve him or her well for a lifetime. This is not to say that the chores are entirely for the sake of the child. At a certain age a child can begin to make solid contributions to the work of the family. In addition to regular chores, family members can undertake common projects such as cleaning out a cellar, remodeling a room, or building a deck. Working together on difficult projects is an activity that goes a long way toward solidifying family bonds.

Parents should also encourage habits of helping outside the home. The fact that “charity begins at home” does not mean it should end there. Children can help with community drives, with environmental cleanups, with collecting money for worthy causes, with church work. However, the most important experiences are person to person: visiting a sick relative, helping elderly neighbors with chores, delivering groceries to a shut-in, babysitting without charge for a family experiencing an emergency. An article by Beverly Beckham in the Boston Herald suggests that the habit of caring for others has fallen into neglect. She tells of visiting an elderly acquaintance after many years and finding his house in a state of deterioration: “The grass was too high . . . the porch was shabby . . . the window box was empty.” Beckham continues: “Leaving, I drove by children — 11, 12, 13 years old — riding their bikes along the sidewalk and I thought: wouldn't it be nice if they rang this man's doorbell and offered to cut the grass for him, for free? Or volunteered to take care of his garden?” Her conclusion is not that the children were selfish, simply that they didn't know how: “Years ago, neighbors would have rallied around this man. Years ago, children would have automatically reached out. They would have learned how from their parents.”

Habits, however, are not the whole story. Something else is necessary, something more basic. Parents need an organizing principle of family life if they hope to enforce good habits; and without such a principle, they will be hard-pressed to decide what constitutes a good habit in the first place. Earlier I indicated that a family is best thought of as a small culture, and that this cultural aspect is the key to character formation. Let me explain more fully by referring once again to Diana Baumrind's study of family discipline patterns. In addition to the three patterns — authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive — revealed by her research, there existed a small subset of “harmonious” families. William Damon, in commenting on Baumrind's work, notes: “In these families, the parent rarely needs to assert control, because the children anticipate the parent's directives and obey without command or discipline. Like children of authoritative parents, these children from 'harmonious' families turned out competent and socially responsible.” Continues Damon, “Such family patterns may be far more common in Eastern cultures . . . indeed a sizable proportion of the few 'harmonious' families in Baumrind's own data base were Japanese-Americans.”

I think Damon is correct in assuming that such patterns are more common in Eastern cultures. Eastern cultures have a strong sense of family and also of family ritual. In some senses family life itself is an object of religious devotion. Not much of this sense of tradition and ritual is left in American families. The only daily ritual practiced regularly in American households is the ritual of watching television. And family bonds have been weakened by the emergence of what social analyst Francis Fukuyama describes as a “social contract” model of the family: a model in which rational self-interest replaces absolute obligation. But as Fukuyama says, “families don't really work if they are based on liberal principles, that is, if their members regard them as they would a joint stock company, formed for their utility rather than being based on ties of duty and love. Raising children or making a marriage work through a lifetime requires personal sacrifices that are irrational, if looked at from a cost-benefit calculus.”

Clearly, as Fukuyama implies, the family needs a stronger unifying principle than that of a voluntary association of self-interested individuals. Otherwise it cannot call forth the acts of self-denial on which its existence depends. To the extent American families are based on these individualistic principles, to that same extent family harmony will remain an elusive goal.

When I think of the American families I know that would fit under the category “harmonious,” it strikes me that they all have a very strong sense of family and of ritual. I once asked the father of one such family what sort of rules he used to keep order among his eight well-behaved children. “We don't have any rules,” he replied. I think that may have been a slight exaggeration, but I understood his point. The thing that seemed to make the rules quite secondary was a strong sense of family purpose and direction. What gave this particular family direction was a firm religious faith — Catholic, in this case. It was a family with a commitment, and the commitment was reflected in grace before meals, in nightly devotions, and in regular family liturgies which followed the Church's liturgical calendar. The other binding agent was what might loosely be called “the family business.” The parents ran a small private school in their very large house, and as their own children grew older, they would lend a hand either with the teaching or with other attendant responsibilities. There existed a third commitment in this family — what can simply be described as a commitment to culture. Painting, music, sculpture, and drama were studied along with philosophy, history, and literature. One of the boys was an accomplished pianist, other family members painted or sculpted, all either played an instrument or sang; plays were staged twice a year; dances, sing-alongs, and concerts involving family friends (themselves members of large families) were a common occurrence.

Yes, it's beginning to sound like an American version of the Trapp family, and in this case the comparison would be apt. Obviously, this is an exceptional family — too exceptional to be offered as a model. Still, when we look at other successful families, we find similar elements at work. Probably the most important of these is the sense of family purpose or mission. Paul Hill's explanation of the success of parochial schools — “If a school says, 'Here's what we are, what we stand for,' kids almost always respond to it by working hard” — applies to families as well.

One group that has succeeded in raising loving and stable families is the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Although the Lubavitchers live in densely populated urban areas, their children are remarkably free of the plague of drugs, violence, and irresponsible sex from which other urban children suffer. For the Lubavitchers and other Orthodox Jews the center of religious life is the home. They regard the home as a sacred place, and their major priority is their children's moral and spiritual development. Lubavitchers place great emphasis on respect for parents and other elder relatives, such as grandparents. Close contact is maintained with relatives, and major Jewish holidays are occasions for convivial get-togethers.

Edward Hoffman, a clinical psychologist who has studied and written about the Lubavitchers, provides some revealing details of Lubavitcher life:

Religious rituals like the weekly lighting of Sabbath candles on Friday evening are a focal point for the entire family; everyone is expected to be present and attentive. Similarly, all family members participate in singing the traditional thanksgiving prayers to God after each meal. In this way, youngsters are trained to develop the emotions of gratitude and reverence for something greater than their own ego's desires.

In addition,

Far more than in mainstream America today, Lubavitcher children are taught to be compassionate and altruistic. Because charity is venerated as an act of piety, youngsters are expected to make a small contribution every Friday (before Sabbath) to the “charity box” that is prominently displayed in their home. In accordance with biblical precepts Lubavitcher parents are expected to tithe their income to charitable causes. In this way, too, family members learn to think in terms of mutual sharing rather than egoistic gratification.

If life among the Lubavitchers is more harmonious than in most families, part of the reason seems to lie in their orientation to a higher plan and purpose than the merely secular. Hoffman writes, “Lubavitchers partly attribute their vibrant family life to the fact that children do not 'take orders' from parents. Rather, as one Hassidic rabbi explained to me, 'All family members “take orders” from God, as we understand His commands in the Bible and other sacred books.' In the Hassidic view, the presence of clear religious dicta delineating right versus wrong behavior makes the parental role far easier — and less conflicted — than that faced by nonreligious parents in America.”

The Lubavitchers seem like a curiosity to most Americans. Yet we find a similar orientation — to family and religion — among other groups who maintain thriving and cohesive families: other observant Jews, Greek Orthodox, Black Muslims, Mormons, Amish, and Asian-Americans. From a historical perspective, the greater curiosity is the current assumption that the family can thrive as a purely secular entity. In Hebrew, Roman, and European civilizations of the past, and even in this country during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idea of the sanctity of the home was the rule, not the exception. And as with the Lubavitchers, many religious rituals or scripture readings took place in the home. Thus home life was linked to something larger than itself, to a larger vision and purpose. This twin vision of the family as being sacred in itself and as set within a larger sacred framework gave added authority to parents, and added strength to family bonds.

Is it possible to establish a secular equivalent of this sense of family sanctity? Many families that are not religious do seem able to create a strong sense of family mission and purpose. But as with religious families, this seems to work best when there is a commitment to some larger goal or tradition or cause. Family life requires considerable sacrifice of individual wants, and it helps if a child can be given a vision of something big enough and good enough to make those sacrifices for. Families that have the loyalty of their children manage to convey a sense that they are engaged in important work: in carrying on a faith, a tradition, a craft, a philosophy, a vision of the way things ought to be.

Unfortunately, many families today don't stand for anything. Neither “little churches” nor “little commonwealths,” they are more like “little hotels” — places where one stays temporarily but with no particular sense of commitment. This is true not only of those children who regard the home merely as a way station on the road to autonomy but also of those parents who do not feel unconditionally bound to their offspring. What changed the family from a community to a collection of individuals each pursuing his or her own individual fulfillment? Certainly, modem psychology is one of the culprits. Its emphasis has never been on family or marriage but rather on separation and individuation. It is significant that Alfred Adler, who is considered the father of the optimistic American strand of psychology, called his theory “individual psychology.” A second factor in the atomizing of family life is our Rousseau-like reliance on the strength of natural affections: we have forgotten that natural affections need to be cultivated if they are to grow. A third cause is the easy availability of divorce and the resulting view of marriage as an experiment rather than a sacrament or lifetime commitment.

But these destructive forces are not nearly as immediate and tangible as the fourth — the one that sits in nearly every living room. If there is a cultural vacuum in many homes, a large part of the reason is that television has become the organizing principle of family life. Television, as critic Kenneth Myers has observed, can no longer be considered simply a part of the culture; rather, as Myers puts it, “it is our culture.” “Television,” he goes on to say, “is . . . not simply the dominant medium of popular culture, it is the single most significant shared reality in our entire society . . . . In television we live and move and have our being.”

More than any other medium or institution, television defines what is and is not important. It shapes our sense of reality. It confers significance on events by paying attention to them, or, by withholding attention, it denies them significance. It does not, for example, confer much significance on religion. Although religious faith still plays a significant part in the lives of real families, it is close to nonexistent in the lives of television families. As critic Ben Stein observes in the Wall Street Journal, almost never does a TV character go to church or temple, seek religious counsel, or pray for moral guidance. Another impression left by television is that sex underlies everything: that it is constantly on everyone's mind — or should be. At the same time, as content-analysis studies have shown, television sex rarely takes place within the context of marriage but almost exclusively outside it. If schools are sometimes working at cross-purposes to parental values, the dichotomy between television and traditional family values is even sharper. As one Lubavitcher father observes, “it opens up the home to become the receptacle for whatever somebody in Los Angeles, or wherever, wants to dump onto your living room floor and into your kids' minds.” “Those who think that their children will remain immune are just kidding themselves,” says another Lubavitcher father.

Perhaps the most profound effect of television watching, however, is its effect on family relationships. Regular television viewing deprives families of opportunities to interact with one another. There are just so many hours in the day, and, right now, for many families television takes up a disproportionate number of them. Watching TV is much easier than conversation, and it is certainly easier than confrontation — although confrontation is sometimes what is called for in family life. Because TV tends to pacify children, thus providing temporary harmony, many parents use it as a substitute for the hard work of establishing real discipline. As Marie Winn observes in Children Without Childhood, “Instead of having to establish rules and limits . . . instead of having to work at socializing children in order to make them more agreeable to live with, parents could solve all these problems by resorting to the television set. 'Go watch TV' were the magic words.” Kenneth Myers makes a similar observation: “I do believe that addiction to television (as opposed to deliberate, measured viewing) makes sincere and deep relations with people and with reality more difficult to sustain.”

One important step that any parent can take to restore family culture, to improve family relationships, and to take moral education out of the hands of “somebody in Los Angeles” is to revive the practice of family reading, once so common. There are many benefits. The close personal contact of sitting together as a family group, or just two, creates a bond of unity and a bond of mutual enthusiasm. And it is not an activity that needs to stop once children are old enough to read for themselves. At one time it was common practice for adults and children of all ages to take turns reading aloud from the works of Dickens, Twain, and Stevenson. Of course, the practice is not entirely extinct. One family I know describes “long evenings of absolute suspense” reading aloud from The Lord of the Rings. As with other pleasurable activities, part of the pleasure of reading good books is the pleasure of sharing them.

An added benefit is that reading together acts as a stimulus to conversation. And unlike the forced “therapeutic” discussions that take place in some modern households, it is a type of conversation that flows naturally. It often goes much deeper as well, allowing parents and children to share thoughts about questions that are at the center of human concern. In reading or listening to stories, moreover, children are learning to think and imagine more freely. Their emotional and intellectual response is their own, not the cued response generated by a television laugh track. In addition, good stories can provide pictures of family life that act as an antidote to current shallow notions about the family. A good example is the Odyssey, several fine versions of which can be read by or to children. As Thomas Fleming, a writer and classics scholar, points out, “Even the plot is a paradigm of domestic fidelity” :

Odysseus, who had fought for ten years at Troy, is held captive by a beautiful goddess who wants to make him her immortal companion. Instead, the poor man pines for a sight of home — a rugged and worthless scrap of rock — and longs for his middle-aged wife and a son he hasn't seen for twenty years. Back at home, his wife has been resorting to every sort of stratagem to keep a flock of noble suitors at arm's length, while her son spends his days brooding over his absent father. Odysseus' homecoming is for many readers the most dramatic and joyful moment in literature. After he slaughters his rivals and persuades his wife of his identity, the couple, after their joyous reunion, spends the night exactly as a modern couple would: they talk till the sun comes up.

On a cost-benefit calculus, the actions of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus don't make any sense. But Homer paints on a larger canvas. He presents us with a conception of family life that far transcends such a limited calculus.

The most important benefit of reading is the positive effect on character. In reading to a child, you — not some distant scriptwriter — get to choose the models and morals that come into the home. Reading and listening to the right sort of stories creates a primitive emotional attachment to behavior that is good and worthy; it implants a love and desire for virtue in the child's heart and imagination; it helps to prevent moral blindness.

Finally, reading together puts you and your children in touch with one of the great civilizing traditions of the human race. All the great cultures of the past preferred to express their most serious thought through stories. The wonder of it is that we can share in many of those same stories today. They have survived because the truths they tell are timeless. Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, puts the matter well in explaining why he read to his children:

I read because my father read to me. And because he'd read to me, when my time came I knew intuitively there is a torch that is supposed to be passed from one generation to the next. And through countless nights of reading I began to realize that when enough of the torchbearers — parents and teachers — stop passing the torches, a culture begins to die.


Kilpatrick, William. “What Parents Can Do.” Chapter 14 in Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong and What We Can Do About It. edited by J.H. Clarke, (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1992): 245-267.

Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick.


William K. Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of four previous books, including , Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. His areas of interest include: the use of stories in moral development; psychology and literature; and character education. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1993 Touchstone books

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