Someone recently told me she wanted her children to “think for themselves.” Not me, I said. If I was still in my active parenting years, I would most definitely want my children to think like I do. That would be, in fact, my primary purpose. I would want them to accept that my values are the right values to hold, and I’d want them to eventually make every effort to pass those values on to their children. But then, I don’t subscribe to the postmodern notion that all values are equal. I’m not a relativist.
But even in the case of a person who doesn’t think like I do and therefore doesn’t hold the values I hold, wouldn’t that person still want their children to think like they do? Wouldn’t a person who believes all values are equal, that right and wrong are relative concepts, want their kids to believe likewise? It’s called a worldview, and there’s really little point in investing 18 or more years of time, effort and money in raising a child if one is not trying to produce someone who will subscribe to a certain, defined worldview and therefore champion certain values.
How do you pass your values on to your children? From the earliest possible time in their lives, you talk about your values and you explain how they comprise your code for living. Why do you donate the $100 bill you found blowing in the wind to the local homeless shelter? Why don’t you allow your children to watch certain movies and television shows? You explain to your children that your definitions of right and wrong, your decisions and your opinions about various matters are based on certain core principles. Your ability to articulate those principles clearly enough that a 5-year-old can understand them reflects that you are clear on them yourself. And you not only talk about your values, but you walk your talk. There’s no room for “do as I say, not as I do” in an ethical worldview.
This is the process by which you shape your child’s character, by which you produce a good citizen, someone who will make the community a better place. Everything else — grades, athletic accomplishments, artistic talents and so on — is secondary. Raising a mathematically and musically gifted and talented child who wins a scholarship to Harvard is fine, but when all is said and done, good parenting is simply an act of love for your neighbor.
But make no mistake: No matter how well you communicate your worldview to your children, they will think for themselves, and from a very early age. They will even make decisions that will cause you to scratch your head in wonder or weep with sorrow. Parenting is an influence; it does not determine the outcome. Even the most well-parented (by whatever standard) child is capable, on any given day, of acting in ways that are completely inconsistent with his or her upbringing. That fact, if not fully accepted, can generate lots of parental frustration, lots of parental guilt, or lots of both.
As your great-grandmother put it, “Every child has a mind of his own.”
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.