The next question that arises is obvious: how do we go about raising responsible children? How do we reverse the current trend toward more ignorant and less sensible youth? As stated previously, the only solution to our current quandary is to raise our children to be better than ourselves. And the first step toward that is being available for the children and being around to offer guidance. This means that, at least for the first few years, one of the parents has to be at home for them.
Many will probably accuse me of being a chauvinist, attempting to make unsatisfied housewives out of another generation of women. Au contraire. I personally find nothing dishonorable or inherently wrong in being a homemaker, but please notice that it was never said that it was the woman who had to stay home. It is perfectly acceptable to have the husband stay home and allow the wife to pursue a career. The point is that one parent must be at home for the children. If neither the husband nor the wife is willing to sacrifice his or her career for the sake of having a family, then they ought not to start a family. If a couple is not willing to put children ahead of career, then this couple is clearly not going to be willing to expend the time and energy necessary to raise a child properly. A great deal of both is required. Children are not to be taken lightly.
This also clearly means that having children out of wedlock is out. Even if the two promise to stay together, these promises have a tendency to dissolve quickly. Two married, committed parents are required in order to raise a responsible child. A lack of this is detrimental to both the child and his parents. The strain of raising a child is not something that is easily managed by one person working alone.
At this point, some may wonder where divorce fits into this. The current statistic that 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce is appalling. This is indicative of one of two possibilities. The first is that couples do not how to resolve conflicts. Certainly, no one should be forced to stay with an abusive spouse and some differences are truly irreconcilable. But in modern society so many people are eager to dispense with anything at the first sign of trouble, whether it be cars, appliances, or spouses. For the sake of the children, couples must make their best efforts to work out their differences. The other possibility, which seems equally plausible, is that people rush into marriage without considering who it is they are really marrying. These people marry not each other, but the images of perfection they envision. Most people in love never see the dark side of their beloved until after marriage, and in many cases find it’s something that is impossible to deal with. Courtship must be taken more slowly, and the couple should not rush into child-rearing either. They should first live together for a while, to make sure that they will be able to handle the pressures of raising a child together. Divorce will be messy enough; if children are involved, it becomes a very dangerous situation for all.
Once the amazing rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock births is reduced, then our children will be better off. But how should the parents raise their children? The issue is a thorny one, and it has been hotly debated for a very long time. For this reason, I will try to remain as general as possible and I will not mention individual cases. But there are still some major problems that must be corrected if we are to avoid another generation of poor morals in society.
Certain styles of parenting lead to disastrous results in the children they raise. The two most common have already been mentioned: the authoritarian and the libertarian. What it all boils down to is the use of the word “no.” Many of the boomers heard it all the time as children, with the explanation given (if any) being a grunted “because I said so.” As a result, many of today’s children never hear the word. Any whim, desire or fantasy is fulfilled instantly; in those rare cases where there is a delay of some sort, the children often become unbearable, making impatient demands to their parents whenever time permits. This is the reason that our society has developed the technology to grant its citizens virtually instant access to almost anything they desire. The demand for instant gratification spurred the new supply of tools to satisfy it. The proper role for a parent is not to grant the child anything he wishes, nor is it to deny him all of his wishes. The role of the parent is to make the child justify and earn such possessions. A friend of mine says that in his childhood his parents would not let him get anything unless he explained why he wanted it. Such explanations as “I dunno” or “because I want it” were not considered acceptable. The result is that my friend grew up to be someone who was very careful with his money. Although he had to support himself for several years on a salary that barely exceeded the standard of poverty, he did not have financial trouble because he never spent extravagantly. He did not get anything he did not need. His parents managed to instill in him a sense of frugality and economy.
One common way of doing this is through some form of allowance, an idea which I wholeheartedly support. Two caveats must be mentioned. First, the allowance should be tied to some form of work. Obviously, it would be foolish to tell a six-year-old to get a job, but the child should do some household chores for the money. If the child does not do the chores, he does not receive his allowance. Second, money given outside of allowance or “advances” should be rare and based on merit. For example, if the child blows a bicycle tire, he should not have to pay for it unless he deliberately popped it (i.e. he drove over a broken beer bottle on purpose). On the other hand, the child should not be given extra money to purchase the latest action hero. If the child wants more money, he should have to do more chores for it. This teaches the respect for frugality and the concept of honest pay for honest work that many modern children seem to lack.
It also teaches another important value, self-discipline. Self-discipline is the backbone of morality; without it, we will see another generation of apathetic and hedonistic youth, which our country and the world at large can ill afford. There is no polite or indirect way to say it: our nation’s youth must become more disciplined than they are. Our nation as a whole is grossly lacking in this important quality. At this point, it would be appropriate to define what is meant by self-discipline. Let us define it to mean the willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification for a nobler if more-distant and harder-to-achieve purpose. An example of this is education. Most children would of course prefer to spend their days involved in leisure activities rather than studying and listening to lectures. But a youngster with self-discipline realizes that there is a purpose and a need for education (and no, it is not just to get a better-paying job, as the more cynical among you may think). Note also that self-discipline is not a function of intelligence any more than wisdom is. Certainly, higher intelligence increases the chances of seeing the need for self-discipline. But there are plenty of brilliant people who are utterly without this quality, or worse, see their intelligence solely as a means to manipulate others and foil law-enforcement. Most gang leaders are in fact quite intelligent. But something in their youth caused them to use their intelligence for evil. Greater self-discipline, as well as other qualities we will discuss later, might have enabled them to rise above the prevailing mentality. Most people who rise from the condition of poverty do so through a combination of discipline, dedication, and hard work. Most of us could and should learn from their example.
How, then, can we teach this to our children? The best way is by example. Every child should have a role model, and the best role model a child can have is his parents. Obviously, no one is perfect. But when we make mistakes we should admit them; and we should strive, for our children’s sake, to be as perfect as we can. If a child hears his parents telling him one thing and doing quite another, what lessons can he be expected to draw?
In addition to our own example, we should show our children real-world examples. The newspapers and magazines contain many examples, both good and bad. There are books, both fiction and nonfiction, which can provide examples. Aesop’s Fables or the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are wonderful for younger children. For older children, a well-written biography can be very instructive. An example would be a biography of the late baseball manager Billy Martin. Martin was a man grossly lacking in self-discipline and wisdom. An older child could learn much from his example and change his own behavior as a result. Remember that it is not enough merely to give our children these books. We should discuss them and the lessons that they provide. Don’t be preachy; just discuss the child’s reaction to certain important issues and events. Of course, in order to discuss the books intelligently, we need to have read them ourselves. I dare say that many among us could benefit from the lessons these books provide as much as our children can.
In addition to self-discipline, we should teach our children honesty. We should be honest with them, and we should expect the same in return. As usual, an important question arises: how honest is too honest? For example, some believe that “white lies,” or lies told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings, are acceptable. Some lies, such as those told to avoid a severe punishment, are, if not morally correct, difficult to resist. Where and how do we draw the line? As far as white lies are concerned, we should teach our children to reply honestly if an honest opinion is asked for. However, we should also teach our children to avoid the pseudo-honesty propagated under the excuse of “telling it like it is.” This sort of free insult, usually proffered without an invitation, does not qualify under any reasonable definition of honesty and is nothing to be proud of, as the practitioners of said behavior often are. As for the punishment-evasion lies, the temptation is indeed very strong. The answer to this difficult issue is twofold. First, we should react with a punishment in proportion to the offense. If we insist on doling out excessive discipline, our children will only lie more. Second, we should make it clear that coming clean will lighten their sentence. By encouraging our children to tell the truth in this matter, honesty should become a habit.
One issue that is often brought up is “sticking up for oneself,” or how to deal with bullies. First and most important, we much teach our children to control their tempers. Many fights, in childhood and afterward, could be avoided if it were not seen as such a terrible blow to the ego to back down from a challenge, especially for men. This is an instance where the aforementioned pride in self is a help. If a child respects himself, he will learn to resist the dependence on group acceptance that is the cause of so many fights. Children who find themselves not accepted by the popular clique will often go to desperate measures to be accepted. If they are taught that there are more important things to life than being popular, they will not resort to these measures. As for the bully, if the child has true self-respect, then the taunts of the bully will not affect him. If he does not respond, the bully will soon move on to a more satisfying target. As Zora Neale Hurston once said of discrimination, “[I]t does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” However, as most of us are aware, there are those who simply will not give up. In this case, standing up to the bully is required. The child should state clearly, in whatever terms he deems best, his own position. Whether it be standing up for a friend or pointing out the inherent stupidity of the bully’s attacks, he should make his point in no uncertain terms. Please note that the child should not under any circumstances attempt to draw the bully into a fight. Even though winning such a fight may earn him the “respect” of his peers, it is no model for adult behavior, and there is also the possibility that he will lose the fight. Perhaps on the battlefields of medieval Europe and in the saloons of the Old West the only way to defend one’s honor was a duel, but our society needs to progress beyond this animalistic level of behavior.
Another virtue that will help us in our quest to become a wiser society is empathy. Many in our society have become obnoxiously self-centered. As we have watched our society and culture crumble, a stone-age mentality has taken hold: “I and my personal concerns are more important than anyone or anything else.” Too many of us have come to see our fellow man as an enemy, rather than a friend. We are convinced that something is “out to get us”; as such, we are resolved to get whatever we can for ourselves, and to hell with the rest. Rather than reaching out to those in need, we call them leeches and claim that all of their failures are the result of their own laziness. In some cases this is true, but there are those who could make their own way if they were given a hand up. Not everyone is born equal and there are some who need help. We should teach our children to feel for the plight of those less fortunate and to feel less self-pity. We should also teach our children active empathy. It is easy to watch the heartrending stories on the television news and bemoan how awful it must be to live in that way. It is quite another to actually get out and help. Once again, the best teacher is example. We should become benefactors of local charities. Donating money is nice, but we should donate time as well. And, as soon as they are old enough, we should bring the children along. A perfect example is the Christmas in April program, wherein volunteers work together to renovate the house of a needy person. Perhaps the children cannot do the heavy work, but there are jobs for even young children. By actively communicating with and seeing the plight of those in need, empathy will develop. Our children need to learn that no matter how bleak their situation, there is always someone even less fortunate than they. A more empathic society will lead to a more trusting society.
Finally, there is the question of discipline. This is a very difficult subject, and individual personalities play a very dramatic role. Therefore, I will avoid delving into specific situations. Instead, we should consider the issue of trust. There should be a basic trust between parent and child. Rights and responsibilities come into play here. If we load our children down with responsibilities but give them no freedoms, they will come to believe that we do not trust them. This will either lead them to believe that they are not trustworthy, and to act accordingly, or to act out in some form of backlash against the iron fist of their parents. On the other extreme, giving the child many freedoms without responsibilities will lead to the spoiled-child syndrome, which manifests itself in adulthood as hedonism without any regard for consequences. The key here is to strike a balance. Very young children should have few rights or responsibilities; this is the age when parents need to begin teaching their children such morals and judgment as they can grasp. As they grow older, rights and responsibilities should increase together; this develops a bond of trust between parents and children. However, while responsibilities are tied to age, rights should also be tied to behavior. For minor transgressions, the punishment should be light; but for major problems, some of the child’s rights should be taken away. In this way we send a signal to the child that he has let us down; we placed our trust in him, and he violated it. Extreme anger or grudges are not required; the child simply needs to learn the consequences of violating a trust. The child should be permitted to regain the lost trust as well, perhaps through improved behavior or voluntarily taking on extra responsibility. If the child feels that he can never regain the lost trust, he will come to despair, which can lead to anger or moping, neither desirable. The parent-child relationship should be based on respect and trust. If the child learns this early on, he will form his friendships in a similar way, and as such will not become involved in destructive relationships, or if he does will be able to decide whether such a friend is truly worth keeping. In addition, he will probably have a better relationship with his parents, not becoming involved in the spats and grudges that tear families apart.