Almost all parents want their children to be good people and to be happy. But many parents today are intensely focused on their children's happiness and self-esteem and many parents, research indicates, believe that happiness and self-esteem are a foundation for morality, that "feeling good" will lead to "doing good." Yet self-esteem does not lead to caring and responsibility for others-- greedy corporate executives and gang leaders can have high self-esteem.

Here are some tips both for shifting the balance from a "self-esteem and happiness focused" parenting approach toward caring and responsibility as well as for developing key social and emotional capacities in children that are a foundation for both morality and a lasting well-being.

1. Instead of telling your children, "The most important thing is that you are happy," tell them, "The most important thing is that you are kind, and that you are responsible for others."

2. Help your children appreciate others. For instance:

* Don't let them treat a store clerk, waitress, or babysitters as if invisible.
* Don't let your child quit a sports team or school chorus without thinking carefully with them about what it means for the group.
* Don't let your child simply write off friends he or she finds annoying, or fail to return phone calls from friends or to give other children credit for their achievements.
* Expect your child to help around the house, and to be helpful to neighbors.

3. Expect your children to appreciate you-their relationship with you will be a primary model for their other relationships. That doesn't mean making yourself the focus. It means not allowing your children to treat you as a doormat, and expecting them to express some modicum of interest about major events in your life and to thank you for your generosity.

4. Don't focus directly and narrowly on developing your child's happiness and self-esteem. Instead, support your child's developing maturity. Maturity, including the ability to manage destructive feelings, to balance and coordinate our needs with others, to empathize, to receive feedback constructively, to be reflective, and to adjust our behavior, is at the heart of both morality and lasting well-being.

5. While it's important to help children understand and articulate their feelings, be wary of pointing out children's feelings too frequently or drawing a lot of attention to passing emotional states. Doing these things can cause children to dramatize their feelings, and to make their own feelings too precious.

6. Praise your children for specific accomplishments and occasionally tell them how great they are. But avoid constant praising. When children are praised all the time, they can feel judged all the time. Children may feel patronized by unearned praise. And too much global praise-constantly saying "You're terrific"-can make children feel that their essential value is on the line in everything they do, causing them to inflate their importance, taking either too much credit or too much blame.

7. Don't make high achievement the goal of a life. Too much achievement pressure can diminish children's sense of self, make them less able to care for others, and more likely to experience others primarily as competitors and threats. Make achievement one theme in the large composition of a life. Sort out your own feelings about achievement and status so you don't send mixed messages or appear hypocritical to children, undermining your authority.

8. Help your child register kindness and unkindness, justice and injustice in the world. Listen carefully, without quickly judging, to your child's moral questions and dilemmas. Express your own values, and connect them to your child's experiences and interpretations.

9. Don't seek to be your child's friend. You can be very close to your child in many ways, but it's vital that children experience you as an authority, that they idealize you at certain points in their development and see you as someone they want to emulate. Children come to appreciate others as independent and distinct when we appreciate them as distinct.

10. Invite people you are close to and respect to give you feedback about your parenting. When your first child is born, develop a contract with at least two other parents, a promise that they will tell you if they think you are harming your child's moral or emotional development in any way.


Richard Weissbourd
is a lecturer in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the author of The Parents We Mean To Be, How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development

You are reading

The Parents We Mean to Be

Rethinking How to Motivate Children

Better alternatives than incentives

Should We Tell Children They're "Special?"

Helping children understand their strengths without breeding arrogance.

How Do We Help Children Take Other Perspectives? A Conversation with Ellen Galinsky

Ellen Galinsky on Helping Children Take Other Perspectives?