Building Character: A Top Priority
Raising a moral child is still a primary objective for most parents. But today\'s moms and dads are confounded by the outside influences they have to compete with to reach their children.

"Kids are exposed at age 4 to things that they might not have seen until they were 12 in another era," says Jan Jones, a mother of three. "Sometimes, it seems a bit like drinking from a fire hose for kids to make much sense of everything that\'s out there and to make good decisions."

The research firm Public Agenda surveyed 1,607 parents nationwide for its 2002 report "Easier Said Than Done: Parents Talk About Raising Children in Today\'s America."

  • Nearly half of the parents said they feared they weren\'t doing enough at home to gird their kids against the harm of the outside world, including drugs and alcohol, negative images in the media, and negative influences from their children\'s peers.
  • 47 percent admitted to worrying more about protecting their children from negative social influences than paying the bills. Even low-income parents prioritized the issue similarly, with 42 percent citing societal influences as a bigger concern than family finances.
  • 49 percent worried more about raising a well-behaved child who has good values than about providing for that child\'s physical needs.
What character traits do parents consider essential? In the Public Agenda survey:

  • 91 percent cited honesty
  • 84 percent said courtesy and politeness
  • 83 percent pegged self-control and self-discipline
  • 82 percent mentioned always doing your best in school
How Do You Teach Character?

In spite of all that we\'re up against, the way to teach children good character remains pretty basic, and incredibly important. Essentially, character educators say, it has a lot to do with talking with our kids more, communicating our beliefs and practicing what we preach. Here, from the experts, are the ABC\'s of character building for parents on the front lines:

  • Walk the walk. In daily family life, parents need to consistently model the values they want in their children.
"Parents need to be clear on whether moral values really are a priority," says Arthur Dobrin, a professor of humanities at Hofstra University and author of Teaching Right From Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child. "You can\'t sit on the fence, saying one thing and doing another with moral education."

Leslie Talbot, an attorney and mother of two, believes that parents impart daily lessons about values to their kids, whether intended or not, through their actions. "Do you let [your kids] order off a menu that says 12 and under, even though they are 13? Do you sneak that extra person into the hotel room or pay and get the second room?" she asks.

Dobrin agrees: "What a parent does is so much more important than what he or she says."

  • Show some respect. Kids first witness and develop good character traits through interactions between family members. The most essential step for parents is to consistently treat their children in a respectful manner, says Merle Schwartz, director of education and research at the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a Washington, D.C.-based coalition advocating for character education in the nation\'s K-12 schools.
"If parents encourage kids to talk about their feelings, teach them about giving those \'I messages\' and being active listeners, they\'ll model that," she says. "Eventually, that type of respectful behavior will carry over into external arenas, but that\'s where it all has to start."

  • Tell it like it is. Given the many questionable messages wafting through our children\'s world, it\'s easy enough for parents to vocalize their objections.
"Nobody\'s too busy to tell it like it is when they see something on TV," says Bernice Lerner, director of the Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC) at Boston University\'s School of Education. "If your kids are watching a show and you think what a character does or says is awful, it doesn\'t take much effort to tell your kids that. Your opinions count and they\'ll hear your messages. It seeps in."

  • Fill the void. Lerner recommends offsetting the effects of confusing messages with vibrant, life-affirming influences.
"I think parents should put really good, compelling things before their children," she says. "Expose them to good music, literature, cultural experiences and interesting activities. Get them inspired and involved with the world around them by exposing them to the good things that are out there."

The Cynics Among Us
American teens are a pretty cynical bunch when it comes to ethics. The Josephson Institute of Ethics\' 2006 "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth" revealed that while 90 percent of teens say their parents want them to do the right thing - no matter what the cost:

59 percent believe that successful people do what they must to win, even if others consider it cheating; and

23 percent believe that people who lie, cheat and break the rules are more likely to succeed than those who don\'t.

  • Promote charity and social justice. Dobrin and his family have a Christmas tradition of devoting time to writing letters of protest and appeal on behalf of prisoners of conscience. It\'s a habit he started with his own children, and now, his young grandchildren participate as well. Dobrin also suggests asking kids to earmark a portion of their allowances for a charity of their own choosing. Such activities, he says, encourage children "to take an interest in the world at large," promoting the virtues of charity, social justice and having the courage of your conviction.
  • Find "teaching moments." Stopping to help an elderly stranger find her keys or going back into the store to tell the cashier that he gave you too much change are ordinary events with immeasurable impact on a kid\'s psyche, says Barbara Staib of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, which works to raise public awareness of "one of the most prevalent crimes in the U.S."
Sometimes, we let such opportunities pass because of the distrustful world we live in, Staib says, but these are "teaching moments." Eventually, kids learn that "what goes around, comes around" - if you\'re honest and respectful with someone else, that person will likely be that way with you.

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