The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development gave me enough food for thought on the topic of morality and children. I’ve just become a father and I also happen to see many kids from various ages in my extended family. My thoughts and feelings after observing the younger ones and teens, how they react to their peers, elders and to the world in general is neither very optimistic nor really pessimistic but I must confess that I generally tend to be a little pessimist. Sometimes I feel like I will not have much say when my son will be a teenager, all that peer pressure and other parameters that will be more or less out of my control. But on the other hand, I also observe the parents and see how their behavioral patterns affect the children, e.g. their attitude towards sports activities, how they value sports and what kind of ethical standards they adhere to.
Richard Weissbourd draws a pretty broad and sincere picture about the current situation of parenting in USA, as well as major problems and attitudes towards children. Some parts of the book may run the risk of sounding a little alien to the people outside of USA, but in this highly connected world of ours I don’t think we can deny the influence of culture from the other side of Atlantic. One of the striking points of the book is how Weissbourd describes the changes of attitude in immigrant children: in the beginning they are very nice, polite, hard-working and respectful (according to their teachers) but after a few years of interacting with their peers in USA they undergo a dramatic change of attitude towards their teachers, school life, and moral values; which is generally perceived as very negative by the very same teachers.
One of the main themes of the book, and maybe the most important lesson of all, is that actually trying to be ‘friends’ with your children does not work the way you expect. There are many examples from real world cases in which children lose their strongest moral compass, their parents because, well, parents became more like friends than parents. Another important point is the attitude of parents towards success, morality and the tension between these two when there are situations where those notions seem to contradict each other. There are fabulous examples in which you see how children understand and interpret the hypocrisy of their parents when it comes to academic achievement and how it relates to “success is not everything, you should be a good and honest person in life” kind of thinking. Taking into account the overly competitive social life of USA and how it erodes the psychology of people, I’m reluctant to accuse parents but then I ask myself “to whom will the children turn to for an example, if not their parents?” There doesn’t seem to be easy and simple answers.
One of my favorite chapters of the book has got to do about the relationship among sports, coaching, moral values and parenting. Some parts of the chapter are real gems on the philosophy of sports. Weissbourd does not hesitate to bust the myths of coaching spread by popular Hollywood movies such as Remember the Titans, Hoosiers and others. I found it very important and valuable to reflect upon why we value sports, why we take our children to sports activities and what success means to us and our children in the context of those activities. Is having fun the most important thing that should eschew hard competition? Is winning the game, by doing whatever it takes, something to be worshiped? What would our children really lose had they not been in that sports activity? Is it really for us or for them? Should the coach be a dictator or should the parents be let to interfere all the time?
I would suggest this book to parents of little children or teenagers if they have concerns about raising moral children in today’s world. A world in which they’ll face unprecedented amounts of cultural influence, peer pressure and competition in various settings, starting with school. The book does not give simple and ready-to-use recipes but the questions it arises by using concrete examples and the principles it discusses are worth reading and re-reading indeed.