The first and most important teacher of virtues and character a child can have is a caring adult. Through the guidance of such a caregiver, each child can learn what it feels like to trust that someone will always be there to give unconditional love and provide for his or her basic needs.
In the context of this love, infants begin to learn what is "right" and "wrong" through interacting with their environment and discovering that this significant adult places limits on what they are and are not allowed to do. Thus begins the process of an infant becoming a person who can live in a civilized world.
To learn fo live in society, all children must learn to balance their personal wants against the needs of the social group (family, neighborhood, school and society). Today we see far to few examples of this kind of balance, as people put their own wants and needs above all others - all the time.
In today's society, morals and character has emerged in the forefront of movement for social change. However, it is important to understand that these traits must be taught rather than talked about. For our society to heal itself and to develop into an enduring culture with a core of virtue, children must be taught the behaviors of virtue. There are proven ways children learn behaviors that can be used to teach virtues to them. To become good teachers of behavior, or any lesson, parents must follow these basic steps:
1. Set goals for the children to achieve.
2. Define the behaviors that will be needed to reach the goals.
3. Model the behaviors so the children will have a mental picture of what they are.
4. Encourage the children's practice of the behaviors.
5. Reinforce the practice through the use of praise and privileges.
6. Observe the children in order to decide whether the behaviors have been learned.
As a society we have lost the art of reflection, that ability to think deeply and meaningfully about issues. Instead, through media glitz and glitter, hype and pizzazz, we have learned only to feel what others are feeling as we vicariously experience what others are experiencing right before our eyes. We have replaced thought with emotion. We have seemingly become witchdolls being moved only by the itch others imparted upon us.
Essential to the teaching of virtues is the development of the most important ability to reflect on life's experiences. Learning from experiences depends on this ability to reflect on life's experiences. Learning from experiences depends on this ability to reflect on those experiences and to develop new, more appropriate ways of behaving. With our responses to experiences limited only to emotion, we end up with just the image of virtue without having virtues as a part of our way of life.
Teaching virtues to your children begins with the awareness that virtues are the basis of your own definition of good character. It is a combination of mental reflection with emotion. Notice how you react when someone gives you back more change than you were due at the grocery store. What do you say when someone calls and wants to talk when you're in the middle of dinner or other personal activities? How about when the phone ring around midnight and an unknown caller starts talking dirty to you? How do you respond when your son arrives 10 minutes later than the time when you were supposed to pick him up?
Establishing your own personal living by those standards involves no magic, only the setting of priorities and the active choosing of moral and ethical ways of behaving over the self-centered, what's-in-it-for-me; win-at-all-cost approach to life that has become the vogue.
Virtues are not taught by force-feeding. In fact, just the opposite is true. The teaching of virtues is undertaken in the everyday interactions with children: During the jaunt to the shopping center, standing in line at the fast-food restaurant, waiting for a taxi or traveling full tilt to ball practice. Remembrr the commercial ads: "The young ones will imitate what the old ones is doing!"
So if it's so easy to do this practicing of virtues, why don't more of us do it? Because it takes considerable effort - hard work - to discipline ourselves to do so. At times it may seem easier to yell and scream; to clean up children's rooms ourselves instead of going through the hassle of teaching children to do so; to be critical of others; and to find someone to blame for the problems that, at first blush, we can't seem to solve. This is particularly true if we were parented by folks who modeled these behaviors on silver spoons.
It is a proven fact that the lessons of virtue are best learned from those who practice what they teach. Changing your behavior from what you learned about parenting as a child to what you want to pass on to your children can be accomplished if you open your mind and heart to the following lessons that have been passed on for generations but may, in fact, be new to you:
1. Be there as a positive role model when your children truly need you - let your children know they can trust you to do so.
2. Develop a consistent and fair discipline plan.
3. Never inflict fear on your children or anger to attain your goals.
4. Use unconditional love, kindness, caring and understanding in enforcing discipline.
5. Avoid power struggles with your children.
6. Model the virtues being taught as progressively as possible.
7. Decide on family priorities