Andrew Mullins is Headmaster of Redfield College, an independent
school in the northwest of Sydney for boys in Years 2-12. He is the
author of Parenting for Character.
Few mothers and fathers would disagree that parenting in today’s
society is harder than it was in their parents’ day. Society has
changed and outside influences upon children are stronger than when
they were children. Families are smaller nowadays; both parents work
and often cannot spend as much time with their children as they would
like; and the television is on for hours in many homes. Faced with
these challenges, people are beginning to realise that they cannot rely
on their good will alone to raise their children successfully. They
have to study how to be a good parent and act according to clearly
defined principles. This background briefing outlines some rules of
thumb followed by successful parents.
A few definitions
Character is that dimension of personality developed as a result of
moral education. We learn to be fair, generous, tolerant, and so on.
Temperament is that dimension of personality endowed by nature — our
genes and our environment. We say that a person is naturally outgoing,
taciturn, impulsive, reflective, etc.
Rethinking how to be a good parent
The ultimate outcome of parenting is mature adults
Parenting is the art of raising happy, mature, generous adults, not
merely happy children. Unfortunately most parenting books are tactical
rather than strategic. They overemphasize “micro parenting”: how to
have a happy child (not how to raise a happy adult), how to avoid
tantrums, how to talk to an adolescent, how to change a nappy. This
leaves parents in the dark about how to raise children who have a clear
set of goals and values. Good parenting focuses on long-term outcomes,
not just the immediate physical and emotional welfare of a youngster.
Parents need to think in terms of building character. They should
visualise the strengths of character they want to see in their children
and then work at equipping them with these strengths.
Children cannot be happy without firm values
Successful parenting is about passing on good values so that boys and
girls become happy in their lifetime commitments to their future
families. Good behaviour is one outcome of having good values, but it
is not the ultimate goal of raising a child. It is possible to raise
well-mannered, capable, hard-working children who become self-centred,
ruthlessly pragmatic adults who are unable to make lasting commitments.
We need to strive to ensure that all our actions are underpinned by a
kind and loving intention. In life, we need to have well grooved
behaviours (eg orderliness, industriousness, sincerity, etc) and these
behaviours need to be underpinned by a loving intention. This intention
is crucial. We must model it and insist on it even with small children.
It is much better to teach a child “Do this because it will help Mum”,
rather than to say, “Do this because I said so.”
However, many parents fail to pass on good values. There are three reasons for this.
First, contemporary parents often do not have clear values to bequeath
to their children, beyond “do what you think is right” and “don’t hurt
anyone deliberately”. In today’s world, where young people are exposed
to many harmful, but strong and attractive, influences , this is not
Second, some parents who do have good values treat them as a burden.
They must show that the values they speak about do in fact make them
happy, and make their homes happy places. Otherwise children will
think, “Mum and Dad, I love you, but I need to find happiness in life.
I will need other values.”
Third, like parents of any age, sometimes mums and dads do not live up
to their own values. Parents who wish to pass on cherished religious
beliefs and practices will need, above all, to model those practices in
their day as an expression of heartfelt gratitude towards God, and to
show that these beliefs and practices are the source of deep peace and
equanimity in the face of every small and great challenge that life can
The first twelve years are the key ones, not the teen years
Contrary to what most people think, the teen years are not the testing
time for parenting skills; the toddler years are. All teenagers were
once toddlers and their problems in adolescence are simply the
unfolding of the strengths and weaknesses they acquired, with their
parents’ help, as young children. So parents ought to focus on
inculcating values from the word Go, rather than leaving it until they
stumble across problems. Most of the hard yards are done before teenage
hormones kick in.
Upbringing is not about cloning children to conform with your wishes.
You are raising them to run their own lives so the less you run their
lives, even when they are small, the better. Do not over-manage even
young children. Don’t do the thinking for them. If they do not have
practice thinking for themselves as younger children, they will not be
able to do it as teenagers, and you will not think of giving it
priority when they are teenagers. Give reasons, starting from when your
child is very young. Young people will need a comprehensive reference
manual if they are to run their own lives. Explain simply and honestly
the why of decisions you have made in their interests because there has
been physical or moral danger involved in following the child’s
Establish very positive habits of communication. Take conversation even
with little children seriously. Don’t be negative. Start with what you
admire in your son’s or daughter’s character. From early years, make
praise very specific and criticism positive and constructive. Without
habits of parent-child affection and focused attention in the pre teen
years, the parent-teen bonds will strain or snap.
Talk honestly to younger children about relationships and sexuality.
You have a real and pressing duty to ready your child for the complex
but positive challenges of sexual attraction. How many marriages will
be saved if children were better attuned to the duties that
The teen years don’t have to be difficult
Adolescence should be a wonderful time when boys and girls discover
autonomy and decide on the values upon which they will base their
lives. The physical and psychological changes of adolescence often
involve some turmoil, but if children have developed the key virtues of
sound judgement, not giving up, self-control and respecting others as
toddlers and children, they will be well equipped to deal with it.
Mum and Dad are behind the steering wheel
We often blame poor behaviour on peer-group pressure and negative
images in the media. But good parenting calls for strategies to
anticipate and counter these influences before they take root in
children. Parents have be responsible for shaping the family
environment — if they want to raise children with their own values,
they have to be creative and energetic in finding ways to keep
them from being hijacked by purveyors of other values.
In particular, this means that parents have to manage the inputs in the
home. The younger the child, the more impressionable he or she is.
Children will imitate anyone who spends time with them and takes an
interest in them. This includes characters in videos, X-Box, and
chatrooms. Children are far too precious to allow the nasties of
unsupervised television and internet access into their minds. Get to
know your child’s peer group, and the parents of your child’s friends.
Make it easy for them to bring their friends home.
It has become a cliché of parenting that children should not be
“sheltered” from real life. This is nonsense. Children shouldn’t be
swathed in cotton wool, but every family should be a sheltered
family. Children can be seriously damaged in adolescence and
early adult years when, through inexperience and lack of clear
knowledge of what is right and wrong, they make decisions that have
lasting negative consequences. Permissive parenting leads to many
problems in children because they fail to develop strengths of self
control and fortitude. Manage the environment that your children are
growing up in, but don’t become recluses. Don’t raise your children in
a bunker; spend much time with other families who share your values.
Your children need to see you give of yourself and your time in deep
friendships with others, otherwise they will not learn this.
What are the priorities of a good parent?
First, your spouse
A good marriage is the bedrock of good parenting. If the spouses love
each other, are prepared to sacrifice for each other and communicate
well, their children will absorb their virtues. But, as everyone knows,
this demands a daily struggle.
Learn to admire the strengths of your spouse; don’t get fixated on
faults. Put your spouse on a pedestal in your child’s eyes; back up the
other’s decisions. Couples need to know how to make decisions they are
both happy with. They need habits of talking out differing opinions on
privileges, punishments, ground rules, etc.
It’s a good idea to create regular times you can get away from
immediate pressures to talk each week, to listen to what each is
saying, or wants to talk about. No matter, neither bankbook nor
bedroom, should be off limits for calm discussion. Couples should
organize to do things together often, building up a stock of happy
memories to tide them through inevitable challenges.
It is best if parents never contradict or argue in the presence of
children, and ensure that they make up in their presence if they do
argue in the child’s presence. It is a great skill to develop the habit
of being able to apologise; it can save relationships. Adults need to
learn to be the first to apologise whenever there is an argument.
A couple’s joint effort to create a good marriage pays off. Statistics
show that children who grow up in homes where there is
significant ongoing discord between parents (either before or after
separation) are at greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly,
children raised in homes where there is only one natural parent are
disadvantaged on every measure… socio-economically, emotionally and
psychologically, academically, etc.
Children are chips off the old block. It’s hard to expect them to
acquire virtues which their parents lack. That’s why it is
important to look honestly at what your own motivations in life might
be… success, admiration, comfort, pleasure, etc, or something higher.
Beware of living for oneself… putting one’s own timetable before that
of the family, work before family, social life above investing time in
one’s children each night.
Teach by your example that it is loving generosity that brings
happiness in life. Carry about with you a habitually deep peace and
calm. Lead by example. Show that commitments to others bring great
serenity. What a great shame it is when young children fail to learn
that it is generosity that brings happiness; it is so much harder to
pick this up later. Try not to load this deficit onto your kids.
In particular, if you feel that it is important for your children to
take their religious duties seriously, make sure that you do so first.
Children learn how to love God by looking at the lives of their
Third, your kids
Children need to feel loved. But it can be hard for some parents to
show this in a convincing way, especially busy professional men. Many
parents can fail to listen, to take conversation with small children
seriously, and to give them focussed attention. The problem becomes
even more urgent with teenagers. They need unconditional love and
encouragement, too. Do not let 90 per cent of conversation get bogged
down on negative issues.
In today’s families, time is a scarce resource. But for building up a
close relationship with children, there is no substitute for spending
time. The notion that quality time is better than quantity time is a
myth. There is only one kind of quality time and that is quantity
time. Do jobs together. Find hobbies and sports to do together
that you both enjoy. Make sure that home is an enjoyable place to be,
otherwise your children will not want to bring friends home. You will
be excluded from their social world. Remember, the habitual expression
on a parent’s face determines the atmosphere in the home.
And keep reminding yourself, you are raising children so they can run
their own lives well. Some parents punish children to scare them into
good behaviour, or simply to gain conformity with what they want. Too
often in such a process, parents and children are alienated. It is
always more effective to correct children calmly without emotion,
choosing ppunishments that help a child remedy the consequences of poor
actions, and making sure that the child realises the most important
thing is to fix up the hurt done to others by heartfelt apologies. The
purpose of punishments must be to teach, not to make an example of
someone, or to frighten them into doing the right thing in future.
Educating children for character
How children grow in character
Good character means developing good habits, or virtues. The
development of character requires the development the full range of
virtues. Virtues are normally acquired by carrying out a good act with
some regularity, which over time builds an enduring strength of
character. For example, the repeated effort to be polite regardless of
one’s feelings builds up the virtue of charity and respect.
During the past 40 years, much of Western society has shied away from
the concept of virtue and embraced the ideals of spontaneity and innate
innocence. Consequently, as any school teacher will tell you, many
children enter adult life without the habits of resilience,
responsibility, and respect for others they need to run their own
lives. They simply have not been taught to struggle against weaknesses
inherent in human nature.
In some ears, the word virtue sounds old-fashioned and implies
hammering harsh and unwelcome lessons into recalcitrant youngsters. The
truth is quite the opposite. The most effective tool for teaching
virtue is affection and its distinctive result is ease and enjoyment in
the good habit. Children learn through positive example, loving
confident encouragement to meet challenging expectations, clear
consistent explanation and direction, routines and responsibilities
with accountability and clear constructive correction. Our goal is to
teach children to think clearly for themselves free of debilitating
habits and external influences, and to have a generous loving heart.
What are the most important virtues?
Western society has a 2500-year-old tradition of discussion about the
idea of virtue. It began with the early Greek philosophers who
identified four core virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and
fortitude. In modern parlance, we would call them sound judgement,
self-control, respect for others and resilience. Of course the Greeks
did not invent these good habits. Judaism and Christianity assumed them
in their moral teaching, as did the great traditions of the Oriental
world. But the Greeks, especially Aristotle, were the first to analyse
A bit of familiarity of what constitutes each virtue is not airy-fairy
academic speculation. Children will need each of these four main
virtues to have happy lives, to have successful relationships and to
cope with the burdens and challenges that life throws up. Equipped with
a framework for identifying a child’s strengths and weakness, mum and
dad together can discuss strategies to help them grow.
Sound judgement (prudence)
The word “prudence” can mean timidity, indecisiveness and calculation.
But true prudence is a dynamic virtue which allows us to use our
freedom in the best way, the way which leads to true self-fulfilment. A
prudent person will not hanker after illusory roads to happiness.
The great challenge in raising children is to give them a sense of
responsible autonomy and to teach them self management skills. We
cannot give young people enough decision-making practice — appropriate
to their age, of course.
Sound judgement is a virtue for all children. Even toddlers can
practice making good decisions — whether to eat now or later, whether
to help mum do housework or play games, and so one. They are making
decisions without realising it, with their parents’ guidance. But the
defining characteristic of the teen years is self-direction and thus
sound judgment becomes an important issue. Parents should not be scared
when they observe a growing independent spirit in their son or
daughter. They should not react with panic and legislate rules as
if their teenager were still a child.
Usually it is far more effective to let teenagers choose what they are
going to do, unless they are venturing into physical or moral danger
through their lack of experience, and then to debrief afterwards. They
should be encouraged to make their actions consistent with their
values, a prerequisite for peace of soul and happiness in life. In
loving conversations, help a young person reflect on the causes and
consequences of his or her actions, particularly how those actions have
Another aspect of sound judgement is judging according to principles.
Many adolescents (and adults, for that matter) do not have any coherent
principles which guide their actions. It is important to talk with
children, especially teenagers, about ideals and causes. And not only
to talk about them. Successful parents lead by example. It’s a good
idea to throw yourself into idealistic causes, and talk about them at
home with a passion. Be a model for the happiness that comes from
helping others. In particular, generosity is best taught by example —
in giving money to good causes, in sharing things, in doing jobs for
Respect for others and Responsibility (justice)
If children are to truly respect others, they need to work up effective
habits of being other-centred. Young persons today have a great many
privileges: full room and board, loving parents, access to education, a
great variety of entertainment, relative freedom of movement, ease of
communication, etc. With these privileges must come the serious
responsibility of using them well. This means doing jobs for the
welfare of the family, studying very hard, using entertainments with
moderation and not as an end in itself, responsible use of cars,
reasonable use of telephones (by limiting oneself to short calls, and
making sure to ask permission before using the phone), and so on.
It is important to ensure that children have appropriate
responsibilities, small daily jobs for the good of the family; and it
is important for parents to follow up those jobs that have been given,
holding children to what they have agreed to do. Expect responsibility.
Don’t let your son or daughter out of consequences they have brought on
themselves. They have to pay back the phone bill, make the apology or
submit the assignment. Don’t fight their battles for them. In the
teenage years, life will bring challenges for which they have to be
ready. The principle also applies to work: if you fail to teach a young
child the importance of responsibility in finishing jobs don’t expect
assignments to get priority in teenage years.
If our children are to make this world a better place when their turn
comes, they will need to have acquired a deep concern for justice. But
children will only see time as a gift and develop strong habits of
service if these qualities are modeled in the adults they admire.
Self-control is a virtue which develops very early in life. We live in
a very consumer-oriented society in which people really believe
advertising slogans like “you deserve it” or “indulge yourself”. If
parents don’t educate their children to exercise restraint, their
youngsters will be unable to resist the lure of materialism.
Parents must not retard the development of their children by smothering
them with childish pampering. Nor should they look on fondly, saying
"kids will be kids", as teenagers, who in other times and cultures
would already have adult responsibilities, exhibit irresponsible
behaviour. Children must be taught that aaffection is not best shown in
material gifts; people are more important than things; good times are
not more expensive times; and we have to resist the allure of what is
shiny, new or colourful.
Foster a healthy hardiness so that your child will have learnt a degree
of self control. There are alcoholics who grew up in teetotalling
households and alcoholics whose parents gave them moderate amounts. The
key issue is whether a young person has learnt habits of self control.
Resilience obviously has a lot to do with physical toughness. But its
scope is far wider than that. Mental resilience empowers a child to
keep trying even after many failures and to bounce back after making
mistakes. Let your child wear his or her mistakes. Children must learn
to solve small measured problems so that they will not be swamped when
the real problems arrive… their future happiness will depend on their
capacity to solve their own problems in adult life. It can be a serious
error of judgement for parents to do things for their children which
the children are able to do themselves. Do not shield kids from the
small difficulties that they can experience as a child.
Do not fight their battles for them, if they can fight them themselves
without physical or moral danger. Do not write notes to get them out of
trouble for forgetting homework.
We should protect children from moral or physical harm, but we should
not be scared of a child making mistakes (provided there is no lasting
damage). We are preparing children to run their own lives successfully,
therefore they need abundant practice doing this when they are still
children. More important than avoiding mistakes is the sincerity to
recognise mistakes for what they are, the determination to remedy any
hurt done to others, and the habit of learning from mistakes. Parents
need to keep a focus on sincerity, and on the development of this
loving intention, in their children.
Preparing teens for permanent loving relationships
Many parents are reluctant to speak with their children about the birds
and the bees. They can become almost paralysed when it comes to talking
about how to relate to the opposite sex. Yet it is essential for
parents to help teenagers think through relationships in terms of the
virtues of sound judgement, self-control, resilience and, most
importantly, respect for others. This challenge of adolescence is a
kind of final exam in character education, when everything a young
person learned as a toddler and a schoolchild is put into practice. If
they have learned earlier lessons well, it is likely that they will
survive adolescence without any major calamities and will go on to be
mature husbands and wives, father and mothers.
Each young person needs an effective and loving education in
relationships and in the sexual dimension of human life. Yet, the
reality is that most children of this generation will be disappointed
in relationships, some tragically so. Nobody is better placed to pass
on this intimate information by word and example than a child’s own
parents. Too often however, this task is left to teachers, peers, or
Encourage children to mix with and get to know many boys and girls
their own age. Teach that the aim of social life cannot simply be
to find one girlfriend/boyfriend… with all the emotional obsession that
premature relationships create. Young people need to understand the
good reasons for not pairing off in mid-teen years, despite the
constant negative example in this regard in the media.
The teen years offer challenges which young people have never
experienced before. It is good for parents to explain explicitly how
certain uninhibited social venues like raves and some discos make it
much harder for a person to maintain self possession. Explain how
certain heady times, such as the weeks after final school exams finish,
can put a young person under pressures never before experienced,
leading to mistakes one may regret bitterly.
Good parenting books
Borba, Michele, No More Misbehavin’, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2003.
Campbell, Ross, How to Really Love Your Teenager, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1983.
Castillo, Gerard, Teenagers and Their Problems, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1986.
Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, Allen & Unwin, New York, 1997.
DeMarco, Donald, The Heart of Virtue, Ignatius, San Francisco, 1996.
Guarendi, Ray, Back to the Family, Fireside, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.
Isaacs, David, Character Building: A guide for parents and teachers, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2001.
Lickona, Thomas, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop
Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues, Simon and
Schuster, New York, 2004.
Lickona, Thomas, Educating for Character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility, Bantam Books, New York, 1991.
Lickona, Thomas, Raising Good Children, Bantam Books, New York, 1983.
O’Donnell, Margaret and Gerard, Family Values, St Pauls, Sydney, 1993.
Ryan, Kevin, and Bohlin, Karen, Building Character in Schools, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1999.
Seligman, Martin, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1995.
Stenson, James B, Compass, Scepter, New York, 2003.
Stenson, James B, Father, the Family Protector, Scepter, New York, 2004.
Stenson, James B, Lifeline, Scepter, New York, 1996.
Stenson, James B, Upbringing: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, Scepter, New York, 1992.
Centre for the Advancement of Character and Ethics, Boston University.
The Character Education Partnership is a US coalition of organizations and individuals committed to character building.
Character Counts is another vast gathering of organizations committed
to character education giving access to useful links and resources.
Center for the 4th and 5th Rs is Thomas Lickona’s site. It has excellent resources and an e-library of further links.
Michele Borba is a clinical psychologist working from a habit building perspective. She has a lot of very practical tips.
Parenting Bookmark has a wide selection of character focused articles.
Parent Leadership is Jim Stenson’s site.