Andrew Mullins is the Australian author of the recently published
book Parenting for Character. (He has also written two backgrounders for MercatorNet.) Based on more than 20 years of experience in teaching and in talking with
parents, he contends that parents have to rediscover the lost art of
character education if they want to raise happy, resilient children who
become happy, resilient adults. Mr Mullins is headmaster of Redfield
College, in Sydney.
MercatorNet: What do you think of Supernanny? Is her show a lesson in real parenting?
Andrew Mullins: The appeal of the program tends to suggest
that it is onto something — and meeting a need. From what I have seen,
it does deal with certain immediate skills of parenting, particularly
in the important early years. But Supernanny is more about training,
the inculcation of conditioned responses in children, rather than parenting
At Redfield College, we often talk about routines and
consistency as the stuff of habits which is the stuff, in turn, of
virtues. Much of the common sense training that the television show
focuses on is connected with this essential substratum of virtue
education. In addition we must do our best to form the moral
dimension, the critical judgement, or conscience, of the young person.
Habits do not become virtues unless they
are motivated by a loving intention. Dr Don De Marco, a Canadian
philosopher, talks of virtues being the means by which we deliver love
to others. It is important that we go beyond training children to
respond unthinkingly to raising children who act thoughtfully.
MercatorNet: Many good parents fail to pass on their
values to their children. The kids take up a different religion, or no
religion; they cohabit, do drugs, etc. Why is that?
Andrew Mullins: Sometimes it is because the parents have
been weak parents. They have not had enough moral influence on their
children because they let other influences have more impact. It is just
so important, particularly in these times, for parents to manage the
inputs coming into the lives of young people. Children will imitate
whoever or whatever they spend time with. And if that whoever or
whatever takes an interest in the child personally or if he is admired,
the influence will be enormous.
Other parents can fail to show by their faces and by their lives
that the values they profess do bring happiness. This is a key insight
in the teachings of parenting expert David Isaacs. He argues that we must show
children that our values make us happy or else they will lock onto
some other formula for happiness: "Mum and Dad, I love you but I have
to find something other than your values to bring me happiness in
MercatorNet: A generation or two ago parents didn’t need
to read books on how to raise children. Is it really so much harder
these days? Do mums and dads really need to "study" how to be a parent
in today’s society?
Andrew Mullins: Parenting is definitely harder. In our era,
the nuclear family has shrunk and the extended family is practically
non-existent. It is much harder now for parents to learn from other
parents around them. There is much more competition from the media and
peer groups. Children have more freedom of movement and money in
their pockets than ever before, and the world is
more dangerous for children at a younger age than ever in the past.
In past decades a young person might be making decisions with the
potential to change their lives when they reached their mid to late
teens. Now children as young as 12 and 13 are having to make decisions
not to do drugs, not to binge drink, not to become sexually active. It
is a whole new ball game.
But I believe it is not "studying parenting" in itself that is the
most important thing. Rather parents must be focused on this beautiful
and important life mission. Too many children are raised poorly because
their parents did not see parenting as their most important duty. Much has been written about dads who prefer to focus
their energies on what they are good at — too often their work — to the
detriment of their families. More should be written about the
tragic blind spot in parenting that is created when couples are
breaking apart, when their vision is focused on their own relationship,
rather than on a swiftly developing teenager.
When parents are determined to be the best parents they can be, then study is natural and necessary.
MercatorNet: Video games, pornography, drugs, sex… What’s the biggest danger that kids face today?
Andrew Mullins: In my opinion the greatest danger is the
breakdown in the family. When parents are not united children pay the
price. The statistics are in my book. When parental affection is
lacking all sorts of mischief happens. I quote Barbara Holborow, a
retired children’s court magistrate in Australia, who says that most
of the children in her courtroom lacked affection in their
homelife. In his wonderful book How
to Really Love Your Teenager American author Ross Campbell insists that most problems amongst teens are
solved by addressing the parent-child relationship.
With the breakdown in the family comes the terrifying message that
love is no longer for keeps. A cycle is created whereby the future
relationships of these children are themselves gravely threatened.
If family life is weak, other factors become decisive influences in the lives of children. When parents are not
focusing on family life, then electronic
entertainments take over. When parents do not make their homes
enjoyable, then children do not bring their friends
home and look elsewhere for fun.
A loving family provides a sheltered environment. Parents buy time in this settled and peaceful
environment in which to prepare children for future challenges.
They are not putting their heads in the sand when they use this
time to teach strength of character, virtues and the
difference between right and wrong.
As the son of Odysseus proclaimed, "Mother, I know the
difference between right and wrong. I am no longer a child." Sadly, too
many young adults have never learned to distinguish
right from wrong because their families were dysfunctional. Without
doubt a child can be raised well in less than ideal circumstances, but
it is much harder. It is not really meant to be that hard.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.