Several months ago, I was walking with my three young children in Manhattan when a well-dressed man stopped and, in a brief conversation, entreated me to enjoy them. His son—a teenager—was out of control, it seems, on social media and in life. This encounter renewed my resolve to understand better what I can do as a parent to avoid this outcome. I’ve written previously that there’s much in today’s culture that’s attractive but not good for our children, and as parents, we need to be on guard. However, we can’t shield them forever, so we need to instill in them the wherewithal to resist temptation.
It’s my observation that human behavior is motivated by necessity, emotion, habit, or principles. As newborn babies, we naturally act out of necessity, to relieve hunger, cold, and discomfort. Then, as the child grows, emotional factors start to rule behavior. What the child likes or wants becomes a preoccupation. And perhaps you have observed what happens when a child’s myriad desires are too often gratified: You end up with a selfish young tyrant.
British educator Charlotte Mason said, “Selfishness is a tyranny hard to escape from,” and this I believe to be true because I wrestle with my own. So this is where I see the job of the parent: to help the child develop good habits and the will to live by principles. We need to instill good habits and good principles in them so they don’t lose the connection with their moral conscience, which guides their whole being, actions, thoughts, and feelings.
In my experience, this means that we make sure our children do the right thing even if they don’t necessarily want to. I know how hard it is to do this every time with young children, but no great feat is ever easily accomplished. As parents, we can’t be afraid to make mistakes when teaching our children. Likewise, it’s important to have faith in our ability as parents to learn and grow from our mistakes.
One example of this comes from the autobiographical series of pioneer girl Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura owns only one doll—Charlotte, a rag doll made by her mother. One day, a much younger neighbor girl, Anna, comes over with her mother and it’s Laura’s job to entertain her while their mothers visit. Laura brings out her doll for the little girl to play with, but when it’s time to leave, the young one doesn’t want to give up the doll. It seems the girl’s mother believes Laura gave her daughter the doll, and Laura’s mother, Ma, insists that she give the doll to her:
“Laura had to mind Ma. She stood at the window and saw Anna skipping down the knoll, swinging Charlotte by one arm.
‘For shame, Laura,’ Ma said again. ‘A great girl like you, sulking about a rag doll. Stop it, this minute. You don’t want that doll, you hardly ever played with it. You must not be so selfish.’
Laura quietly climbed the ladder and sat down on her box by the window. She did not cry, but she felt crying inside her because Charlotte was gone. Pa was not there, and Charlotte’s box was empty. The wind went howling by the eaves. Everything was empty and cold.
‘I’m sorry, Laura,’ Ma said that night. ‘I wouldn’t have given your doll away if I’d known you care so much. But we must not think only of ourselves. Think how happy you’ve made Anna.’”
The next morning, Anna’s father came and spent the day chopping wood for Laura’s family because Laura’s father was working far away. Ma reminded Laura that they were fortunate to have such a good neighbor:
“‘You see how good Mr. Nelson is to us,’ said Ma. ‘The Nelsons are real good neighbors. Now aren’t you glad you gave Anna your doll?’
‘No, Ma,’ said Laura. Her heart was crying all the time for Pa and Charlotte.”
In the end, Laura finds a badly used Charlotte abandoned in a puddle and Ma restores her.
Even though Ma wasn’t correct in her assessment of how much Anna appreciated Charlotte and how much Charlotte meant to Laura, I do think she got several things right. One is that she tried to teach the important principle of selflessness. Second, she apologized when she realized she had misjudged the depth of Laura’s feelings. Third, despite Laura’s feelings, she still didn’t budge from the importance of selflessness. Fourth, she didn’t try to control Laura’s deep emotions too much, either to placate them by offering another doll or to diminish them by telling Laura she was wrong to feel the way she did. Lastly, she did the work to restore Charlotte after she had been found.
By modern standards, it feels pretty harsh to force a child to give away her only doll, but, I think Ma understood that a person who learns to be selfless has profound joy, and in the grand scheme of things, a doll is a small price to pay for such a reward. I’m not suggesting that anyone start giving away their children’s toys to teach them to be unselfish; Ma was able to ask that of Laura because she sacrificed many material things herself.
Which brings me to a most important point: In order to teach our children to live by principles, we must strive to live by principles as well and be honest with ourselves—and our children if need be—when we fall short. Ma took a risk, she made a mistake, she admitted it, and she did the work to rectify it. What more could you ask of a parent?
Two things give me strength to push through difficult moments. First, knowing that if I can stay strong when it’s hard for me, I’ll be much better qualified to help my children do the same. And second, all children have an innate moral conscience; they want to be good and do what is right, and they’re counting on me to show and teach them how. If I, in a weak moment, let them follow through with some escapade, it’s going to take a lot more work to correct the behavior next time.
Charlotte Mason points out that it’s important to keep a balanced view of a child and encourage their good innate desires. For example, children want to love and be loved, learn, serve others, and give. Focusing on these, she writes, “will help his parents to restore the balance of his qualities and deliver the child from becoming the slave of his own selfishness.” A parent having faith in the child’s better nature is more powerful than consequences, and “the selfish child need not become, and is not intended to become, a selfish man or woman.”
There are, of course, many important habits and principles to teach children. I would love to hear from parents of older children: What principles and habits did you teach your children that helped them in life?
June Kellum is a married mother of three and longtime Epoch Times journalist covering family, relationships, and health topics.