Monday, May 11, 2015

Who Has the Responsibility to Develop Character?

Psychiatrist Peter C. Whybrow wrote an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal ("This IsYour Brain on Easy Credit"), adapted from his upcoming book The Well-Tuned Brain:  Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived. Whybrow rightly concludes that we would all do better to avoid impulsive decision making and to develop a greater ability to delay gratification.  But the following lines really caught my attention.
Yet the habits of prudent concern and self-command develop, just as do profligate habits, through social exchange.  Ask who is responsible for the development of character and there is no single answer, because it is a collective responsibility.  It is regrettable that discussion of how good character is built has become an unfashionable subject, largely ignored in today’s public debate. 
Is the development of character a collective responsibility?  It is not. Parents are responsible for the development of character in their children.  Healthy societies support and reinforce the teaching of parents.  But the society in which we live, in many ways, can no longer be considered healthy. Parents must educate children in the virtues by constant and repeated instruction when children are small.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells this out quite clearly. In CCC 2223:
They (parents) bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule.  The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self- denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom.  Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” 
Yes, the parents must provide this instruction.  No one else has the authority or influence over the child to do so.

Whybrow is right that the discussion of how character is built has become an unfashionable subject. Why is that?  I would suggest that there are two main reasons.  First, moral relativism has become the norm. Our culture is very committed to the irrational notion that there is no absolute right or wrong and that truth is relative and dependent on personal opinion. We are a ship without a rudder. Consequently, many parents are raising children not only without a compass to rely on, but without even the ability to argue that there is such a thing as a moral compass. The results have been predictable.

The second reason flows from the first. There has been widespread abdication of parents' responsibility toward children.  Some of this abdication is evidenced by the actual turning over of children to the care of others.  If you spend less time with your children, you have fewer opportunities to teach them about what is important. But even parents who are the primary caregivers of their children are frequently failing to teach their children about virtue. Why? Because of a prevailing and insidious child rearing philosophy that says that parents cannot control their children. So parents give up before they have even tried and then blame the bad behavior on the child, ignoring the fact that parents have tremendous influence and great God-given authority over their children. Discipline is very much out of vogue. It is much easier to throw up your hands and shake your head over the "bad choices" your child is making than it is to painstakingly and repeatedly instruct your child in what is the right way to live.  Yes, I said a right way to live.  And, yes, there is a wrong way to live.

We live in disturbingly dark and spiritually dangerous times in which to raise children.  But life remains a beautiful gift from God. Our God reigns. We must diligently call upon the Lord and implore the help of his Blessed Mother to discern and to follow his will in all of the challenges that life and parenting presents.  We must stay on the path illumined by his law and teach our children to do so as well. Our children will recognize the truth. But we must be the ones to show them.


Sarah said...

Awesome post, I agree with everything! Moral character is developed by parents, why is there even a question of this. That is why the phrase "it takes a village" doesn't sit right with me-it takes invested, involved, present PARENTS to raise a child, period.

Rosemary said...

I know, Sarah!! Why is there even a question?? It's parents!! I don't like the it-takes-a-village thing either. The family is being pulled apart. Thanks for commenting!