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Becoming a Better Parent

By Dr. Philip Fitch Vincent, Director of the Character Development Group

You never know when you will cross a bridge, and at another time in your life, will need to go back over the same bridge. I have encountered this more often than I would like to admit. At times, I have probably burned the bridge, or at least flamed it a little. But for the most part, I have been given safe portage back across the bridge with a welcoming greeting to come back.

Several years ago, one of my favorite crossings occurred when I was asked to return to the school district that I had attended in grades K-12. I got to visit with my favorite teacher of all time, Hobart Cook, and to reacquaint myself with my old guidance counselor, Dr. Helen Legette, who was now Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Dr Legette may have asked me to come back to work with Burlington City Schools on character education, but it was I who was the learner. Working with Dr. Legette, now as a peer, was one of the best times of my professional experience.

Several years later, I mentioned to Helen that a book on parenting for character was desperately needed within the field. Within six months, she delivered a manuscript that was published as Parents, Kids and Character: 21 Strategies to Help Your Children Develop Good Character. Helen knew that schools and communities can play an important role in helping shape the character of children, but that the chief architect would always be the home. Five years later, her book is still relevant. I recently re-read the book as a means to gather some insights in helping this father become a better parent to my 15 year-old daughter. It actually offers more insights to me the older my daughter gets. I think I am doing a fairly good job, but any insight is more than welcome.

I wish to share several of Helen's strategies-ones that I believe are important to keep in the forefront of all of our parenting efforts.

Strategy 2: Be clear about your values. Does my daughter know where I stand? Does she know what is important to her mother and to me? Hopefully, through our modeling, she has learned and adopted some of our values. But does she know some of the organizations we choose to support? Does she know why we support these organizations? Does she understand why we sometimes go counter to the prevailing views of her friends and their parents? During a recent family trip, we took time to talk and listen as we addressed some of the ideas that we think are important in our lives. We gained a greater appreciation of our daughter and hope that she understands a little more about the values of her parents.

Strategy 4: Model and teach your children good manners. We have made a re-commitment to teach and model good manners for our daughter and her friends in our home. This is so important, not just for our home, but also for our society as a whole. Basic habits of civility are the building blocks of all the intellectual and social graces that help develop a good and just society. If I cannot treat you with respect and courtesy then how can I learn from you? How do I learn to disagree with you without being disagreeable? One wonderful place to re-establish good manners is around the dining room table. We like to host gatherings with our daughter and her friends. During this time, we do not eat and run, but practice the habits of good conversation and courtesy. We have found that children love invitations to our dinners, even if it means they must clean up. Good manners help grow good conversations and good relationships.

Strategy 16: Learn to say "no," and mean it. When our daughter was growing up, the word she hated most was "no." I used to ask her and still do, what is it that you don't understand: the "n" or the "o"? We are no different than you; we want to say "yes" to our daughter as much as possible. We trust her and believe she will mostly make good decisions. However, sometimes we-as parents with more experience in the ways of the world than our daughter-simply must say "no" to a request and mean it. Interesting discussions can occur when this pronouncement is made. It is not always pleasant but no means no. There are times for compromise, times for letting the child make the decision, but there are also times when a firm "no" is needed.

Strategy 18: Refuse to cover for your children or make excuses for their inappropriate behavior. One of the most important lessons to teach a child is to let the child know that he or she is responsible for his or her actions. As Helen notes, shielding children and youth from the logical consequences of their actions fails to teach them personal responsibility. If a child fails to follow directions at home or willingly violates the rules of the family, there should be a consequence for the action. If not, you are teaching the child that being cavalier about the responsibilities of a member of the family is acceptable. This is not always easy to do. No one wants to punish their children, but it is sometimes necessary. We must always ask ourselves, "What do we want our child to look and act like when he leaves our house to make his way in the world?" If we are thinking long term, then punishments for wrong actions as well as discussion on how one could have better handled the situation are important in the social and moral development of the child. This also applies to the school. If your child gets into trouble in school, most likely your child did exactly what the educators said your child did. Hold the child accountable and have him face the consequences. In the long run, this will help the child-although in the short term, the consequence may be a bit painful.

Helen has a total of 21 strategies in her wonderful book. These are four of my favorites, and are also ones I need to keep in the forefront of my job as a parent and mentor for my daughter's friends. None of these are easy, and I certainly do some of the 21 strategies better than others. Still, I know that if I keep my eye on these practices, I will become a better person that will benefit my family as well as those I am happy to call friends.


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