I was waiting in the school board
office to discuss a substance abuse prevention program with the
superintendent when she walked in. She was young and frazzled,
and it was easy to see why.
The four-year-old tugging at
her sleeve, almost pulling her into the room, could have been
a poster boy for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. He
almost seemed a postmodern meltdown of media overload and genetic
engineering gone awry -- part Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, part
Attila the Hun.
He started ransacking the room
as soon as he broke her grip (or was it the other way around?),
karate-chopping invisible opponents along the way.
The toddler on her lap was whining
and squirming to get down. She seemed inspired by her brother's
commitment to chaos and struggled to join him in the fascinating
task of pulling magazines off an end table and hurling them around
When mom finally released her,
the little girl bolted to her brother's side.
mom implored, exasperated. "Do be good!" But both kids
were suddenly deaf and blind -- and determined to Go For It.
Hardly pausing for breath, they
tore through (literally) a year-old copy of Newsweek,
transforming it into a pile of shredded paper and business-reply
cards in the blink of an eye.
Finally, some invisible tripwire
inside mom's mind snapped and she stormed across the room, whacking
the rear of each child.
"How many times do I have
to tell you to be good?" she sputtered. The four-year-old
only stared defiantly as mom scooped up his sister, dragging
her back to her chair, where she (the toddler, not the mom) wailed
Finally, the receptionist called
me to my appointment and I left the room, grateful for the quiet
and comforted by the thought that the ancient Newsweek
might finally rest in peace or even be replaced by something
more recent. Still, I wondered how the young mother would get
through the day.
Later, I joined a high school
principal and guidance counselor in meeting with a parent concerning
his child's behavior, and heard a similar story.
"Can't do nothing to control
that boy," the man complained. "We've tried everything
from whippings to grounding him to cutting off his allowance.
He still does just what he wants to do when he wants and to hell
with the rest."
He shrugged. "Kids today
just don't have the respect for parents they used to."
What's going on here?
During my years as a teacher,
campus minister, substance abuse prevention consultant, and parent,
I've heard similar comments from scores of adults. It's so commonplace
an observation that it seems trite, even irrelevant.
But it isn't irrelevant.
Because the parent-child relationship
is at the heart of who we are as individuals and plays a huge
role in determining how we feel about ourselves and what we do
with our lives.
Some adults simply throw up their
The problem is so vast and touches on so many aspects of modern
life -- broken homes and fragmented families, the corrosive influence
of mass media, the ready availability of drugs and alcohol --
that they despair of ever finding a solution.
Others -- me, included -- aren't
so sure. How is it, for example, that many poor mothers in underprivileged
circumstances manage to instill self-discipline and worth into
their kids while parents who seemingly have everything going
for them wind up with spoiled, irresponsible brats?
And as my own daughters grew
-- faster than I ever dreamed possible -- these issues became
more important to me.
That's why I decided to write
Because the more I've considered
what works in helping kids develop positive traits of character,
the more everything has seemed to revolve around a single key
ingredient -- personal responsibility.
And the more I've looked at responsibility,
the more I've come to see it as a two-way street, with parent
and child bound up in an interdependent relationship that provides
the ground of being for all relationships that follow in a child's
Parents are responsible for their
children -- responsible for their welfare and well-being, responsible
for communicating their own values and experiences, and generally
showing a child the way things are in the world.
And children are responsible
to parents -- responsible for accepting and appreciating their
parents' (and society's) rules and regulations, responsible for
learning to be a person.
What follows may not be the only
way to be a person. But it's the best way I know.