Dr. Elizabeth Berger says a child’s character
develops out of his love for his parents, and their love for him.
THE TODAY SHOW
April 18, 2001 — According to experts, there are some key
qualities that all excellent moms and dads share, and all week, “Today” and Parents magazine, are
taking a look at some of them. In part three of this special series, the focus is on how parents can
raise children with character. Elizabeth Berger, M.D. is a member of the American Academy of
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the author of “Raising Kids with Character:
Trust and Personal Integrity In Children.”
She offers some advice below...
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEHAVIORS THAT WE, AS A SOCIETY, DEFINE
As a society, we are remarkably clear about
“character.” It’s nothing esoteric or fancy or
professional. We mean the Girl Scout virtues of kindness and
responsibility and loyalty and commitment. We mean courage under
fire, integrity, and concern for others. One of the encouraging
things about America is that everyone knows what we mean by
these things and everybody values them as ideals, even if we
don’t put them into practice with complete success.
HOW DOES A CHILD’S CHARACTER DEVELOP?
A child’s character develops out of his
love for his parents, and their love for him. Morality is the
eventual fruit of that human relationship. The parents’
natural joy and devotion to the infant sets the stage for the
infant’s character — his expectation that people can be
trusted, and that life is good. The parents’ love for each
other, of course, is part of the environment in which the child
HOW SOON DOES THIS BEGIN?
Character grows from the first day of life!
At birth, every baby is ready to love you, and not the maternity
nurse, no matter how useful and efficient she may be. That’s
because the parent’s eyes and voice and touch are personal,
right from the beginning. The infant in the next bed, born an
hour before yours, is a lovely baby of course. But he’s not
yours. Love is personal, irreplaceable, sacred. In a sense, the
parents have a relationship with their own baby before it is
born, a relationship that bursts into bloom the minute there is
a real baby to love.
WHAT ROLE DO PARENTS PLAY IN THIS EARLY DEVELOPMENT?
The parents transmit their own
steadfastness, patience, loyalty, and faith in the human heart
through everything they do, every day, in caring for their
child’s body and spirit. The parent is respectful of the
child’s feelings and concerned about the child’s well-being.
This is how children come to be, in time, capable of respect and
concern for others.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE EXAMPLE PARENTS SET FOR THEIR CHILDREN,
WHEN IT COMES TO CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT?
Since children grow through imitation of
people they love and admire, the parent’s example is the
backbone of the child’s growing character. But the parents
don’t have to look for artificial opportunities to exhibit
their character to their children. Their character is probably
far better understood by their children than by anyone else. You
can’t pull the wool over your own kid’s eyes. But for the
parent to try to be a good person — especially in his
interactions with the child — is terribly important.
IS IT EVER TOO LATE TO MAKE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO HELP
CHILDREN WITH THEIR CHARACTER?
Helping the child with his character
isn’t something you can do directly. It’s like helping him
with his ability to fall in love. In fact, it is very much like
helping the child with his ability to fall in love because
character is closely connected to the whole issue of love and
hate — how human beings relate to one another, and especially
how they handle conflict. How does the parent handle conflict
with the child? That’s one of the areas where the parents own
self-control, self-discipline, and wisdom are called upon the
most — and the area where the child learns about
self-discipline and wisdom from the parent. That’s how
character gets transmitted from one generation to the next.
WHAT COMMON MISASSUMPTIONS DO PARENTS MAKE THAT ONLY GET IN
THE WAY OF THEIR CHILD’S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT?
Parents who try to do something about the
child’s character usually launch into a campaign of preaching,
or list-making, or trying to “make” the child be more
responsible, or disciplining or some other tiresome thing that
the child experiences as dreary and depressing. These
well-intentioned and effortful measures on the parents’ part
only make the child itch to get away from the parent and
everything the parent stands for. Parents can have complete
faith and confidence in this: that the child’s innate capacity
to be concerned and respectful and responsible grows out of one
thing only, the love relationship with the parent. Thus anything
that enhances the intimacy between parent and child is certain
to make the child a richer and stronger person in time. Anything
that makes the child wish he were somewhere else is a waste of
time, or worse. Honesty and communication, including honest
anger, enhance intimacy. The child does not necessarily want to
be elsewhere because the parent is honestly angry (usually the
child wants to stand his ground and pursue the honest argument.)
But lecturing, scolding, punishing, and nagging are utterly useless
in enhancing the parent’s relationship with the child, just as
they are useless between man and wife.
The conscious effort that parents need to
make, if they want to make a conscious effort at all, is to use
their own mature self-discipline as much as possible whenever
they are with the child. This means being respectful and patient
and tender towards the child. It means the parent is committed
to controlling his own boredom, irritability, burnout or
whatever it is that might threaten — in that moment — to
undermine the child’s natural joy in being close to someone he
WHAT’S YOUR BEST ADVICE TO PARENTS WHO ARE STRUGGLING WITH
My advice to struggling parents is to take
a long hard look at why there is a struggle. Many parents have
gotten the idea that the child is a piece of clay that has to be
pushed and pulled into shape. What a lot of work. Or they have
the idea that anything the child wants is bound to be wild and
dangerous, messy and selfish. Many good hardworking people
believe that children are naturally bad and have to have
“goodness” lectured or beaten into them, and that parenting
is the story of how this is accomplished.
These are underlying attitudes that the
parent himself may not even be aware of, yet have a powerful
influence on their relationship with the child — the music
behind the words. Parents who try to make children “mind”
are likely to end up in a power struggle with their children
because they do not recognize that the child’s desire to be
like the admired parent is the motive behind growth — it
doesn’t occur to these parents that the child would actually
want to be like them.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL PARENTS WHO ARE JUST BEGINNING TO RAISE
The tips for parents that I think are most
valuable, are to love your child each day as if you knew you’d
be fatally run over by a truck tomorrow morning, and plan
seriously as a family around priorities. Often a family
experiences an increase in psychological well-being if the
parents are willing to give up some degree of financial success
— more time to be relaxed and loving instead of burnt-out,
irritable, and depleted.
Also, parents don’t have to have so many activities scheduled,
either for themselves or for their children. Take your kid in
the backyard and collect some bugs! Children need intimacy with
their parents, not the stuff you get at the mall.