Yet book after book, magazine after magazine, could easily lead you to believe otherwise. Oh, they don’t literally promise perfection. But the relentless series of easy, multi-step formulas—designed to stop tantrums, break your kids of junk food, get little ones to sleep through the night and avoid screaming matches—certainly leave you with the impression that perfection is (more or less) attainable.
Of course, it could be that the publishers of these books and magazines know their audience—and its hunger for pat answers. “We want guarantees,” writes Betsy Hart in her new book, It Takes a Parent. “But the only thing we really know is that we have a duty to as parents to persevere. And in that perseverance lies the best hope for our children.”
I recently had the privilege of appearing with Betsy on Michael Medved’s nationally syndicated radio show, and as a mother of three teenagers, I can truly appreciate her point. Most parents have solid instincts about what’s right and wrong, and they have a pretty good sense of how to raise their children to understand one from the other. These parents make mistakes—we all do—but they learn from them. The trick is in sticking with it, day after day, for years.
But as Betsy points out in her wise and readable book, stick with it we must. Why? Because we love our children—even when they’re unlovable. And because, as she puts it in a theme that recurs throughout the book, “we need to be on a rescue mission for our children’s hearts.” The reason is simple: What we do is a reflection of our character. If we persevere in planting good virtues in our children, we won’t have to worry so much about how they will behave under pressure. (Of course, we’ll never stop worrying altogether—we are parents, after all.)
Consider two people that Betsy uses as examples to show that “training can take over when it comes to the heart”: Bruce Ismay and Todd Beamer. Ismay was president of the White Star Line, which produced the Titanic and was on the ship when it sank. But unlike hundreds of his passengers, he survived. Why? Because, Betsy says, he was able to board a lifeboat “ahead of other potential male passengers because of his status.” Contrast that with Todd Beamer, who was on United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. When it became apparent that terrorists were using the plane on a suicide mission, Beamer rallied his fellow passengers (“Let’s roll”) to stop their attackers. We know the result: Instead of slamming into the U.S. Capitol or a similar target, the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
Was Bruce Ismay a born coward and was Todd Beamer a born hero? No. But in a moment of supreme peril, both showed their true character. Vice and virtue had no doubt been reinforced time and again during their lifetimes. When the Big Moment came, each acted accordingly.
So how can parents improve their chances of raising a hero? They can start, Betsy says, by recognizing that they have authority simply because they’re parents. They don’t have to plead with their children to behave. They should make it clear (from a very young age) that they expect to be minded. Sometimes this means (brace yourself, modern parents) saying a well-considered “no” and sticking to it. Despite what many parenting “experts” will say, your child won’t be scarred for life. Indeed, he’ll be much better off. If you really love him, you’re more concerned with shaping his character than with winning a popularity contest.
Having the guts to say “no” when appropriate is also a good way to save your children from what Betsy calls the “It’s All About Me” culture that surrounds us. Far too many parents enthrone their children and constantly reinforce the notion that the world revolves around them. In the process, they create monsters who are a terror not only to others but to themselves, if the rising rates of depression are any indication.
Needless to say, these spoiled children are filled with “self-esteem” (or the modern equivalent, at least—a counterfeit of true self-esteem). The trouble, as Betsy says, is that “it’s becoming clear that too much self-esteem can create narcissistic, arrogant, even dangerous people.” Parents who truly care about their children are willing to train them to be good people—not let them wallow in self-love.
Why go to this trouble? Because, Betsy says, “Children are not born with wisdom. Wisdom is gained only through experience or through the experience of watching or learning from others and being able to apply that experience to ourselves. These things require maturity, and they require parents, and other adults, who are willing to properly interpret such experiences for children.”
That’s why perseverance is crucial. As I say in my own book, Home Invasion: “Seize every minute, find reinforcements, gather all the resources you can, and quickly establish your family in faith, in unconditional love, and in open communication.”
It all comes back to that rescue mission. Have you launched one for your children?