How to Raise a Decent Human Being

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Photo by Anyul Rivas via Flickr
Photo by Anyul Rivas via Flickr

The world is drowning in so much hate right now. People on the left are shouting at people on the right, and people are the right are shouting right back. There’s been an apparent uptick in racial harassment and many people are worried for their safety and the safety of friends, family and neighbors — at the same time others are downplaying their concerns and fear. The disconnect, anger, fear and hate is palpable and visible right now.

But it is not the whole story.

There are, always have been, and always will be decent people in this world. People who strive to listen to, to understand and to help others. People who refuse to rise on the backs of others; people who reach a hand out to help those left behind. People who express understanding and empathy, and who work, everyday, within their own lives and on scales both big and small, to make the world a better place.

How do we raise children who grow up to be humans who help, rather than people who stoke hate, fuel division and harm others? That’s the question I’m sure many of us are pondering right now. After all, isn’t that our ultimate goal as parents? To raise decent human beings?

If you’ve been a parent for awhile, you know it’s easier said than done. You know that parents’ influence stretches only so far, and that children have choice. Even fantastic parents can raise kids who do horrible things, and that does not necessarily mean that the parents did something “wrong.” Similarly, some kids grow up in pretty crummy circumstances and turn out to be pretty terrific human beings.

I am convinced, though, that if we want peace in this world, we need to begin in our own homes. The ways in which we raise our children affects them profoundly — it colors their perception of normal and acceptable, and teaches them what is tolerable and what is not. The way we treat our children is reflected in the ways they treat others. (Will they always follow our example? No. But our example will always stick in their heads.)

Here are 10 steps to raising a decent human being:

Love him.

Kiss him. Hug him. Accept him, unconditionally. Let him know, through your words and deeds, that there is absolutely nothing he can do to lose your love. Children who grow up with unconditional love and acceptance are far more likely to accept others than those who have learned that love must be earned.

Remember, love is a verb. Here are 14 ways to tell your son, “I love you.”

Consider others.

As parents, we do this each and everyday. Most of us are constantly thinking about how our decisions and actions will affect our children; many of us base our professional and personal decisions on how they will affect our children and families, in addition to ourselves.

Go a step farther. Consciously step out of your own perspective into another. When you are considering a public referendum, for instance, don’t just think about how it will help or hurt you and your family; think about how it might affect seniors and disabled people on fixed incomes. Think about how the proposed change will affect single parents. Foster kids. Recent immigrants.

It can be overwhelming (and impossible) to consider all perspectives, and the truth is that few decisions benefit all people. The point is to be in the habit of considering of others, of thinking beyond the immediate needs and wants of you and your family. As you do so, your children will also learn to consider others.

Expose him to the world.

A century ago, most people lived in small communities, surrounded by people who were a lot like them. Many people would spend an entire lifetime within a few miles of where they were born.

That is not the case anymore. Our world is interconnected in ways its never been before, and its crucial for our children to know and understand that the world contains many people, many ways of life and many ideas. So read to your child. Discuss world events. Watch interesting TV shows about other cultures, places and religions. Travel, as much as you can, even if that means day trips to a nearby state park or neighboring community.

Make a concerted effort to expose your child to things he does not see in his everyday world. We live in a small, rural Wisconsin town. The population is nearly 97% white and close to 100% Christian. My kids do not have much opportunity, in their daily lives, to interact with people of other cultures and religions. So I’ve made it a point to take them to other places, to expose them to other people and ideas.

Limited budget? I understand. But that is no excuse to keep the world from your child. Library cards are free. Internet access is free at most libraries (and many other places) too. Expose your child to new people, new thoughts and new ideas as often as possible.

Don’t Share Your Hate and Biases with Him.

We all have them. Some people, for instance, assume that referees always favor the home team; I know, because I’ve sat by these people in the bleachers at my sons’ basketball games, and their very loud, very consistent shouting and complaining gives it away. I know some people who hate unions and anyone who belongs to or supports them; it turns out, that person was once pushed out a job because he helped a friend on a non-union job, and it was against union rules to do so. That one incident spurred a lifelong hate of unions — a hate this man has passed down to his children, and a hate that then spread to a general distrust of an entire political party.

Implicit bias is bias that exists beneath conscious awareness. Implicit bias is what causes some white people to cross the street when they see a black teenager walking toward them. Implicit bias is why 1st grade teachers assume girls are better students, and why middle school teachers (and students) often believe boys are better at math and science than girls.

It’s easier to deal with explicit, or obvious, bias. If you hate or dislike something, keep it to yourself. Do not shout at the ref, even if, in your eyes, he botched the last 7 calls. Do not call broccoli a terrible food; you know perfectly well that if you do, your child will refuse to eat it too.

Implicit bias is tougher, because it takes some soul-searching and self-awareness to determine which biases you harbor. Want some help? Try some of the tests at Project Implicit. They only take a few minutes each and can be eye-opening.

Model Respectful Behavior.

Treat all people with respect. Say please. Say thank you. Do not call your political opponents or coworkers or neighbors jackasses or bitches. Do not berate others for their failures or shortcomings. Do not give or show respect only to those who act in ways that you deem appropriate. Show respect to the spark of shared humanity in every human being.

Surround Him With Good People.

The more, the better. Make every possible effort to surround your child with adults of integrity — adults who also role model respect and acceptance. Seek out churches and schools and coaches who place character development above achievement. Look for other families who are also striving to raise decent human beings. Foster connections between your family and theirs.

Your child, of course, will make his own choices regarding friends. He may, at some point, choose to surround himself with friends you don’t like, friends you suspect could be a bad influence. Continue to love him anyway. Continue to surround him with as many good people as possible. Meanwhile, get to know his friends and their parents or guardians. Exchange phone numbers. Exchange information. Help one another.

Engage in Frequent Conversation.

And listen more than you talk. It’s not always easy to listen to seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness discussions about Minecraft. But listening to your child lays the groundwork for future important conversations. It shows your child that you care, and that you are available to him, and that’s important, because children (boys especially), rarely come to their parents and say, “Hey, something is up. Can we talk?” More often than not, cares and concerns will be woven into an apparently unimportant conversation. Demonstrating to your child, again and again and again, that you are available to talk and able to listen drastically increases the probability that you child will come to you when something is wrong.

Frequent conversation is also the best way to know what’s on your child’s mind, where his head is at. My son asked me today what I think of the anti-Trump protests here in the U.S.; I asked him what he thinks of reports that some students are chanting, “Build a wall!” at fellow classmates. Those kinds of conversations allow me to gently share information and values, while learning a lot about his world. Understanding his world is key to helping him learn how to navigate it.

Forgive.

You will screw up. He will screw up. People you trust will screw up.

No one is perfect, and no human ever will be. The sooner your son learns that people can be both good and bad — that one mistake or misstep does not forever label one a bad person — the better equipped your son will be to handle the complexity of the world.

Of course, it’s important to seek to make things right; forgiveness does not mean ignoring a wrong. Say sorry when you screw up; ask that your sons do the same. Seek to right your mistakes; ask that your sons do the same. But ultimately, forgiveness is a choice. It is choosing to put aside remaining and lingering hurt and anger; it is a choice to move forward. Instead of holding onto grudges, let your son see you working to move past pain, into healing.

Reach Out.

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own lives. But whenever possible, reach out to others. Say hi to strangers in line at the grocery store, particularly strangers who don’t look like you. Offer to help friends and acquaintances when you can. (Could you pick up their son from practice when you’re going to pick yours up anyway?) Volunteer for church and community events and initiatives. Grasp every opportunity you can to reach outside of the bubble of your daily life.

Trust Him.

You can do all of the above things, and I cannot guarantee that your child will turn out to be an excellent human being. I cannot guarantee that he will always make wise choices. But I suggest you trust him anyway. Here’s why:

You can carefully control their food, clothing, reading material and ever their circle of friends — but only up to a certain age. At some point, your boys are going to be bigger than you. At some point, they will discover the world beyond their carefully vetted environment. And at some point, whether you like it or not, they will begin making their own choices.

…[So]  I trust in the process….I believe that our family values are slowly seeping into the boys. I trust that, over time, my boys will grow into good men. 

Our children, just like us, learn through trial and error. Little by little, mistake by mistake, they grow. Trust your children. Give them room to make choices, and space to learn from their missteps. Trust in the process. Trust in your kids’ innate goodness. Trust in the humanity of your neighbors, of all the other parents who are also working to raise decent human beings.

Place your trust in love, not hate.

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