Mike Kueber's Blog

August 30, 2010

Successful parenting

A few days ago my favorite columnist David Brooks wrote a column in the NYTimes to discuss whether Obama’s stimulus was too expensive.   In the column, Brooks compared managing the economy to being a parent: 

  • “The economy can’t be played like a piano — press a fiscal key here and the right job creation notes come out over there. Instead, economic management is more like parenting. If you instill good values and create a secure climate then, through some mysterious process you will never understand, things will probably end well.”

Brooks’ column didn’t say more about the parenting analogy, but the thought stuck with me.  Can parenting be that simple? 

Upon reflection, parenting isn’t that simple.  Brooks’ prescription seems to be an example of begging the question.  (Technically, the ubiquitous phrase “begging the question” doesn’t mean evading the issue or inviting the obvious questions, but rather it means basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself.  See Bryan Garner’s book, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.) 

The goal of instilling good values invites two obvious follow-up questions – (1) how do you instill values, and (2) which values do you want to instill?  The first question is easier.  A parent instills values by example.  That old saying of “do as I say, not as I do” is a joke, not an effective strategy.  As they say back home, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  If you want your child to assume a value, you need to display it consistently. 

The more difficult question is to determine which values you want to instill.  One of the most important values is self-esteem.  You want children to like themselves, and parents can help by liking themselves.  A relatively new phrase that I like that substitutes for self-respect or self-worth is “being comfortable in your own skin.”  Parents who are comfortable in their own skin are much less likely to be hyper-critical or obsessive about their children.  Instead they will allow their children to develop in their own unique way.

While you want your children to like themselves, you don’t want them to become narcissistic (what we used to call self-centered).  My favorite example of learning a little humility was George Bush-41 as a child being often reminded by his mother to avoid asking for more than his fair share of attention from his teacher.  This practice is exactly the opposite of what most elitists do.  In fact, there are studies showing that those in higher socio-economic classes often get more than their fair share in life because they have been raised to demand it at every turn.  If you don’t want your child to be a squeaky wheel, don’t be one yourself.

The same principle applies to other values that you hope to instill.  Roman Catholics have seven virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love – and that is a good place to start.  Plus the Protestant work ethic.  And that none of us is perfect and each of us is a work in progress.  But most importantly, remember to practice what you preach.



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