Raising Caring Children

Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project provides some extremely practical tips on how to raise caring children. The guidelines are common but require effort at every stage of a child’s development for the best results. Parents often wonder if they are doing the right things to raise their children to be successful adults. Some of these may surprise you. Find more about their work on this at https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/parenting-resources-raising-caring-ethical-children


The first thing parents can do involves something we are rapidly losing our ability to do. Parents must spend time with their children. With video games and now phones in the hands of very young children, screen time is replacing parent time in many families. It will take deliberate effort to compete with hours of screen time. The Love and Logic folks believe screen time is actually harmful to preschool children. Keep that in mind when you are deciding when to provide a cell phone to your child.


In order for our children to benefit from time spent with us as parents, we need to be engaging them in conversation and doing things they enjoy. The Harvard Study recommends nightly bedtime reading together or spending time together on a Saturday afternoon with each child individually at least once per month. When you are together you need to find ways of having conversation where each of you take turns sharing about the topic at hand. The study recommends topics like things you enjoy doing, something you learned today or something you did nice for someone else.


Children learn from what they see. Remember all the conversation in the world will not prevent them from learning to drive fast in the car if we drive fast. They will be as ethical as we are. We must remember that cheating the rules or another person will be noticed by our children. They will imitate this behavior and will not see it as wrong, even if we believe it is wrong. What parents do is often interpreted as right by children who believe in their parents, regardless of anything anyone says to the contrary. Our children will have gaps in their ethics because we are inconsistent as adults—that’s just part of being human. Learning to apologize and try to do better comes when parents apologize for their misbehavior and honestly try to do better.


A striking reminder from the Harvard Study involves what parents want for their children. We often focus on our child’s happiness to the exclusion of other important values. Telling our children that we just want them to be happy sends the wrong message; tell them you want them to be kind or honest most of all. Then follow that hope with a desire for their happiness as well. Teach them that being happy often involves service to others or kindness to people whether they are kind in return or not.


Another striking part of this study was the reminder to compliment our children with care. Praising them for doing routine things like chores gives them a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude. We should focus on praising the extraordinary things and expect the routine things. We can thank them for keeping the routine going without going overboard like they have done something extraordinary when it was really only a routine expectation.


Notice that doing these simple things in the right way for a good reason is a part of learning to be a good parent. Maybe it isn’t fair to call them simple things when there are so many complex factors contributing to success. Parenting is hard work. But it remains one of the most important and fulfilling roles in life.

Dr. Matt Crain writes weekly for the Sunday newspaper from his Connecting Fathers and Families ministry.