Children: Our Legacy for the Future

How can parents exercise a discerning influence over their children’s character to ensure that they grow up with a clear sense of right and wrong?

One thing we can all be certain of is that we will not always be around—one day each of us will die. When that happens, what will be our legacy? What will we leave behind for posterity?

In large part, our children will be our legacy. But what kind of people will they grow up to be?

Today’s Western society has seen an alarming decline in moral direction and spiritual values. Our societies seem to believe that they have outgrown their need for God and that science reigns supreme as the arbiter of all the important questions of life. The nuclear family has largely disintegrated, and the stabilizing impact of the extended family and of close-knit communities has diminished. The sheer pace of social change is dizzying.

Increasingly our “me first” society is competitive and materialistic, addicted to selfish pleasures. It is characterized by considerable levels of stress, which manifests itself in many ways.

If our way of life has lost meaning, if the rapidly changing times in which we live are confusing, nowhere has this had more telling impact than on families and the way we raise our children. Gone are the days when many families attempted to bring up children to be moral, God-fearing, and equipped to fulfill their obligations in service to the community. Instead the approach has shifted to being child oriented, yet with little clear parental focus on a desired outcome. Children are increasingly given less direction on how they should behave and are allowed to grow up more or less as they please. They assimilate only hazy ideas about what comprises right or wrong; the only remaining criterion for success seems to be material prosperity.

We have a duty to benefit and serve our society as best we can, and that includes how we pepare the next generation.

But surely one of the most important duties of parents is to raise moral children. We have a duty to benefit and serve our society as best we can, and that includes how we prepare the next generation. After all, when we are no longer here, the world will belong to them. Our children are the next generation and we are passing on a legacy to them—whether for good or for ill. We must give careful consideration, therefore, to the quality of that legacy—how we raise our children and the values we instill in them.

What parents need more than anything else is to recapture a strong sense of values and beliefs to teach their offspring so as to benefit them and succeeding generations. Yet we live at a time when there is much confusion about how parents should go about this task.

The Quiet Revolution

The past two centuries have brought remarkable developments in technological and philosophical areas. Almost hidden among them, however, have been quiet but dramatic changes in public attitudes toward the family, and particularly toward child rearing—quiet in the sense that the changes in culture and society have been so gradual that the human mind has not always detected them. Quiet also in the sense that, having recognized a need to adjust some of our attitudes from those of the past, we have easily accepted change.

It’s time we ask ourselves some serious questions about the appropriateness of the changes the postwar generation has embraced in relation to its children. Undoubtedly there have been some necessary and beneficial developments, but common sense should also tell us that not all change is good. Western society’s approach to children has altered dramatically, but only in recent years has the validity of some of the changes been challenged. Given the evidence, some of these challenges appear to have merit. The media are generally doing a thorough job of bringing this information to our attention: the failure of education systems, diminishing literacy rates, growing school violence, teen immorality, juvenile crime—the list sometimes seems endless.

One individual who found himself swept up in the current of change following World War II was pediatrician Benjamin Spock, author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, later known simply as Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. No other book has had greater impact on parenting, and Spock became a household name as America’s favorite child doctor.

It is doubtful that Spock initiated the changes in public attitudes toward children and their upbringing, but his timing in producing a child-rearing handbook that preached a quiet revolution in child-training practices surely fueled the fire. Many of the ideals he taught have passed into the mainstream of Western culture and are now generally taken for granted. “Trust yourself,” as he advised parents, has become the catch phrase of a modern generation. And perhaps this is not without some justification when one contrasts the rigid and harsh child-care methods of a previous era. However, it is unwise to throw the baby out with the bath water, as many parents seemingly did. By no means did all the ideals of previous generations need to be discarded.

Before Benjamin Spock published his book, young parents had been encouraged to look to the child-care professionals. Parental instinct was not to be trusted; only a strict, regimented approach determined by the pediatric community would be effective in raising children. Spock’s alternative of a more child-centered approach, in which parents trusted their own sense of what was right for their child, struck a chord with many parents who were themselves beginning to question established practices.

As many women moved from the home environment into the workforce during and after the Second World War, attitudes toward the respective roles of men and women began to change. The impact of war, and of evolutionary and scientific thinking, caused a drift away from established religious beliefs and practices. The pace of life dramatically quickened. Necessarily, attitudes toward children and their upbringing also began to change. People wanted a fresh start following the war and looked forward to a new and prosperous era in which to raise their families. In the years following World War II, an obvious shift in parenting practices was most noticeable as a sustained baby boom got under way.

Too Fast, Too Soon

In the decade of the 1980s, many child psychologists and experts in child development tried to warn that something important was taking place: Children were growing up too fast. One such expert was David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University, who wrote The Hurried Child. In it he documented a troubling outgrowth of the ’60s generation. He demonstrated that parents, schools and the media were all forcing children to grow up too fast, too soon. He felt they were missing out on some very important stages of development. These are the young people who are now helping to form and mold our society as they graduate from college and university and move into positions of influence within “the system” of society. The question must be asked: Have they missed elements in their childhood, and has this resulted in deficient young adults?

A more recent book, The Sibling Society by Robert Bly (Vintage Books, 1996), argued that children without childhood do not actually grow up but remain locked in a half-adolescent, half-adult mentality. In his introduction, Bly explained what he meant by a sibling society. “It’s the worst of times; it's the best of times,” he began. “That’s how we feel as we navigate from a paternal society, now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way. People don’t bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults.” He went on, “Americans who are twenty years old see others who look like them in Czechoslovakia, Greece, China, France, Brazil, Germany, and Russia, wearing the same jeans, listening to the same music, speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands. Sometimes they feel more vitally connected to siblings elsewhere than to family members in the next room.”

Bly noted that, in this sibling society, “adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents—seeing that—have no desire to become adults. . . . Perhaps one-third of our society has developed these new sibling qualities. . . . In a sibling society, it is hard to know how to approach one’s children, what values to try to teach them, what to stand up for, what to go along with; it is especially hard to know where your children are.”

Some people are certain they know where their children are, although others would question whether this is where children should be. The London Sunday Times of November 1, 1998, reported that, “according to Kay Hymowitz, author of a book on tweens [an age group between childhood and adolescence] . . . busy parents are spending less time with their children—so television, magazines and peers at school are becoming more significant influences on children’s lives. ‘It’s a very disturbing trend’ [Hymowitz] said. ‘Parental absence, the market and the peer group form a vicious circle that works to distort the development of youngsters.’”

What Do You Expect?

This distortion of development, combined with parental uncertainty, lies at the heart of child rearing today. Whether children have been forced to grow up too fast or have not grown up enough, the issue really comes down to what we expect our children to become. Without a clear vision of what we want the next generation to be, how can we mold and shape them to be the next responsible custodians of society? We live in a time when even the words mold and shape are inflammatory to those who reject any need for control in the development of children.

Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute (a New York-based think tank), and author of a book titled Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours (Free Press, 1999), argues that as child-liberation ideas entered the mainstream, they hardened into a philosophy she calls anticulturalism. “Anticulturalism,” she says in the introduction to her book, “is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into the parenting magazines, into Hollywood, and into our kitchens and family rooms.”

Anticulturalism, says syndicated columnist John Leo, boils down to the notion that children should develop on their own. In his “On Society” column in the November 1, 1999, issue of U.S. News & World Report, he noted that this is reminiscent of “the series of law articles published by Hillary Rodham in the mid-1970s. She proposed legal rights for children against parents—including ‘decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, and employment.’”

Is this what Benjamin Spock had in mind when he encouraged a kinder, gentler way of parenting? The parents of today were themselves raised under the effects of postwar change. Dr. Spock and other pediatricians may have had the best of intentions, but they helped pave the way to where we are today, with many believing that parents and schools should provide stimulation and encouragement but otherwise largely stay out of the way. Leo summed up this approach very succinctly: “Children are not to be raised, but simply allowed to grow.” The result, of course, is that today’s parents reflect an uncertainty produced by a society undergoing fundamental cultural shifts; in their mind, the jury is still out on how to raise children.

Today’s parents reflect on uncertainty produced by a society undergoing fundamental cultural shifts. 

But is an environment of self-determination as benign as it might appear to be on the surface? It sounds good to the rational mind, which, of course, is why so many parents accept it, even if they personally hold some reservations.

Many would say that past methods were wrong and that we need to abandon whatever caused error. Numerous child-care experts have identified the authority structure of the home and those institutions that have had a bearing on child development, such as schools and churches, as being problematic. They’ve concluded that such authority has to be deconstructed, which may sound reasonable and natural at first. But is there a little more to consider?

Humanistic Confidence

In the fall of 1999, Paul Kurtz, editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, released an updated version of the “Humanist Manifesto” for the year 2000. In the preamble he stated a truth that every parent needs to ponder long and hard: “Humanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook that has changed the world. Its heritage traces back to the philosophers and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and the Carvaka movement in classical India. Humanist artists, writers, scientists, and thinkers have been shaping the modern era for over half a millennium. Indeed, humanism and modernism have often seemed synonymous; for humanist ideas and values express a renewed confidence in the power of human beings to solve their own problems and conquer uncharted frontiers” (Free Inquiry, Fall 1999, p. 4, emphasis ours throughout).

The list of people who have signed off on this manifesto is impressive. But look again at some of the claims that humanism makes. It “changed the world”; it’s been “shaping the modern era”; it holds high “the power of human beings to solve their own problems.” This sounds very familiar with respect to the changes effected in recent years in the area of child care. And, of course, it should sound familiar. This approach lies at the heart and core of today’s education system and has been influential in reducing the role of authority, which is seen as a hindrance to the advancement of the human values of freedom and happiness.

Kurtz went on to say, “Many of the old ideas and traditions that humankind has inherited are no longer relevant to current realities and future opportunities.” This is why parents are confused as to their responsibility in raising children. Spock was a product of the “ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook that has changed the world.” Yes, he saw the need for a kinder, more loving approach to children, but his solution was suffused with Freudian psychology, and Sigmund Freud was very much a part of the humanist movement that has shaped the modern era.

Spock’s biographer, Thomas Maier, attempted to sum up the impact Spock had on parenting around the world. “Most appealing to Spock and other admirers of Freud was an altruistic, ethical side of psychoanalysis,” Maier wrote, “a moral base that sprang from human experience rather than a deity, that encouraged people to decide their own fate and work for a better society” (Dr. Spock: An American Life, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1998, p. 210). “Dr. Spock became a national pater familias,” Maier stated, “whose wisdom emanated from his own set of commandments” (p. 202).

Back to Basics

There is something else we should consider. Victorian attitudes in many areas, especially toward the role of children, were indeed repressive and in need of change. Child care does not need to revert to such rigid and extreme attitudes. So what is the parental role supposed to be? How can parents envision the kind of person their child should be?

Will the Ten Commandments hanging on a wall in a classroom modify the behavior of students?

In the United States, following a series of violent shootings in schools, a new impetus has developed for a return to religious roots. “Get the Ten Commandments back into the classroom,” they demand. But is this the solution? Will the Ten Commandments hanging on a wall in a classroom modify the behavior of students? Oh, that it were so simple!

We have teachers struggling merely to instill the basics of education in our children. A terrifying percentage of young people leave the system unable to read, much less master the other two R’s. How can we possibly ask these same teachers to impart religious education to the multicultural masses that pass before their chalkboards? Not that having the Ten Commandments in the classroom is a bad idea; but if a more authoritarian religious climate is the solution, why didn’t it work at an earlier time when Judeo-Christian ethics were more dominant?

The fundamental answer to the healthy development and care of children surely lies with the present generation of parents—not with the children, nor with teachers, law enforcement agencies or the community at large. The answer is twofold, yet one. If parents don’t know—and live by—the appropriate values by which to raise their offspring, how can their children take on board values that will produce a healthy society in the future? Until we remove the confusion and come to some agreed set of core principles upon which child rearing can be based, the present state of disorientation will persist, and unfortunate consequences will continue undiminished.

Ideas do have consequences. Humanistic ideas about religion, about the family and about the upbringing of children all contribute to and affect the cultural values that are passed on from one generation to the next. We need to stop and carefully evaluate the humanistic ideas of this present generation before assuming that where we are is the appropriate place from which to raise another generation.

Children begin their lives with a remarkable genetic inheritance. But their lives are soon molded by a multitude of other factors, not least of which is the power of the culture into which they are born. Cultural influences are very strong and work through numerous agencies on a child’s developing mind. Parents should act as supervisors of all this input to see that the influences upon their children are as beneficial as possible. If parents, however, who are themselves products of societal influences, are not confident in deciding what influence is good or bad, or if they turn their children loose in a sea of diverse ideas without guidance, the chances of producing a well-adjusted young adult are slim.

Right in Character

The fruits of postwar child rearing indicate that we have been going in the wrong direction. What is debatable is the direction we should be going. The solution revolves around the kind of character we wish to instill in our offspring. As an alternative to humanistic ideas, we need to examine afresh ideas that are found in the Book of books—the Bible. It contains advice that emanates from the Creator of life itself, teaching that God is the author of true character.

The fruits of post-war child rearing indicate that we have been going in the wrong direction. 

Biblical advice is not outmoded. Sadly, however, parents have all too often misunderstood or lacked balance to properly apply that advice. The same can be said of religious authorities over the centuries. Certainly this was true of Spock’s own upbringing, against which he so strongly rebelled in his book. Before trying to impose biblical standards on children, parents would be well advised to thoroughly incorporate such standards into their own lives. Personal example, after all, is everything.

Perhaps we need to reconsider the choices we have made. We can choose to adopt a view of life that places God and His revealed way of life, rather than humanistic ideas—or even mistaken ideas about God—at the center of our lives and our families. God is the author of marriage and the family. He defines for us the spiritual laws that make these institutions work effectively. If we follow His way of doing things, the lives of parents—first of all—can be transformed. Then the lives of our children can take on new direction and emphasis. The results are likely to be profound and far-reaching.

The Bible predicted we would arrive at a generation when the family would be in urgent need of reconstitution. Indeed, it states that the hearts of the fathers will be turned to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest the earth be struck with a curse (Malachi 4:6). One doesn’t have to look very far to see that our present generation would benefit from just such a reorientation.

If we are to find lasting improvement in how we train our children, the place to begin is to restore a proper respect for God and His ways within the family unit. The place to start is with parents who have been confused, who have lost a clear sense of the meaning of life, and who need to discover biblically based values that alone can sustain the family unit—the bedrock of any stable and successful society.

Children are our legacy for the future. It is high time we develop a clearer idea of the direction our society is headed—away from God and His plan for humankind—and learn what we can do individually to stem the tide. The future of our children and that of society depends on it.