- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2011

Culture challenge of the week: neglected character

Her face looked haggard and she had aged 10 years, it seemed, in the months since I last saw her. I knew “Joanna” through friends. Although we saw each other infrequently, we enjoyed sharing the highs and lows of our lives and our children. This time, she looked so awful that it was clear something was not right.

It was her son.

A bright child and budding hockey star, Ben had every advantage to ensure success: tutors, lessons, camps and travel sports. Trophies and school awards dotted the family room at home. But busy childhood spun into a turbulent adolescence, made worse by an absent dad (traveling on business for weeks at a time) and intense pressures on Joanna.

The past eight months, Joanna said, Bens problems grew faster than a rolling snowball on a downhill slope. Emotional problems, drugs, theft and now the prospect of juvenile detention. It was every parents nightmare. As her problems tumbled out, Joanna confessed how guilty she felt.

Although both parents had made important changes in the past few months — less work, more family time, a return to church and a deeper commitment to their children, she worried that it was too late for Ben.

I couldn’t help but think of Joanna as I watched the recent media hubbub surrounding “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and her Chinese recipe for successful parenting. (Relying on tight control of the youngster’s time, the Tiger Mom parenting approach encouraged parents to demand more of their children if they hoped to ensure success — which, for Amy, meant academic and musical success.)

So much of the conversation about Tiger Mom — in parenting blogs and columns — focused on her style of parenting: strict and demanding. Critics argued back and forth about the merits of laissez-faire parenting versus Chinese-style control. But, with Joanna’s situation weighing on my heart, I couldn’t help but think how they were missing the point.

How to save your family: tending hearts and training character

No matter how successful our children are — in terms of the arts, sports, and academic achievement — it matters little if we’ve failed to set their moral compasses for life. Good character is a greater measure of our child’s success than all the awards and honors that decorate the walls. And training our children in virtue is a daily task more taxing than nagging about piano practice, driving the car pool or paying the baby sitter.

It’s also more rewarding.

The most effective character training is rooted in a strong parent-child relationship. (My book “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family” offers a realistic, practical plan to strengthen your family relationships in the midst of a challenging culture.) So take stock of your relationships and work to improve them, even as you take steps to strengthen your child’s character.

Character training is not a mystery. Its been part of the “job” of parenting forever; helpful resources abound. For starters, check out Focus on the Family’s “Character Crew,” which teaches specific virtues in separate lessons and provides guidance for you and activities for your children.

The classic “Book of Virtues” offers character-related and inspiring stories for read-alouds, and Kevin Leman’s book “Have a New Kid by Friday” gives parents concrete, short-term solutions to character-related problems.

Joanna and her son are fortunate that Gods mercy is bigger than our problems.

Repentant spirits and humble hearts help us discover that He can bring great good out of the most dire situations. For Joanna’s family, the real goals of parenting have finally pulled into focus. With hard work and prayer, they can hope for the best.

• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.