The Challenges of Moral Excellence
The Corollary Impact of Moral Education
Precept One: The Corollary Impact of Moral Education
Precept Two: A Clean but Empty House
Precept Three: The Potato Principle
Precept Four: One Standard Fits All
The Why of Moral Training
Providing the Practical Why
Mealtime Manners & Etiquette
Character training is not a simple process. To the contrary, the moral education of children in today’s social environment comes with many more diverse challenges than in the past generations, especially for those who embrace the virtues and values contained within Christianity.
There are motivational challenges. Why should parents diligently train their children to be kind, considerate and caring when so many parents are letting these virtues slip by? There are peer pressure challenges. How should parents respond to friends and relatives who feel “uncomfortable” around children whose “good” and “consistent” behavior challenges the status quo of their own parenting?
There are moral inconsistencies within Christianity to deal with—not an inconsistency in acknowledging common virtues, but rather an inconsistency when it comes to application. Clearly not everyone in the Christian community shares a like-minded commitment when it comes to moral training of their children.
The mechanics of moral education also present challenges. How do mothers and fathers actually teach moral truth? How can they make virtues and values meaningful to children? And once taught, how do children acquire the moral initiative needed to follow through on their beliefs? There are the cultural challenges. Parents must stay vigilant of the many moral inconsistencies confronting children each day. Hollywood serves up a culture of death, network TV exploits their innocence, and the Internet is sophisticated enough to identify their secret desires and prey on their weaknesses.
Yet, in the end, the refinement of a child’s character is largely the product of Mom and Dad’s direct influence. Unless that influence is willfully surrendered to outside forces or sacrificed to life’s busy demands, children will reflect the moral lessons of their home life. Whatever character qualities are tossed aside or devalued at home will be devalued by the child. It is a simple fact of parenthood—if something is not important to Mom and Dad, it will not spontaneously become important to the child.
Yes, moral education is complex and challenging, and society continues to add more challenges to the mix. Yet, we are persuaded by the goodness of God that He has not left us without hope or a way to address the challenges. By intent or neglect, parents are still the greatest influence on their children’s outcomes, and raising morally-sensitive children, whose conduct brings life to the moment, is not a matter of chance, but of intentional parenting. It is not for the faint-hearted, but for those who persevere every day, even in this age of moral diversity.
Four Misunderstood Precepts of Moral Education
Parents attracted to the Growing Families curricula tend to be cognizant of the important role that character training plays in a child’s development. These are parents who believe in the priority of moral education for their children, and view character training as a way of life and not simply window dressing added to a child’s personality. They desire to understand how to instill honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, respect, honor, and self-control in their children and find their answers in the “whole-child” approach to parenting shared by the Ezzos.
One of the great misconceptions relating to moral education is the belief that it is an isolated category of training, and as such, has little influence on the other categories of development. That is a very misguided assumption. To the contrary, instilling virtues, values, and behavioral expectations into children actually sets in place a critical cornerstone on which the “whole child” is built.
Parenting the “Whole-Child” reflects a child-rearing approach that considers the natural capacities of children as the primary targets of parenting. It is the counterweight to, on one hand, the unbalanced, child-centered, laissez-faire approach that elevates a child’s happiness over morality, and, on the other hand, the strictness of the authoritarian approach that regulates behavior often at the expense of a child’s developing emotions.
Derived from Mark 12:30, the “whole child” reference reflects a training perspective that considers the natural capacities of children as the primary targets of training. Here Jesus touches on a substantive truth of childhood development when describing how Christ Followers are to love God:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.
o The Heart represents man’s moral capacity. The duty of parents is to help their child internalize virtues that reflect God’s character.
o The Soul represents our emotional capacity (the seat of our consciousness). The duty of parents is to nurture their child’s emotional well-being. Parents help their children establish internal controls over both positive and negative emotions.
o The Mind represents man’s intellectual capacity. The duty of parents is to stimulate their child’s intellectual competency. Parents educate their children in basic skills, logic, and useful knowledge.
o Strength represents our physical capacities. The duty of parents is to nurture and provide for their children’s physical growth and well-being, including the development their children’s skills, giftedness and talents.
Although each capacity is in need of specific training, developmental evidence strongly suggests that only moral training has multiple corollary benefits that actually serve the other three capacities, and help bring them to maturity. Take, for example, the corollary impact moral training can have on a child’s cognitive ability—the ability to process information, think and reason well, and to be a problem solver.
In order for children to function at their highest potential, they need to acquire highly-developed habits of learning, which include foundational skills, such as sitting, focusing, concentrating, paying attention and persevering. Not surprisingly, these specific skills are embedded in the moral training process and become attributes that over time, are used in the service of the other three capacities. They are habits of moral logic easily transferred to the academic and skill side of a child’s developing mind.
However, the process does not work in reverse. Playing with blocks, putting puzzles together, and matching colors are important learning activities. Yet, these activities have value only to the extent that they are part of the learning process. Learning to count from one to ten, or picking out colors from a chart will not make your preschooler kinder, more self-controlled, or easier to manage. This realm of education has value, but the value is limited to the arena of knowledge and facts. It does not transfer to behavior.
In contrast, moral training not only influences behavior, but all aspects of a child’s expanding world of knowledge and subsequently, life itself. The mind, the emotions, talents and skills are all impacted by the quality and quantity of a Mom and Dad’s moral investment.
There is an interesting analogy introduced in Matthew 12:43. There we are told of a demon who went out from a man, but over time decides to return, and when he does, he finds his old dwelling place swept clean. So the demon goes out and finds seven more like himself to come and live in the man.
Here is what we know about this parable. A demon was sent out from a man, the man’s house was swept clean, but the house remained empty. Certainly, by implication, there is a moral message here and a parenting lesson. No parent finds pleasure in watching their children misbehave or act offensively towards others, and what Mom or Dad does not step in, at some point, to bring correction to those moments?
Although unintentionally, many parents do most of their moral training during times of correction when they are pointing out what their child did wrong—and stop right there. There is a tendency to say, “That is wrong!” “Don’t do that again,” “You’re going to be punished.”
Surely, these are diligent parents hoping to weed out unwelcomed behaviors. However, parents should not measure their child’s heart solely by the wrong that is present, but by the amount of virtue that is absent. If a parent’s primary focus is on what their children do wrong, accompanied by the warning of what not to do the next time, and not balanced with instruction that teaches what is right and what the child should do, then ultimately the only thing a parent is doing is sweeping the house clean of behavioral “demons.” The house is still empty! It needs to be backfilled with virtues and values. If that is not routinely happening, then the only thing a child is learning is that “being good” means “not doing anything wrong,” and that is the wrong message to be sending.
All children should learn what ”to do” as much as what ”not to do.” For example, it is not enough to teach a child not to take a toy from another child without asking. One sweeps the house clean; the other fills the house with virtue. It is not enough to lecture a child as to why acting meanly or cruelly is wrong; that teaching must be matched by what kindness looks like. The first sweeps the house clean; the other fills the house with virtue. Suppressing rude behavior in children is not the same as teaching and encouraging deference and courtesy. Restraining wrong behavior must be offset by elevating good and virtuous behavior. Both are required in the training process.
Closely tied to suppressing the waywardness in children is the Potato Principle—a concept shared by ministry associates, Don and Karen Kurtz. The Potato Principle was derived from a real mealtime experience. Here’s how the name came about.
While dining out one evening, Don ordered a baked potato with his meal. As he was enjoying it, he noticed a small dark spot just under the surface. Karen suggested he ask for a fresh potato. However, Don looked at the potato and said, “Ninety-nine percent of it is fine; it tastes great and I can work around the small bad spot.” A conversation ensued, and that is when the Potato Principle was born.
Abraham Maslow once commented, “He that is good with a hammer tends to see everything as a nail.” This truth has some measurable connection to this principle. Certainly, there are seasons in parenting when it seems the only behaviors standing out are the bad spots. However, the Potato Principle speaks of the Mom or Dad who is fixated on the bad, at the expense of the good. The bad spot may represent 2% or 50% of the child’s behavior, but it receives 100% of the parent’s attention.
The Potato Principle warns parents not to fixate solely on the bad spots, because in time, the child’s “good” is no longer appreciated or seen. Parents then begin to measure their child’s goodness by the absence of bad. Like the potato, one is only good if there are no bad spots.
Sadly, the message children hear is much different then what the parent is hoping to communicate. Like a potato with a bad spot, children hear, “If I’m not perfect, I’m not acceptable.” This message not only undermines any incentive to do good (because it will never be good enough for Mom or Dad), but also does long-term harm to the relationship, for it is not one based on love and respect, but performance.
We recognize the breadth of our audience and know there are those within that number who experienced the sting of this precept in their own childhood. They had a Mom or Dad who could always find something that was not perfect (perhaps an academic task that could have been improved). Their excellence as a child was never excellent enough.
Yet, at the other end of the spectrum are those parents who only look at the good, and are all too willing to ignore any obvious blemish. Parents do not have to toss out the whole potato because of one or two bad spots, but nor should those spots be ignored. When left unattended, “bad spots” have a way of corrupting all that is good. For the sake of your children, we hope the Potato Principle will help guide you to a healthy balance guided by this thought: Children should be trained to moral excellence not moral perfection.
Given the fact that every child is endowed with unique gifts, talents and personality that set him or her apart from others, is it reasonable to expect similar achievements from each child? If the question was limited to intellectual capacities, the answer is “No, you cannot expect identical results.” If limited to endowment of a specific gift, or athletic abilities, again, the answer is “No,” parents should not expect the same from each child. However, when it comes to character formation and moral education, one standard does fit all.
We recognize that all children are different. Brothers and sisters can be as different from each other as the child next door. Every child has a unique temperament and personality combination that distinguishes him or her from all others. However, personality development and moral training are not the same thing.
Think of temperament and gender as representing the foundation of a house. Built on the foundation is the child’s personality. Personality represents the unique style of each home: single level ranch, farm style, or multilevel. A person’s character is the quality of craftsmanship that went into building the house, regardless of its style, shape or uniqueness.
When it comes to character formation, how children learn will vary, but what they are learning must remain the same. Think of it this way. If you take 20 people and put them in a room, you will end up with a smorgasbord of personality and temperament combinations. Which of the 20 personality types should be exempt from kindness, patience, self-control, gentleness, humility, endurance, obedience, respect, honesty, or integrity? None, of course. When it comes to the standard of ethical training, one size fits all.
As parents, we do not lower the standards of moral expectations based on a child’s individual uniqueness; rather, with their uniqueness, we seek to bring each child to the standard. How that is accomplished can vary from child to child, and the achievement times will vary based on developmental age and readiness; but the moral standard to which each child is trained remains the same.
It is not enough to teach your children how to act morally; parents must also teach them how to think morally. One major reason children lack moral inventory and have difficulty internalizing virtues or complimentary values is because parental instruction too often lacks moral “reason.” By that we mean mothers and fathers often tell their children what to do, but do not tell them why they should do it. That distinction must be emphasized, because knowing how to do right and knowing why to do right are definitely two different things. The first speaks to moral action, the second to moral thought.
Many children know how to apply moral directives, but not as many know the “why” behind it. When they go to church, children are told how to act; when they go to school, they are told to obey; when they go to Grandma’s house, they are told how to behave.
Thus, a greater emphasis is placed on the “how-to’s” than the “whys.” As a result, some children reach adulthood appearing to be moral on the outside but lacking a moral sense on the inside. They know how to respond in different circumstances only because they have been trained to the circumstance, not because they understand the governing moral principle.
Here is a word of caution. When we say parents should provide a “why” in their instructions, we do not mean parents are obligated to provide an explanation for every decision or instruction on demand. There will be times when the explanation, “Because Mommy said so,” is sufficient. This is especially true in the toddler years. By three years of age however, parental instruction should become increasingly characterized by the inclusion of the moral and practical reasons why they should do what the are instructed to do.
Not every explanation offered by a parent is associated with a courtesy or virtue. Some explanations serve only a practical purpose. As a general rule, parents should offer a moral reason when a situation concerns people and a practical reason when a situation relates to things. For example, Nathan’s dad was working on a weed problem near the fruit tree. His busyness attracted Nathan’s curiosity. Instead of his dad commanding, “Nathan, move away from that tree,” he warned, “Nathan, move away from the tree, because Dad just sprayed poison around the trunk. It is not safe.”
In this situation, the restraint of behavior is for a practical reason (health and safety), not a moral one. Since Nathan received information about what was going on at the tree, his curiosity was not further challenged. This minimized the tension between Nathan’s natural curiosity and his need to obey his father. The why explanation satisfied both.
One fact of life we all must live with is that first impressions tend to prejudice all future impressions. That is why first impressions often become “lasting impressions.” It is also a fact that people tend to form favorable “first impressions” of others, when those first encounters are pleasant and live up to or exceed expectations.
That is exactly what good manners will achieve for children, because embedded within mealtime etiquette are otherness-virtues that intuitively resonate with people. People not only connect with the courtesy message, they also appreciate the messenger, even if the messenger is only a six-year-old child. Good manners will always minister grace and life.
That conclusion leads to this warning: Any parent who underestimates the profound influence that mealtime manners will have on their child is already taking a risk with their child’s future. Good manners will always give children an advantage in life, because people always respond positively to the well-mannered child. And some of those people will be people of influence.
Mealtime Basics: What Not To Do
The prohibitions contained in the list below are so common that you might actually hear your mother’s voice as you work through each item. The items on the list do not require a detailed explanation on our part, but they might require a greater explanation when teaching them to your children. As you begin to transfer these concepts, please remember to provide your children the “moral why.” The “moral why” plays a significant role in the transmission of each courtesy, because it helps children connect their behavior to a purpose and not simply to a prohibition. Thus, the simple instruction, “Elbows off the table,” will never be sufficient, if your child does not know how their actions are tied back to the moral consideration of others.
In this case, an elbow or elbows resting on the table while dining is viewed as poor manners for at least two reasons. First, to do so tends to bring the entire body closer to the table, potentially intruding on the space of those with whom the meal is being shared. Second, elbows on the table can also communicate boredom or detachment, especially in formal settings. To do so is construed as one being anti-social and unwilling to engage the moment, thus robbing others of the pleasure associated with the relational aspects of dining. However, elbows resting on the table after the meal, when lingering in conversation, is accepted as a comfortable conversational position, without a tinge of rudeness attached.
The final point to make before reviewing the list is to remind the reader that each prohibition has its own antonym, that is, a corresponding encouragement. For example, “Do not talk with your mouth full of food,” also implies, “Finish chewing your food thoroughly before speaking.” “Do not smack your food,” implies “Chew quietly with your mouth closed.” At some point in your training, courtesy prohibitions must be balanced with the expected behavior. In one way or another each prohibition evolved from centuries of dining habits, and not all were connected to manners. For example, advising children to chew with their mouths closed in medieval Europe had more to do with not accidently swallowing flies attracted to the food than good social habits.
Pinkie-finger dining can be traced back to the Romans. The lower class used the entire hand to feed themselves. The elite class used only the first three fingers to pull meat and move food to their mouths. This forced the ring and little finger to rise above the hand, and eventually raising the “pinky finger” became associated with good breeding. Of course, today raising your pinky finger is neither fashionable nor a sign of good breeding.
Regardless of its origin, each item on the list is considered discourteous and requires Mom or Dad’s attention. Most can be handled with verbal reminders that continually point toward what a child should do and not simply what the child is doing wrong. Finally, our list here is different than what appeared in the DVD presentation because we are constantly updating the list. Some items were combined and new prohibitions added. Regardless, they are all important. Let’s review the list. Instruct your children that it is impolite to:
- Chew their food with their mouth open, or talk with food in their mouth.
- Fill the mouth so full that the cheeks bulge while chewing.
- Spear large pieces of food with their fork, and then bite pieces off from the fork.
- Let any unpleasant sound leave their bodies, including sniffing, snorting, smacking or loudly crunching food.
- Lean across the table or reach for an item that intrudes into the space of another person.
- Eat with their elbows on the table, or slump in their chairs while at the table.
- Comment unfavorably about the food, or table setting.
- Wave or point with a utensil.
- Continually get up and down from their chair while at the dinner table.
- Play with their food (especially, when it’s been set apart by prayer).
- Take helpings so large that little to no food is left for others.
- Take food off of serving plates with their fingers.
- Make inappropriate hand gestures or use language that is inappropriate, or voice tones that are loud or disruptive.
- Ask a question to a person who is chewing food, or take a drink of water, or talking to another person.
- Use their own silverware when taking food, instead of the serving utensils that belongs with the food item.
- Never snatch a food item from a serving plate or bread basket, that is purposely being passed to another person.
This list represents basic mealtime courtesies that, when in place, create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable, and consideration for others is given preeminence. You will find more mealtime manner helps in the Video Library.