Under the tree of good and evil: raising ethical children

My father died suddenly on St. Patrick’s Day 1996. As if only yesterday, I vividly remember the call from my mother driving in-route to Nashville behind the ambulance that carried my critically injured father. She felt confident I should forego my weekend plans and get home quickly as possible. Hours later I took my seat on the plane to the news he was officially gone.

I always knew he was a well-respected man in our rural Tennessee town, but I never appreciated the magnitude of their admiration until his funeral. The director informed me afterwards it was the second highest attended burial service in all his years of business, second only to the death of twin children.

If pressed to summarize why my father had this reputation it was honor. The man carried an air of nobility and virtue that I have spent almost two decades trying to imitate. He was a man of character and principle others seemed forcefully drawn towards. By his mere presence one knew this was no ordinary individual. Some may view all of this as the biased opinions of a wide-eyed schoolboy in awe of his demi-God father who seemed without blemish; but the fact is he had a crystal clear understanding of right and wrong, foreign by today’s standards, which he tried to instill in my sister and I.


My attempts to live up to his seemingly spotless character have landed short more than I care to admit. It appears that without his long reaching shadow I’m more apt to cut corners, take the easy way, then justify all of it.  Without being a mere phone call away from ‘setting me straight’ I often act as if I’m accountable to no one. I’d be mortified to look him in the eye today and explain many of my life choices and the regrets that ensued. He was a man I never wanted to disappoint.

My dad left colossal shoes to fill that, as a father, I am only now beginning to really appreciate. While I may have inherited his eyes I missed out on much of his upright stature, which leaves me to wonder if I’ll ever be as effective in preparing my children to live by a higher standard.

[pullquote]And in that moment we realize this parenting thing isn’t a dress rehearsal but instead a one-night-only show with a life hanging in the balance.[/pullquote]If he were still alive I think he would agree that raising children to embrace a worldview characterized by honorable behavior, homegrown values, and absolute truth is far more difficult in a culture continuously promoting an ends justifies the means way of living.  As I consider the legacy he left I quickly realize the pressure before me to ready my children for a future that will likely be more shameless than the one we live in today.


The moment they burst forth from the womb parents coach their children in the nuances of the right and wrong way to do things. “Don’t stick your finger in that electrical socket”, “Play nice with others”, “Share your toys”.  We quickly become master craftsmen molding our kids into the productive citizens Uncle Sam wants and other people really like. And while this role is not without frustrations it stays relatively pain free – for a while.

But eventually the day comes when our kids, after being asked why the acted in this way or did that thing, look at  us dead in the eye and proclaim “Because you do!”  And it’s in that moment we realize this whole parenting thing isn’t a dress rehearsal, but a one-night-only show with a life hanging in the balance; and all that time spent hiding our own behaviors behind our children’s youth and naivety are suddenly and emphatically over. They are indeed paying attention.

As I reflect on the influence my father had on me and more importantly why he had it I’m left with the realization that, more than any other man I’ve known since, my dad walked the talk. In other words, he lived what he preached.  This leads me to believe that if I’m to properly teach my children the traits of honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity I have no other option but to possess these same qualities myself and demonstrate them daily. If I want my children to be the kind of adults others are drawn to simply because of their character I must by default work to be that very same person. What other way is there to raise morally upstanding children unless I’m prepared to be morally upstanding myself – no matter the pain involved?

But today there seems to be this logic in parenting that because I’m the adult this automatically gives me carte blanche to behave contradictory to what I hope and expect from my children – all under this guise of boundaries. Or put another way, parenting by “do as I say, not as I do”  because I’m an adult and can handle it. When I think about this I know of few notions more utterly selfish or exceedingly egotistical.  Because the fact of the matter is this, how can I expect my children not to eat  from the forbidden tree – if they see me eating the apple first?

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7 responses to Under the tree of good and evil: raising ethical children

  1. The last line was the clincher. You are right. The West Indian Mother didn’t believe in the “do as I say not as I do” principle. It was “do as I do”. Your parents, your guardians are your first example. Ever look over at that kid who misbehaves, even a teenager who makes you shake your head in dismay with their “acting out”, combined with loud, foul mouths, and then you see their parents or their family members and you think: Like mother, like son, or “That explains *everything*”? Yep, you wonder if the adults ever thought about setting good examples.

  2. Tara

    Another great post… So good to see a dad so concerned with “walking the talk”. It’s sad to say that your view on parenting isn’t widely publicized these days… Yet, it should be. Your kids are lucky to have your thoughtful guiding presence in their lives.

  3. Karla Shotts

    Well put! Ethics and values are the hardest things to teach our children! You have to teach your child their worth is more than good grades and a good catch on the baseball field. I once saw a man dump a load off the back of his truck in rush hour traffic. My children and I stopped to help him (safely out of traffic of course) These little things we take time to do teach our children the world does *NOT revolve around them, in fact they should never be in too much of a rush to help someone in need. Kindness, compassion, good manners, thoughtfulness have gone by the wayside because too often parents don’t “teach” these skills. It’s time we remember to make them good, solid, quality people!!

  4. I have these same thoughts about raising my own children. There are times I wish I could have the freedom of doing as I wish without worrying about the consequences. Who doesn’t? Instead, I remember the first time my child repeated a curse word. No matter how much you try to undo that word from their vocabulary it will always be there. If actions truly speak louder than words just imagine how much the way you live your life will influence them!

  5. I always thought Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” was the ultimate “Do as I do” guide for parents:

    If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
    If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
    If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
    If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
    If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
    If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
    If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
    If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
    If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
    If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
    If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
    If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
    If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
    If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
    If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
    If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
    If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
    If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
    If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

  6. I agree with you. I try (as far as humanly possible) to walk the talk. Yesterday was the last day of school before the half term. I’m working all through the half term, so I decided to take my daughter out of school for one day.

    She had a fantastic term, Aced all her tests. Got an award and had 100 % attendance. I wanted to reward her. The only problem in all this was how to approach the school – they’re very strict with taking kids out.

    Naturally, she was excited at the prospect of being taken out of school for the last day. However, she worried about what I was going to tell the school. I called them up and said, ‘I’m taking D.. out for a day. She won’t be coming today. etc.,’ ‘What!’ she said. I thought you were going to tell them I was sick or something.

    The point I’m trying to make is, if your kids know you lie for them (or you make them lie for you), they’ll think you lie TO them. There is no worst feeling than to think your parents will lie to you.

    No matter what, we have to stand up and make tough decisions (I know my example was not a serious situation. It was just to illustrate a point) in order to show rather than tell our kids the right things.

    Great post.

  7. My dad was a man of honor, too Kyle and I miss him very much. We must teach our kids to be GOOD much more than anything else. Man’s nature is NOT good, IMO, but it can be taught and that is our job as parents. Just because we as a parent may be a great musician, doesn’t mean our kids will be unless they are taught. They may have inherited our aptitude but they still need lessons! Same, if not more so, with goodness.

    As for parental hypocrisy, THAT MAKES ME CRAZY!

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