President's Corner

A Great Squirming Away From Our Responsibility

by Karl V. Hertz


This summer, I participated in a meeting of the Communitarian Network in the nation’s capital. The impressive list of speakers included Vice President Al Gore, plus social science researchers and notable individuals from academia and public life. As the program progressed, these questions came to mind:

Are parents, educators, government bodies and society at large squirming away from their responsibility to help our children and youth develop good character?

Are we giving our children and youth examples of virtuous behavior?

Are our children and youth learning how their values can profoundly affect their choices and, ultimately, their lives?

Here is a case in point. Research tells us that one-half of parents do not see teaching values as their role. Yet an average American child sees 100,000 acts of violence on television before completing elementary school. Additional research makes clear that constantly seeing repeated acts of violence and social irresponsibility on television can cause children to act in similar ways. Couple that concern with what children see each day in real life, right outside their doors, and the reluctance of parents to instill a set of values. It’s obvious—our society faces a considerable challenge.

Today, our economy seems strong. We’re having relatively good times. However, times are not good for everyone. Twenty-five percent of all children, including 60 percent of African American children, are being raised by single parents. Currently, 68 percent of mothers with children under one year of age are either working or going to school. While I was at that D.C. meeting, the business section of The Washington Post reported that the stock market had gone up 135 points. Buried deep in the news section on page 29, the paper reported that 50 million Americans, 29 percent of the population, were living below the poverty line, an increase of three percent between 1974 and 1994.

How can we allow our children to be bruised and wounded while, at the same time, asking schools to do more to deal with the problem? Parents and others who care for our children need to exercise their responsibility to model goodness and virtues, such as caring, respect, thoughtfulness, responsibility and citizenship. Most thoughtful parents would agree. However, many would admit they find modeling these virtues difficult, considering the rush of daily life.

While some good-hearted people might be motivated to develop a curriculum for the teaching of virtue, I believe our teaching will be less than successful unless parents, grandparents, neighborhoods, teachers, workers in child care centers and society in general exhibit those characteristics. Children must see us living these values. It’s been said that children often are not very good at listening to adults, but they usually end up acting like them.

Let’s face an important fact. A great deal of a child’s growth and development takes place from birth to age three. All children are impressionable. What impression are we giving them?

Children and youth are getting their information about what constitutes good character from many sources. Therefore, adults in all walks of life in every community simply must model a positive sense of character. Our understanding of the connections between goodness and maintaining a civilization suitable for our children should run bone deep. We simply cannot squirm away from responsibility.