Almost too late, there seems to be developing a consensus that we'd better get busy teaching our children moral values.
We may not even be that far apart on what values to teach, though we are far from agreeing on how to teach them or by whom they should be taught. But the idea seems to be taking hold that somebody ought to be teaching our children right from wrong -- building their character. The affluent fear that their children will grow up to like the white-collar criminals of Wall Street, the sharp operators of the savings and loan scandals or the vote-selling politicians so much in the news these days. The less-well-off fear that their children will add to the ranks of the dope-abusing dropouts, the unemployable hustlers or the too-soon-dead of the violent inner cities.
The kids need to be taught values, we now agree. But by whom, and how?
Bryce J. Christensen, editor of a pamphlet called "The Family in America," offers an interesting answer. He has become skeptical of the ability of schools and the willingness of the churches to do what must be done. The best moral educators of our children are their parents, he says, and it may be that the best way to teach them is to tell them stories. Family stories.
"Students may learn moral truths by studying the speeches of George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt," Christensen acknowledges." The literary works of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton or Dostoevsky may even more deeply awaken the moral sensibility of students. However, relatively few students will experience moral renewal from the way that history and literature are commonly taught in the public schools. ...
"In any case, the morality inculcated by a story depends not only upon the story itself, but also upon who tells the story and in what setting."
The most effective storytellers, he insists, are parents; the best setting is the home and the best subject is family.
He believes, with the late psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, that fairy tales are a useful tonic for mental health and that children who hear Scripture read to them at home are better served than those who have the same texts read to them by ministers and rabbis.
"But to fully effect the moral renewal possible through storytelling in the homes, parents need to tell children stories about their own lives and those of their ancestors. This is a task for grandparents and aunts and uncles as well ...
"Those who cherish their family life as a rich, unfolding story will likely resist those temptations that reduce the narrative into pointless, disconnected episodes of self-indulgence, conflict and mistrust. For those who believe they are writing one chapter in a book whose previous chapters were written by ancestors and whose subsequent chapters will be written by descendants, betrayal of family integrity constitutes something worse than a personal lifestyle choice."
Does Christensen exaggerate the influence of stories? Perhaps. But who can doubt the positive effect on children of the belief that they are part of a special family whose members include heroes, large and small? I'm not talking about Revolutionary War generals or First Families or George Washington Carver or Kunta Kinte. I'm talking about the great-grandfather who resisted slavery, even if he died in the effort, the great uncle renowned for his unshakable integrity, the grandmother who scrubbed floors to send her children to school.
I'm talking about children who understand duty because they see duty as a part of their family tradition, who grow up convinced that they must stay out of trouble, excel in school and make something of their lives because that is what their families have always done. And if the stories of family virtue become exaggerated over time, so what? Says Christensen:
"Hatred of the past, which is implicit in most contemporary ideologies, is hard to sustain if that past is seen as peopled with ancestors with names and life stories. Faith in progress beyond technology may appear naive once we know the wit, wisdom and courage of our ancestors."
There are of course other ways and other places -- including school -- to teach our children right conduct and social obligation. But Christensen is right in his belief that parents can be the best and most effective moral educators.
If we want our children to grow up strong, secure and upright, he says; if we want to show them paths out of moral chaos, we should scour our family histories and tell them stories of the heroes we find there.