Moral Parent, Moral Child

These days there is once again a great deal of hand-wringing about the sorry moral state of America's children. All the usual suspects have been rounded up: parents who lack values, schools that neglect "character" education, and -- conservative pundits' favorite culprit -- family breakdown. As William Bennett puts it in The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, "Most of our social pathologies -- crime, imprisonment rates, welfare...alcohol and drug abuse...sexually transmitted diseases -- are manifestations, direct and indirect, of the crack-up of the modern American family."

Concern about single parenthood is legitimate. But single parenthood is not primarily responsible for children's moral troubles. The bigger problem is that our country fails to support good parenting, and it dramatically fails to cultivate critical moral qualities in adults -- qualities that are critical to children's moral development -- in part because of wrongheaded notions about the fundamental nature of adult's moral lives.

Children in single-parent families, to be sure, face obstacles to developing important moral qualities. Ethical development is rooted in emotional development, and children in single-parent families may suffer more persistently from those feelings -- shame, distrust, cynicism -- that commonly eat away at children's capacities for caring, responsibility, idealism, and other important moral qualities. In the wake of a divorce, for example, adolescents frequently suffer sharp disillusionment -- a loss of idealized images of their parents and of the ideals these parents represent. After a divorce, large numbers of children both suffer the shame of poverty and are abandoned by their fathers (10 years after a divorce, two-thirds of children haven't seen their father in a year and have effectively lost contact with their fathers). This is not the soil out of which idealism and a sense of responsibility for others can easily grow.

But the reality is that most children in single-parent families are not morally defective. They are growing up to be quite good people. Moreover, the notion that single parenthood accounts for Bennett's slew of moral problems is bizarrely ahistorical. Many of these problems were prevalent before 1960, when single parenthood began to rise, and increases in these problems have not followed closely, as Bennett's argument suggests, the steady increase in single parenthood between 1960 and 1990. From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, for example, both violent crime and teen alcohol abuse declined. That's because single parenthood is only one of many factors that determine the prevalence of these moral problems.

What's more, whether children are somehow less moral in single-parent families depends crucially on other options. How do kids fare when their parents do not divorce but simply remain in miserable marriages, or when their mothers elect to enter shotgun marriages rather than parenting solo? Studies show that children suffer high rates of behavior troubles before their parents' divorce. Locked into decaying marriages, parents who are angry, moody, and withdrawn are less likely to provide models of fairness, respect, compassion, and other virtues for their children. They are also less likely to provide the consistent expectations and encouragement that reduce cynicism and build trust.

All of which points to the big hole in the family breakdown argument of Bennett and company. The focus on the structure of families has ignored what is most important to any child's ethical development: an ongoing, trusting relationship with at least one adult who is ethical and mature, and who listens and encourages without shying away from his or her moral authority. A mountain of research now shows that it is the content of adult-child interactions, not the structure of families, that most strongly determines the shape of children's ethical development. That's what makes parenting a profoundly moral act, and learning to parent well a profound moral achievement.

Can public policy positively influence these parent-child interactions? This country desperately needs to provide high-quality parent-education programs through hospitals and various community organizations. Parents who were not parented well themselves often simply need to learn basic strategies for building trust and promoting their children's empathy and generosity.

This country also needs a public-health campaign focused on parental depression. Parental depression is widespread -- as many as 25 percent of children will grow up with a depressed parent -- and parental depression undermines almost every key aspect of parenting. Depressed parents are far more likely to be moody, to lash out unexpectedly, and to criticize unfairly. Parental depression is strongly correlated with child neglect and abuse. Children of depressed parents are more likely to struggle by almost every measure; they are, for example, more likely to suffer behavior troubles and they are almost five times as likely to abuse drugs. Fortunately, many forms of depression are both preventable and treatable -- as many as 80 percent of victims are helped by treatment. We need to be far more proactive in getting depressed parents access to effective treatment.

But something else may be equally important, although it is almost entirely ignored: getting adults interested in their own ethical development. Because children's ethical development hinges on trusting relationships with respected, mature adults, it's hard to imagine that children will become more ethical if adults do not become more ethical and mature. But we have the peculiar notion in this country that our moral natures are by and large decided at some point in childhood -- that we as adults are left to simply live out the dye that is cast.

It's not that we have no faith in adult development. Entire sections of our chain bookstores are devoted to self-help -- empowering adults to tame fears, dispatch obsessions, and deal with other people whom they abhor. (The book I'm dying to read is Emotional Healing at Warp Speed.) The adult personality appears to be entirely plastic. But what's hard to find is an "other-help" book, a book about how adults can become better people.

The point is not simply that adults need to be less narcissistic. The ambitious cultural shift I am hoping for is this: that adults come to view appreciating and being generous to others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals as evolving and subtle capacities. This shift is especially important for adults who are becoming parents. For parenting itself is clearly a prime instance when adults are faced squarely with hugely complex challenges to their core moral qualities: their capacity for empathy and fairness, their ability to disentangle their own interests from those of others, their generosity. For tenuously connected fathers, fundamental questions of responsibility hang in the balance.

Responding to parental depression, improving parent education, and helping adults -- whether parents, teachers, or religious leaders -- view their own moral development as connected to children's is obviously a tall order. It will mean, among other things, building on the success of some workplaces and parent-education programs (and many faith-based organizations) that actively value and support ethical development. But it will be far more productive, and surely no taller, than what Bennett and the Bush administration want: a return to a romanticized era of two-parent families.