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Stuart Muszynski Headshot
Susan Muszynski, Ph.D. Headshot

How Can We Raise Teens of Character?

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Every new school year, we hear the same complaints from teachers: they are now asked to deal with disrespect, dishonesty, bullying, binge-drinking and the like, topics that in previous generations, were the parents' responsibility. The fallout from the recent Steubenville rape case illustrates how character issues -- even at private parties -- can affect schools and communities. The rape case may be an extreme example of character gone awry, but in all communities, as bullying, cyber-bullying, dating violence and teen cheating increase, the task for tweens and teens to be liked, fit in, grow up and succeed becomes more challenging.

For 19 years, we have been involved in training more than 65,000 teens to build cultures of kindness, caring and respect, so-called character-development or "soft skills" that many employers say are key indicators of future success in the workplace and in life. During that time, we have seen some shifts in traditional influences on teens, and this social backdrop makes the involvement of parents more essential.

In 1980, a series of studies were conducted to compare the effect of various influences on the values and behaviors of 13-to-19-year-olds and how these influencers have changed over time. The studies revealed that in 1960, family was number 1, school was number 2, friends and peers were number 3 and faith was number 4. By 1980, friends and peers jumped to number 1, family dropped to number 2, and media emerged at number 3. School dropped to number 4, and faith dropped off the list completely. Today, teens still say that families, especially parents, are important influencers, but they do admit that media -- TV, radio, web and social -- affect them significantly.

In this environment, and especially with society's obsession with reality television and its emphasis on peoples' worst characteristics, what can parents do to raise teens of character? Here are some suggestions:

1. Culture - Schools that have been successful in addressing behavior and bullying issues have established cultures of empathy, kindness and respect where teens themselves buy in to the culture. Building family culture is also essential to building character. These cultures can reinforce disregard and disrespect or empathy, honesty and kindness. Actions make the difference. Just as teachers in schools reinforce the school's culture, parents reinforce the family's culture. If children see parents demeaning co-workers behind their backs by trashing them at the dinner table, there is a greater chance that the child will follow in the parents' footsteps. If parents demonstrate cheating behavior, so will their children. When parents ask their young children to lie about their age to get into an event for free, what are they role-modeling?

2. Values - Values, the software for the mind, are the building blocks of culture. Establishing core values and discussing them at regular intervals, starting at an early age and where real examples are reviewed, will facilitate the formation of a positive family culture. Parents can use problems that occur at home or at school or current events as teachable moments by using the family's core values as reference points. Ultimately, values become rooted in identity, enabling a child or adult to ask the question, "Is that me?" before acting. This kind of defining self-statement can also act as mental "circuit-breakers," enabling teens to avoid negative or risky behaviors.

3. Role Modeling - Everything a parent says or does either reinforces or destroys the family's values or culture. Children -- even teens -- are always watching!

4. School - Community and school, including religious school, are the "peer labs" where culture and values are tested and put in action. If teens don't have friends who reinforce positive values, the family's foundational building blocks can be trashed. Parents need to be aware of their children's friends and the kinds of new values that are in-play. When you see that your family's core values are being discarded, an honest conversation about why the values were adopted in the first place can be helpful.

There are no easy answers. Raising children of character is a never-ending responsibility that includes role-modeling, culture-building and open and honest conversations about choices, both positive and negative. Every moment, including watching TV with children, is an opportunity where values can be discussed.

Gandhi once said, "Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, (and) your values become your destiny." Parents help shape all of the above. Happy back to school!

P.S.: Our kids always accused us of being over-involved parents. We said, "Good, that's our job!"

Susan and Stuart Muszynski are the co-founders of Project Love-Purple America/Values-in-Action Foundation.;

Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to

Credit: This post first appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News.