Raising nice kids is not enough

Trenton Reynolds is a nice kid. He’s bright. He’s well-behaved. He’s caring. So is his little sister Daryn.

But is there an inherent danger in parents raising kids who look good on the outside? It is if that’s all they do, said Timothy Smith, family coach and author of "The Danger of Raising Nice Kids.”

“Nice means pleasant, well-mannered, friendly. It comes from the Latin root word ignorant or not knowing. It’s a backhanded compliment,” Smith said. “The danger is that we would be settling for externals, which are temporary. I want them to be more than nice, to grow and feel strong from the inside out.”

Parents say that’s their goal, too. They say that in a world that has grown increasingly mean-spirited it’s more important than ever to teach kids not just to be kind to others, but to help them discern right from wrong.

Although having kids who get good grades, play varsity sports or get the lead part in a play and is not on drugs is any parent’s dream, Smith said, what parents should be striving for is children who have character.

That doesn’t mean visits to the soup kitchen or lectures. It does mean modeling day-to-day how to handle conflict, to be assertive, courageous and decisive; the foundation of self-confidence.

“We talk a lot to our kids,” said Cori Reynolds, Trenton’s and Daryn’s mother.

She also asks them very pointed questions such as “what would you do in that situation, or what do you think about that and have them work through it without looking for a right or wrong answer.”

Reynolds recalled when Daryn, 7, came home one day complaining a group of boys wouldn’t allow her and a female friend to play on their soccer team.

The 38-year-old Roswell mother said that Daryn eventually went to one of the boys and encouraged him to support them in joining the team, and he did.

By modeling good behavior and taking advantage of teaching moments, Reynolds and other parents say even young children can learn to be courageous, willing to change their culture, rather than be changed by the culture.

Suruba Wechsler, of Atlanta, literally wrote the book on how to raise happy and responsible children.

“Don’t tell, show,” said the author of "Show Them and They Will Follow: The Art of Raising a Responsible and Happy Child Through Modeling." “Children usually don’t do what you say. They do what you do.”

It’s paid off, she said.

Wechsler said when her son Alex, now a 20-year-old junior at Ohio University, left home it never occurred to her that he would conform to his new surroundings.

When a classmate called him a racial slur during an intramural game, for instance, Wechsler said Alex didn’t hesitate to confront him. Even though his first instinct was to punch the kid, Wechsler said, Alex simply asked his teammate “what’s your problem” and diffused the situation.

“He stood up for himself while respecting the other person,” she said. “He had internalized our teachings and made it part of who he is.”

Smith said that strong parents produce strong kids, weak parents produce weak kids and external-oriented parents produce external-oriented kids, but little thought is given to what that means.

“Parents who solely focus on grades, sports, appearance and achievement, to the exclusion of character and virtue should not be surprised when their child is materialistic, shallow, focused on immediate gratification and self-focused,” Smith said. “You get what you model. You get what you emphasize.”

Bill and Deidre Plunk of Alpharetta focused on what they didn’t want – spoiled, rebellious, disobedient children who didn’t feel the consequences of their actions.

“If you start off with respect for authority you end up with nice kids,” Deidra Plunk said.

She said her “aha moment” came during a visit to the swimming pool when she announced to their daughters, then 3 and 5, that they would be leaving in five minutes.

When the time came and the girls got out of the pool another mother, Plunk recalled, looked at her flabbergasted.

Bill Plunk said that by giving the girls five minutes to prepare to leave, they shared the responsibility.

Even when other parents warned them “Oh wait until they are 2” or “wait until they’re teenagers”, the Plunks said they “never expected something to go wrong.”

Like the Reynolds and Weschlers, they said they talked a lot to their daughters, now age 20 and 22, and made dinnertime an important part of the family’s day.

Sharing meals three to five times a week with children, Smith said, is a sure-fire way of ensuring they resist at-risk behaviors, including substance abuse. When parents do that, he said, children “feel valued, loved and connected.”

The Plunks credits this practice, raising their daughters in the church and being open about their expectations with helping build their character.

In fact, Bill Plunk, said they were so sure of their teachings that when their daughters started college they invited them to test what they’d learned in church.

“Scripture says raise them up in the way they should go and they will not depart from it," he said quoting Proverbs 22:6. "We banked on that.”

Although a person of faith, Smith said this isn’t about religion. It’s about having children capable and prepared for life.

“The whole danger is parents settling for the decoys of the niceness – star on the lacrosse field, acceptance into a top-tier university, graduating and getting a job,” he said. “If you go for just those things alone, you’ve just created the next generation of Enron executives, successful but not ethical.”

Tips for developing authenticity in your child

1. Give up the notion of being the perfect parent.

2. Tell your child age-appropriate stories from your childhood when you learned important lessons from failures.

3. Share similar stories from biographies of influential people.

4. Avoid labeling people based on race, looks, religion, disabilities, etc.

5. Temper discipline when children are honest.

6. Work with them so they see a job requires teamwork, patience, skill and persistence.

7. Play with them. This helps make you authentic.