For parents, it pays to be cheerful!

This is from a recent column published in TheCatholic Weekly:


Peter and I went to a dinner and talk held at Campion College last week where the speaker was Dr Andrew Mullins, the headmaster of Wollemi College, a western Sydney independent Catholic boys’ school, and the author of Parenting for Character.

Dr Mullins shared some of his recent research on the neural bases of virtues.

To put it simply, he explained the way that science, specifically neuroscience and its recent discoveries about neural plasticity, is confirming a lot of what humanity has already observed, learnt, or intuited, through philosophy and religion – that humans do much better when trained in virtue from a young age.

We have to be trained from a young age that in order to be able to set ourselves and reach goals which will bring us deep, long-lasting joy, we must try to do things that will help us (ie. good) and avoid things that will take away from our goal. Otherwise we find it very hard to live to our full potential as adults.

He showed us how morality becomes hard-wired into our brains, beginning from our earliest days.

Mainly he confirmed for us that we already know about our role as parents; that things such as giving our children affection, teaching them discipline, the value of work, and the ability to delay gratification, and being a constant, cheerful presence in their lives is important.

But what struck me is just how important these things are, and why. For example, the child who is never taught to obey his parents’ reasoning above his own (ie. turn off that TV now and go to bed or you’ll be too tired tomorrow), will find it difficult to to obey his own reason when he’s an adult (I shouldn’t drink too much tonight or I’ll be no good at work tomorrow).

“There are so many young people today who don’t know how to obey their own reason,” Dr Mullins observed. I instantly felt guilty, thinking of my own lack of self-discipline and how it blunts my ability to do what I really want to do.

Parents wanting to instill good habits, values, and knowledge into their children have two main methods to use – repetition and novelty. Routines are important for establishing good habits, while sometimes we can show them something important and ensure it’s remembered by choosing an out-of-the-ordinary way to do it.

It made me rethink our birthday present for Naomi for next week. Ten is a milestone birthday and so I think we’re going to have to try to come up with a big surprise for her so she will remember it as a special one.

Dr Mullins also spoke about the importance of our faces. Yep, we can’t just be pleasant for everyone outside and “carry on” behind our closed doors, he said. If anything, we’d be better off doing it the other way around. We have to be serene and smiling when we’re at home with the kids, or they will learn that happiness is to be found in places other than within a home and family life. The science backs up just how important parents’ facial expressions are to children and their development.

It reminded me that this time last year one of my Lenten observances was to try to smile more at home. I’d forgotten it. After Dr Mullin’s talk I’m trying it again. He has a very serene face with a huge ready smile, I’m sure the kids at his school respond well to it!

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