Somebody's Listening

Even babies learn from what you do and say.

During her amphibious life in my pregnant belly, I didn't obsess about whether my first little girl (or my second) would come out healthy. Secretly, I knew my babies would be fine. But the task of raising good, decent human beings — that scared me. Without sounding preachy, how would I teach my children to be empathetic, honest, respectful of others, generous and kind — at least most of the time? (I was sure anything that smacked of bombast would only engender rebellion.) I quickly discovered that new parents get plenty of help taking care of their baby's physical health, but when it comes to our children's moral health, we're left to our own devices.

The value of values None of us can magically become a person with solid values and loads of integrity the day our first baby is born. So if you know your soul needs housekeeping, do it now, before your baby is watching. (She's already listening.)

"I would urge expectant parents to come to some strong standing on their moral values," says T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development (Perseus Press, 1994), founder of the Child Development Unit at Boston Children's Hospital and clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Harvard Medical School, also in Boston. "The modeling of values and behaviors in all families begins in pregnancy," Brazelton adds. "After the child is born, you must be able to show that you have strong values and that you intend to stick by them, that you're already living by them."

Once baby has arrived, you can begin weaving virtues such as compassion and truth into your daily monologue, says Marianne Neifert, M.D., author of Dr. Mom's Parenting Guide (Plume, 1996) and the mother of five. There's good reason for this. Way before a baby talks, she listens to and mulls over what you say and how you sound. A series of classic studies conducted in the 1980s at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., showed that the roots of empathy can be traced to infancy. Newborns cry in response to hearing other babies cry, and some experts think this is an early precursor to empathy. The toddlers in the study who were most empathetic were the ones whose parents had disciplined them by focusing on the consequences of their behavior ("You've made your friend feel sad"), rather than on the misdeed itself ("That was very bad").

What you say is important, but what you do matters perhaps even more, and it tends to be the mundane behavior that children notice most. Case in point: One day I took Madeline, our 6-year-old, back to the toy store with me to return some money to the cashier, who had given me too much change. Watching myself in action, I was brimming with pride at this lesson in honesty. But hours later, when I asked Madeline what she thought of this return of money, she replied, "What money?" She hadn't even noticed what we were doing at the toy store.

But my children do remember the time I picked up an ant off the rug and returned it outside. (Madeline: "That's good, 'cause his family was probably missing him.") Or when I called another driver an idiot. (Three-year-old Ellie: "Actually, that's not a nice word, you know.") Yes, this modeling thing is all-encompassing.

Self-respect Children need to have their own sense of personal integrity. "Love is not enough," says Brazelton. "You have to give a child the chance to feel frustration, to stretch herself, to be able to say, 'I did it. I did it myself.' That's self-esteem, and it's a crucial element of raising a moral child."

I've also discovered this powerful tool to help nudge children to the side of truth and justice: Say you're sorry when you've done something wrong. It sounds so simple, but every time I do it (which is pretty frequently), I see the shock and delight in their little faces, as if they're thinking, "Even Mommy gets in trouble! Even Mommy has to grovel sometimes!" Because when I tell them I'm sorry, in one small phrase I show that I respect them, that I am willing to humble myself to the truth and that it's OK to make a mistake. I also give them the opportunity to forgive me. Besides, it's just the right thing to do.