Of pancakes and good intentions

They're impressive words, ones I wanted to try to live by as I raised my children: "He presents concrete proof that [children] are intrinsically motivated toward character and competence; that they crave difficult challenges; that they thrive on opportunities to serve others; that they seek consistent programs of discipline; and that they are moral and compassionate."

That's a quotation from a commentary in a past issue of the Monitor on William Damon's book, "Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools," which I put up on the refrigerator when my first child was a baby. I have read those words over and over again as my three children have grown to the ages of 6, 8, and 10.

Their activities now include piano lessons, soccer, dance, and chess club, but they also have household chores and a monthly date to pick up garbage in the park, and they often assist in helping the elderly widow who lives across the street.

Still, I have come to realize that my children's intrinsic motivation toward character needs an extrinsic boost from me, as acts of service are not high on their to-do lists. This was quite evident recently.

The children and I went to the church hall to help at the annual pancake breakfast. The tables were set, and my husband had already been flipping pancakes in the kitchen for an hour.

I approached a woman in an apron and told her the rest of us were there to help. She looked at my children and asked with surprise, "The young ones, too?"

"Of course," I responded. "They set the table and clear dishes at home."

The children started slowly. But once they were given directions to put the coffee pots and syrup on the tables, they got right to work. Soon they were carrying plates for elderly people, getting more butter, and bringing empty syrup pitchers to the kitchen to be refilled.

Halfway through the breakfast, the two younger ones decided that they were ready to eat pancakes, too. They took a short break to eat and then joined their sister in clearing dishes from the tables.

Then, as the breakfast was winding down and one of the organizers started to stack the 200 or so chairs, the children took over that job and, with adult assistance, moved the chairs to the corner of the hall. Their final effort was to get the tables wiped off.

As we prepared to leave, the event's chairwoman came over and complimented the children on their hard work. They were so pleased.

So was I. This incident fit well with Damon's idea that good habits in social responsibility must be fostered from a young age through consistent instruction and practice, just as children learn to dance, throw a baseball, or play a musical instrument.

Giving my children an extra scoop of ice cream that night after dinner, I told them their efforts had certainly had a positive effect on many people's lives that day.

However, I wasn't prepared for my son's response: "We know you like signing us up for that volunteer stuff, Mom, but that's OK because it's fun."

Maybe that's the best attitude of all for moral development to be a priority in family and community life.

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