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What is the most important thing to teach your children?

What is the most important thing to teach your children?

Noted American psychologist Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. gave the keynote address at the Early Childhood Education Symposium Nov. 5 at The Summit Country Day School.

Dr. Sax should know what he is talking about. He is a practicing family physician and well-known enough as a psychologist that he has been invited to appear on such national broadcasts as the TODAY Show, CNN, National Public Radio, PBS, Fox News, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and New Zealand Television. His degrees are from the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And he has written four books on childhood development including the New York Times bestseller The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.

So in his presentation at The Summit on the topic of early childhood education, he answered the question: What really matters?

His answer: Character.

“Teaching self-control and virtue should be among your top priorities for your daughter or son,” he says. “Character matters as much or more than academic achievement.”

Dr. Sax’s best-seller, The Collapse of Parenting, relies on empirical evidence revealed in many research studies, including longitudinal studies of children from preschool through young adulthood.

His conclusion is that too many parents have abdicated their role and allowed same-age peers and popular culture to influence their children’s personalities. Moms hand cell phones to babies to pacify them, instead of teaching upset babies how to soothe themselves. Dads buy minivans with movie players instead of talking to children during car rides. Overscheduled parents take children to playdates, demonstrating that time with friends is more important than time with family. Children have screens at the dinner table and in their bedrooms.

In the past 50 years, a shift happened in American culture. Groundbreaking research by Dr. James Coleman in the 1960s indicated that most teenagers still valued the opinion of their parents more highly than the opinions of their same-age peers. When children respect parental authority, they learn right and wrong. They learn to put family above friendship. They learn an authentic sense of self. They learn to long for higher and better things. For most of human history, children have learned from adults.

But not now.

“In the United States today, kids no longer learn culture from the grown-ups,” Dr. Sax writes in The Collapse of Parenting. “American kids today have their own culture, a culture of disrespect, which they learn from their peers and which they teach to their peers.” As a result, Dr. Sax argues that obesity, depression and anxiety among young people are on the rise, as well as an explosion in prescribing psychiatric medications to kids.  

Dr. Sax blames much of this on popular culture – from T-shirts, to music, to television shows to video games – which promote a culture of disrespect in general and are specifically contemptuous of parents. Disney Channel shows promote disrespect of adults. Parents are absent. Kids are more competent than the butlers or nannies caring for them. Moms and dads are mocked and presented as clueless. He is a particular critic of video games which are based on a moral inversion – where bad is good. The No. 1 selling video game in America, which is played by kids even though it is far beyond their level of maturity, is “Grand Theft Auto.” In this game, players advance faster if they kill police officers so they can steal their guns and steal money from prostitutes so they can buy more guns.

All the time children spend with screens has a devastating effect on the character of children. “American popular culture has become toxic for young children and teens,” Dr. Sax says.

In his presentation and in his four books, Dr. Sax referred to numerous research studies which indicate the teaching of character at an early age is an indicator of success and well-being as an adult. After the symposium, in a one-on-one interview, I asked him which character trait was the most important to teach. His answer was quick and he quoted much older text.

“He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8.

Learn more about Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. at
Learn more about the Early Childhood Education Symposium at


Nancy BerlierAbout the author

Nancy Berlier is Communications Director at The Summit Country Day School. She is editor of The Summit magazine, a former education writer at The Cincinnati Post and former education editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer.